BYP100 is a grassroots collective of young community organizers focused on transformative leadership, advocacy, and political education using a black, queer, feminist lens.
“Say her name! Say her name!”
The chant rose from crowds of young people at Chicago Police Board meetings, where they demanded the firing of an off-duty officer who had shot into a crowded park and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. As the controversy grew, the chairwoman of the oversight board was Lori Lightfoot, now Chicago’s first black female mayor.
Many of the protesters came from a group called BYP100, a grassroots collective of community organizers focused on transformative leadership and advocacy to address racial justice in Chicago and beyond.
Based in Chicago, the group has grown to eight chapters across the country, dedicated to organizing young people from 18 to 35 years old to improve black lives through what it describes as a black, queer, feminist lens.
While young people of all genders and orientations comprise the group, BYP100 national co-director Janae Bonsu describes the focus on black, feminist, queer issues as “radically inclusive and vigilant about bringing folks from the margins to the center.”
BYP100 is now building on Chicago’s long, rich, and varied tradition of community organizing, stretching from Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, and the Black Panthers to Barack Obama and the beginnings of the environmental justice movement. While focused on the mistreatment and profiling of black people by police and others, it treats those racial justice issues as intertwined with other economic and social ones, like neighborhood displacement and lack of jobs.
The group’s organizing includes voter mobilization and advocating on issues such as ending mass incarceration and eliminating the controversial and secretive databases that Chicago law enforcement officials use to track alleged gang members.
Beyond organizing, BYP100 has drafted in-depth policy proposals, including the “Agenda to Build Black Futures,” which calls for stabilizing and revitalizing black communities and compensating communities for multi-generational oppression through reparations. BYP100’s strategic plan, “Freedom Forecast,” was produced with the participation of its entire membership.
The group has been passionately vocal about police brutality, including on the Boyd case, beginning several years before video of the fatal police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald galvanized protests that led to police reforms. The overall movement helped upend leadership at City Hall, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
“I might argue they’ve helped change the politics of the city,” said Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political science professor who helped convene a gathering from which the BYP100 sprang and who now serves on its board.
“I’m not sure Lori Lightfoot gets elected without BYP100 and other young activists demanding accountability around police brutality and police killings... I think all those things re-emerged during the mayoral election and shaped the discourse of what people were asking the candidates.”
The impetus for BYP100 was a 2013 gathering of approximately 100 young black leaders, with the original intention of looking “at what black organizing beyond electoral politics could look like,” according to BYP100 founding national director Charlene Carruthers. The group formed in response to the acquittal of an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer in the fatal shooting of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
“It was being an inspiration for other black people, who look many different ways, talk many different ways, have many different backgrounds, all speaking on behalf of all black people,” said Carruthers, who became active politically while studying in South Africa as a teenager.
BYP100 is dedicated to non-violence, direct action, and “relational” organizing that involves community building through a democratic and consensus-building process.
BYP100’s leadership and many of its members are queer women. In their campaigns, they highlight how women and queer people of color face especially significant challenges and oppression, and how systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia are interrelated.
Bonsu, 28 and originally from South Carolina, moved to Chicago five years ago to pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago. She had little political experience beyond a protest against the Confederate flag, but she knew she wanted to be involved in reforming the criminal justice system.
“I come from a family with three generations of felony convictions, so I see how that impacts their employment prospects and mental health and substance abuse and everything else,” she said. “I wanted to know what it’s like to shift the conditions we live in, so my family and I and people in our broader community can live in our full dignity.”
One of BYP100’s current campaigns is “She Safe, We Safe,” which addresses gender-based violence against people who identify as women and girls. The campaign emphasizes community-based de-escalation and mediation strategies—interventions that do not involve law enforcement.
Voter engagement also has been a major focus. BYP100 is a nonprofit that does not advocate for or against individual candidates, but members believe their mobilization contributed to the 2016 primary defeat of then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was criticized for declining to re-examine contested convictions and continuing to prosecute young black men in allegedly disproportionate numbers.
While Mayor Lightfoot is a black, lesbian woman, many BYP100 members were critical of her during the mayoral campaign because they did not believe she did enough to discipline police while chairing the police board. Now the group vows to hold her accountable as mayor.
Alyxandra Goodwin, co-chair of the Chicago BYP100 chapter, moved to the city after attending San Jose State University in California.
“It’s really expanded how I understand organizing and radical love for all black people and marginalized communities in general,” she said.
In 2019, BYP100 received a $350,000 institutional support grant to the Black Youth Project 100 Education Fund to help expand and strengthen its organizational capacity. MacArthur also supported BYP100 through a $220,000 institutional support grant to its fiscal sponsor the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium in 2017.