Kei Williams

Kei Williams, Civic Hall Organizer in Residence

“Is your action creating community, or doing peaceful disruption? If it’s not doing both, you need to rethink your action plan.”

Pronouns: They/Them

Meet Kei Williams, a self-identified queer trans-masculine of center organizer who has worked with #BlackLivesMatter NYC for the past three years. They also work with Movement Netlab, a practice-centered think tank that helps to develop powerful, conceptual and practical tools that support the growth and effectiveness of the emerging social movements. At Civic Hall, Kei is the Northeast U.S. Coach of Rhize, helping them train a global network of organizers and activists who are, in turn, building social movements. Kei is also a Civic Hall Organizer in Residence (#CHOIR). They are passionate about film, travel, food, mellow-hop music, and their city – New York. You can follow Kei on Twitter.

What Do They Do?

With nearly ten years experience in project coordination and design, Kei partners with those who are visionaries in social justice movements, along with affirming of Black culture. Prioritizing intersectionality of race and gender, Kei works to create opportunities and make space for those who are marginalized within the margins in all areas of society. They have also photographed national convenings, demonstrations, and other social justice events in efforts to create historical records and archives of movement work.

How Did They Get Into This Work?

One of Kei’s first memories is of their Grandmother carrying them on the AT&T strike-line in upstate New York as they rallied for higher pay and equal benefits for minority employees. Kei was raised in an Afro-centric household and grew up learning about ideas such as clean eating and the history of Jamaican uprisings. At the age of 16, they founded a youth drop-in center called “The Underground Cafe” in near Syracuse, New York.

At one point in their life – because of a domestic dispute – Kei briefly became homeless. “Unfortunately, part of the story of being Black and transgender is that at some point you’ll be homeless or unemployed. It’s part of our narrative.” Kei believes that their experiences create a connection to those they work with: “On a personal level it’s why it’s so important to tell our stories. It creates a relationship that resonates. They don’t just exist when just you’re presenting yourself to a group of people.”

While Kei continued to organize throughout college, it was after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO that they joined what is now known as the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Kei often says “If I have to fight to get liberation with anyone, these are the people that I will die for in order to achieve it.”

How Did They Come to Civic Hall?

When Civic Hall co-founder Micah Sifry was looking for a trainer for his local Empire State Indivisible NYCD-16 group up in Yonkers, Kei came highly recommended. It was the first time they had ever heard of Civic Hall. Within a month Kei began working as a trainer for Civic Hall-based Rhize. When the Organizers-in-Residence program was announced, Erin and Rachel pushed Kei to apply, and they were accepted.

What Project Are They Working On?

Kei is currently coordinating Activism Row at the upcoming AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2017 Festival. Black Lives Matter provides accountability to the Festival as it aspires to bridge music and activism, providing guidance so that acts and staff are aligned with its commitment against homophobia and sexism. By example, festival security has shown itself to be transphobic in the past. Contracts now explicitly call for on-the-spot termination if attendees have been harassed.

They consistently work on the following local campaigns with #BlackLivesMatter: Safety Beyond Policing, Swipe It Forward, People’s Monday, and The Black Joy Project. Kei is also a member of the Black Gotham Experience team. Black Gotham Experience (BGX) is an expansive, interactive visual storytelling project that celebrates the impact of the African Diaspora on New York City and brings New York’s Black heritage into public consciousness.

As our Organizers-in-Residence program is very much in its infancy, Kei shared their thoughts about the initiative:

“What’s interesting about it is that it’s both younger and older folks who are doing work in a lot of areas. Apart from Micah and Rhize, I hadn’t met anyone before. This is an opportunity to build new relationships — and do coalition building – which is necessary work to cross-build on cross-issues. Here’s a different space I can be in, and learn from. Because CHOIR is a pilot program, we can dream big and make it our own. I hope that it brings more activation, more cohesiveness. Everyone’s working on our own thing, but here we can come together.”

What Is Their Ask of Civic Hall?

Kei wanted each of us to consider the following as we go about our work:

“Is your action creating community, or doing peaceful disruption? If it’s not doing both, you need to rethink your action plan.”

If you center the most marginalized people, then your inclusivity includes all. In the last year, there’s been a keen focus on “building with” marginalized communities, as opposed to just “building for.” Kei believes this doesn’t go far enough: “Whereas “building with” is linear, “building out” is collectively shifting dynamics of how people work together.”’

“The time to act isn’t just at voting polls, but every single day. As a black person every single day I’m resisting. Just by existing.”