In this episode of What IFF? we are joined by the Women’s and Gender Studies program Community Leader-In-Residence, Tamika Gadsden. As a well-traveled activist and grassroots mayoral candidate, Mika calls attention to current issues impacting CofC students and the Lowcountry. Learn how to be more active in your democracy through the support of local organizations, historical archives, and community relationships as catalysts for change.
Music by Alex-Productions
** To view all works cited, please visit the transcript page.
- INTRODUCTION -
Welcome to this episode of What IFF? A podcast where we imagine intersectional feminist futures and talk about the role social activism plays in our everyday lives.
I’m your host, Bria Ferguson, and today we’re digging into the theories and applications of social, political, and environmental justice. We have the privilege of hearing from an amazing guest whose upbringing strengthened her ability to seek collaborative solutions to difficult issues right here in the Lowcountry.
- BACKGROUND -
Born and raised in New Jersey to two Jim Crow refugees, so my mom and my dad left the Jim Crow south. My mom is from North Carolina; my father is from Wadmalaw, which is not too far from Charleston for those who aren’t familiar. At about the mid-to-late nineties, my folks semi-retired to the south, and that’s when I came and finished three years of high school here in Charleston. And then, I ran up north to Jersey to pursue my undergrad degree. I studied English and Political Science.
That’s the voice of Tamika Gadsden, also known as Mika. She/her pronouns, Women’s and Gender Studies program Community Leader-In-Residence, and local activist.
I was also president of My Black Student Union. Our club was called the Black Freedom Society, which was created by some radical, amazing Black and Afro-Latino campus Civil Rights, seventies-era leaders. I walked in their tradition, I walked in their path they forged, and I was the Black Student Leader president there, so…
I became an activist. I was an activist in undergrad, but… you know, you lose a little bit of your way when you start to acclimate to corporate life and being self-sufficient and taking on more corporate jobs, and that’s what happened to me. But, I reconnected with my activism roots and found my voice here in Charleston, and a lot of the work that I led from 2016 till present day culminated to this very point.
What do you think sparked it back?
You know what, Bria? It’s funny. So I left the first opportunity that presented itself that would get me out of Charleston when I graduated high school in 1999 because it was such a culture shock. For those who don’t understand, I was born and raised in essentially the New York metro area. So New York news, sports, all of that culture - very diverse. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood where the neighbors to my right and to my left and down the street were either Black, or biracial, or German. When I came to Charleston as a kid, it was very binary, very Black/white. And so, upon returning in 2014 as an adult, I was kind of like - ‘Oh wait! Maybe Charleston has moved forward.’ As soon as I started to acclimate, I started to see culturally Charleston was a lot more similar to that time that I was here as a high schooler. The cultural regression that I felt, it was just more subversive, perhaps. The veneer of Charleston may have looked really shiny and bright; however, when you scratched the surface and got a little deeper - you started to see that the same things that haunt this city were still there. Here in Charleston, we experience tragedies like the Dylan Ruth massacre. Also, in North Charleston, there was the Walter Scott murder at the hands of North Charleston police, and then you had the ascension of Donald Trump. It was all those issues, and I felt called to resume a role of a community leader.
I want to just take a beat for a second because that’s really heavy…
It was. Yeah, nah, even in recalling it - you forget the chronological sequence of all of that.
Following the 2020 protests against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black, brown, and marginalized people - the WGS program formed committees and initiatives to acknowledge and amplify the voices, experiences, and concerns of underrepresented identities. Mika’s role centers on supporting students as they apply concepts of intersectionality, power, resistance, equity, justice, and advocacy.
- COMMUNITY LEADER-IN-RESIDENCE -
How do you move through that place of awareness and heaviness to create space for justice and joyfulness?
First of all, I’m a big kid. I’m both self-conscious, and I celebrate this. I know it’s like a paradox; I am a paradox. When I say that I graduated in 1999, some people are like, ‘what?!’ I have a playful side of my personality, and I think that’s what makes me gravitate towards student-led work. There’s a lot of hopefulness. There’s a lot of uncharted territory within students that I love. I think people who age might even identify with this. You miss that period in your life where the sky is the limit. I really have enjoyed being the Community Leader-In-Residence because I am in an academic setting more than I have been in recent years. I get to also interact and interface with students who are doing some amazing work, like you!
Awe, thank you!! So the role itself is fairly new to Women’s and Gender Studies. You’re like the first person to
I’m a Black history fact; I’m gonna own it. I’m a Black history fact. I’m the first; I’m the inaugural Community Leader-In-Residence, and with that comes a lot of responsibility, but yeah, I’m also taking a moment to really let that sink in. That I was a candidate for this job, I secured the job, and I can actually create a foundation for the next Community Leader-In-Residence - which I’m excited about.
Who are the scholars and activists that inspire you and your work?
The foremothers that have come before me - they leveraged the talent of student-led work. They didn’t try to push student activists to the background; they actually encouraged and empowered them. So I’m also very much inspired by specifically Septima Clark, a Charleston legend and she used teaching as a tool to help propel her movement work, ensuring that folks had access to the ballot (disenfranchised, marginalized Black and Gullah people). She did that via teaching using her skills as an educator.
Did you have a role like this in mind moving back to Charleston?
I came down, and I wanted to be a content creator; finding myself in circles of other women entrepreneurs, I started to gravitate towards local small businesses and tried to support that ecosystem. My social life looked more like my family or inviting friends from the places where I lived. But, it was in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, I connected with other women here. That was a very rocky path, but I will say that there have been relationships that have endured so I’m grateful for those relationships that I forged because I have that community that I was seeking.
It’s important to have support, especially if you’re going to do the kind of work that you’re doing.
It really does take up a lot of time and labor so I am very grateful, yeah.
What are some initiatives with this position that you hope to accomplish in your time?
First of all, I’m remissed if I don’t mention Kris De Welde’s leadership here with the Women’s and Gender Studies. Tanner Crunelle, an amazing, amazing part of this experience. So when we would sit down, we envisioned a role that would empower students to find their voices. And if they are animated behind an issue that is deeply impactful, we want to encourage them to move forward. I’m going to reference Ella Baker. She would remind activists she worked with that they are the leaders they need to be. I want to do that as well. I’m not a magical Negress that’s going to come and, like - boop - remove the inequity, remove the racism, remove misogyny. You are the leader you need to be, and I want to remind students of that.
You do have experience from not just Charleston but activism at large in the U.S. What I really like about envisioning this dynamic with students is that students can come to you seeking many different things. Like maybe they do need somebody that’s a little bit more in a traditional mentor role and you’re here for that. But they can also come in and maybe they’re trying to work on the exact same thing you’re trying to work on and they can come in and have almost like a peer that’s going through it with them. I just think that’s a really unique dynamic that I don’t typically see on campus.
No, and I want to be accessible. I want to be actively helping students improve their life here and improve other lives here on campus. That’s my goal. When students have something challenging them, I want to be able to validate those concerns. I think oftentimes, as a student, just thinking back to my experience, you can feel gaslit by the certain structures that keep pushing you forward, pushing you to complete the work, prepare for exams and get to graduation. Hopefully, I can help validate certain concerns or help folks understand your experience during the journey is also important - not just the finish line (if that makes any sense).
It makes a lot of sense! That’s really interesting.
Yep, I’m trying.
That already sounds like so much to be taking on at one time, and you have something else very big on your plate right now.
- MAYORAL CAMPAIGN -
I’m not gonna bury the lead. I am running for mayor of Charleston in 2023, which is a huge undertaking, but honestly, it’s a natural progression of the work I’ve been doing. I’m a politics junky. I love understanding how my local government works. I mentioned earlier that I was the state affiliate leader with the Women’s March here in South Carolina. I’ve been the state leader with Black Voters Matter. I’m currently a co-chair with the Friends of Gadsden Creek, working to dismantle environmental racism here in Charleston, specifically on the west side. So our city has chosen to value the tourists over the residents.
Can you describe what that may tangibly look like?
I just witnessed so much growing inequality. Charleston in 2017 was the fastest-gentrifying city in America. North Charleston is the eviction capital of the nation currently. Housing is becoming not only unaffordable but inaccessible. A lot of the work that I’ve been paid to do has come from other states because I can’t earn a competitive wage in South Carolina. It’s a right-to-work state, which means they have regressive labor laws. There are so many things where this state and this city have prioritized the wealthy and have really taken its residence for granted and put more of a priority on entertaining our tourism which is steeped in racism, which is steeped in confederate, white-washing, and a complete erasure of Gullah and Black contributions to our city. I think all those things really just made me ask, ‘Who’s leading this city? Is this city working for us?’ We’re working for this city! But who is it working for us?
It sounds like everything is connected in a cyclical way. Like, even talking about tourism…
I’m imagining our own community members who can’t afford homes aren’t being heard.
They’re not being heard; well, they’re not being engaged, right? It’s not hard to find whatever narrative about people who don’t show up. Right now in Charleston, there are approximately 110,000 people registered to vote, but only 12,000 to 14,000 people came out to vote in the last mayoral election. It’s off year, and there’s no other mid-term or anything like that to help get people out. I’m bringing that up, not just to continue talking about my mayoral run; I’m bringing it up because it shows you how folks aren’t engaged. You’ll find a narrative saying, ‘oh, people don’t care.’ No no no, you don’t engage them and the powers that be, they benefit from low engagement. That’s how the same connected developer class continues to run Charleston. That’s why the same monied, monolithic, homogenous group of folk continue to wield so much power disproportionately. It’s because of that lack of engagement. Some of the most powerful power brokers in government have told me to my face, ‘I don’t think you can win because who you speak to regularly - they don’t vote.’ It was sobering to hear. It was refreshing to hear that honesty. I love that cause you don’t get that in Charleston; it’s usually ‘bless your heart.’ I love the honesty, but at the same time, I’m like, how dare you disresp ect these people.The reason they don’t come out and vote is because you haven’t given them anything to vote for. It really does get me upset in that good way. I have friends who are married with children, friends who own a home, friends who are single and own a home, and all these different adult friends that I have been finding it harder and harder to live and work and thrive in Charleston. No matter what their race is, they have dual incomes, I have friends who have great solid jobs and have a spouse who might be an educator (or whatever it is), and they’re finding it tough to make ends meet. Especially if you throw in maybe a natural disaster messing up your home or your roof. Or you throw in a medical emergency - your whole economic situation is turned upside down.
Pandemic! Yeah, that’s exactly, exactly. So much tumult came of the pandemic. It’s not just Mika and ‘hey, this daughter of Jim Crow refugees is going through it.’ No, it’s impacting a lot of people now. So that’s why I’m running.
But what are some strategies then - if it has become a constant to not engage with people from the community year-round that are impacted by decisions made by politicians - how are you going to get them to the polls?
It’s a challenge. It takes a lot of money to engage disconnected voters. You have to visit them, and you have to visit them multiple times. Also, you have to double back and figure out how to mobilize them, and that takes a lot of resources. But I will say this: the events that I have planned so far, I’m not in front of developers. I’m not going to be in some hoity-toity glass building on the west side; I’m going to be in West Ashley at my cousin’s small business. Shout-out to my cousin Raynard. I’m going to be holding space in April at his small business. I was at a local tattoo shop, Holy City Tattoo and Collective in West Ashley. They are phenomenal community members. They don’t just do funky tattoos and whatnot, they’re really rooted in the community, and the couple that owns that shop - they are active in their local government because of the restrictions that are on shops like tattoo art. During high school, I remember you couldn’t get a tattoo in South Carolina, it was against the law.
Oh my gosh! I didn’t grow up in South Carolina, so I didn’t know that.
See, no, it was against the law so when I came back I was like ‘Oh, they got tattoo shops!’ And I’m thinking it’s easy peasy. Then when I start talking to shop owners, I learned that not only did they fight so hard and have to show up at the county council, they still fall prey to this stigma. Yet, I think it’s immoral to deprive people of affordable housing, but anyway.
Well, it’s a little ironic to be in a city that’s a liberal arts college, and then an art form is having a hard time finding sustainable ways to have a business in the city.
Especially when you know shop owners are very, very careful. During the pandemic, I saw first hand, I literally saw first hard (I’m pointing to a tattoo), how seriously they took the pandemic and how seriously they took the safety of not just their customers but their tattoo artists. And so, I want to continue to lift up these folks who are just as important as any hotel chain or any developer from another country or state. I want to ensure that I continue lifting up these people who are making Charleston the beautiful place that it is. So that’s where people will find me, and this job just happens to coincide with what I’m doing. And while I don’t campaign actively on campus, I do have the ability to engage - just talking to folks about this journey.
I have several classmates who are political science majors. I mean, how incredible to have someone accessible on campus that you can come to for free mentoring about your experience and get more direction as far as what they want to do in their work.
Right! I want a student to use me as a guinea pig. If what I’m doing coincides with your studies, please, come and ask me; lurk, I’ll show you everything we’re doing. Campaign financial compliance, all of that. I’d love to be a free training tool, so to speak.
- POLITICAL POLARIZATION -
A lot of times when we start talking about inequalities, I think a lot of people either get defensive or tune out because they hear zero-sum ideology. If someone else is getting something, that must mean I’m losing something. I kind of wanted to break down that misconception with you a little bit and what that means, particularly in your campaign.
Yeah, no, I think that’s one of the reasons why people might even underestimate me. Look, I’m a full-figured, tall, Black woman who’s unambiguously Black. I am Gulluh-Geechee down. I have this northeastern accent a little bit that definitely comes out, and I’m saying all of this to answer your question because people think, ‘well how are you going to speak to people other than Black people?’ Even though nothing within my platform even explicitly says, Black. Not because I’m hiding it, but because - again going back to my childhood - I was raised in a very diverse neighborhood. The kids at my birthday party were very diverse. So it’s just my personal set of values to make sure that diversity is present - and not in a superficial way - in a meaningful way. Yet, yet, when people see me, they see Black candidate. They see what they want to see.
Where do you think that stems from?
Black women as leaders? They cannot see us beyond a stereotypical view of Black women. They just have no imagination for Black women, and Charleston has never seen… I’m not going to ever erase the work of countless other Black women who have led here, but they haven’t seen Black women lead in government in this really robust way cause I’m a very powerful voice that’s unapologetic.
Why is it so hard to come together with our different lived experiences to collaborate on an inclusive way forward?
We’re living in a world where culture wars are distracting folks from the larger issue. You know, while you’re tussling over whether or not that Jackie Robinson book should be in that eighth-grade library at that public school; while you’re worried about someone in drag - they’re taking the money right from your schools, right from your neighborhood, and you can see that at the municipal level as well. South Carolina leads the nation in tax abatements. So basically, our school system has lost over 400 million dollars. I’m gonna say that again for emphasis. Our schools throughout the entire state of South Carolina have lost over 400 million dollars in tax abatements that go directly toward corporations. So they rob our school systems. That’s why we’re routinely at the bottom in the nation of education. They rob our school systems just to help these corporations come and build more stadiums, build more condos, whatever it is. We’re not going to get anywhere if we continue to remove the humanity from each other.
A question on my mind is, ‘who benefits from that?’
This is what the system has always done. They’ve done this in the civil rights movement. You know when poor whites and poor Blacks were getting together, that’s when other forces started to really
Yeah, and divide us. History does not repeat itself; it rhymes. That’s what happens. Someone needs to be a bridge between the two and no one is a bridge between the two right now, no one.
It’s interesting how you started this conversation talking about inclusion, but it seems like so much of your energy has to go to combating exclusion. And it’s fruitful conversation to have, but I think unless people are willing to be vulnerable and show up, even if that conversation might not be comfortable in the moment, there is always something to be learned. I think sometimes if defensiveness is the first response… regardless if it’s politics or not, even in a conversation with my spouse, right? If I get defensive immediately without even really taking time to slow down and wonder ‘why am I defensive right now?’ That’s something to investigate. That’s something to reflect on, on your own. Not someone else’s responsibility, but that’s your work.
We’re becoming increasingly incurious and unwilling to be reflective. Have some self-awareness. What’s making you react? If you watch the news and it makes you get mad, like, all the time
It’s a tactic
Yeah, you have to examine that. ‘Why do I feel like this? I just turned on the news and want to see Lester Holt tell me the weather.’
Why do I feel this way every time? People profit from us being in this constant state of outrage and outrage at each other. We are game pieces on this larger board. I’m trying to teach everyone how to take that power back and reorient not just their relationship with government, but with our communities.
Being an activist moving forward with being grounded, with being aware, compassionate, inclusive… What do you envision for Charleston?
You know, if I didn’t have hope, I wouldn’t run. So I do have a hope for Charleston. Octavia Butler teaches us that to even imagine these worlds - that’s what social justice is. What could a more just society look like? While there are things that do really challenge me and bring me to my knees. Dylann Roof and the massacre at Mother Emmanuel really brought me to my knees in a lot of ways. The flaggers at the battery, they’re a constant reminder of some horrible things, but the community that I’ve found through my work as an organizer… it really does teach me that there are so many people here who want a more harmonious and accessible Charleston. We don’t have to have the same value, that’s never the goal is to have the same values. But to have a shared understanding, that should be the goal. And so I’m excited to articulate that through policy and other ways.
- FRIENDS OF GADSDEN CREEK -
I want to bring up one organization that you’ve mentioned leaning on for support - The Friends of Gadsden Creek. How do they fit into the conversation on environmental justice?
My last name is Gadsden. It’s a coincidence that’s not a coincidence. Like many Black people from the Lowcountry or with ancestral ties to the Lowcountry, I have a last name that is either synonymous with an enslaver or a plantation; I prefer to call those labor camps. But yeah, I was hosting a concert years back and there was this guy in attendance - his name was Cyrus Buffum - and he heard my last name Gadsden and he was like, ‘oh, she must know about this creek.’ And he sent me this long email, and I’m like, ‘who is this crazy white boy?’ I didn’t even know he was white, but I was like, ‘this has got to be a crazy white boy.’ He’s sending me all of this and we just kept playing email tag. Then one day, I got down to the west side while it’s raining and flooding like it always does. So I go over there to document the flooding with a friend; we were working on some art, and Cyrus just… I never saw him a day in my life, but we see this white guy jump out of a jeep with galoshes on and I’m like, ‘you’re Cyrus.’
Literally, but seriously - no cap at all - I’m like, ‘you’re Cyrus, aren’t you?’ Just to see this guy in this old, raggedy Jeep hop out with big rain boots on… He’s like my brother now. Seriously one of the most prolific, profound minds in science. He’s just a smart dude, and he knows governance backward and forwards. And so he told me that he was a leader of this group called Friends of Gadsden Creek. We were able to look at the creek. It’s actually there. It’s right next to the public housing units over there off Haygood. There’s a creek here in Charleston that’s one of the last remaining tidal creeks on the peninsula, it lets out into the Ashley River, and this creek used to be a sprawling creek. It used to just span thousands of acres, but over the years, throughout the fifties and sixties, it has been dumped in. So this is a predominantly Black neighborhood, historically. Tornadoes of 1939 come through and devastate this Black neighborhood. They pull themselves up by their bootstraps just as we always do, even though the narrative is different, and they tried to rebuild their homes. And they were told by the then Mayor Lockwood in the forties, ‘No, you cannot rebuild your homes. We’re going to take your home and build rental property there which turned out to be public housing. The Gadsden Green Projects. What’s so amazing about this Black neighborhood, we have the newspaper clippings, they reached out to their white neighbors across Charleston and were like, ‘Hey, we want to invite you to this fair. We’re fundraising.’ And so you had this cross-race (collaboration). Again, whenever there’s a cross-race and cross-class collaboration, the powers that be get a little anxious, and so they were not given the right to build back their home and build generational wealth. So Cyrus is telling me all this; you can’t Google this history. This dude spent hours in the city archives, and I want to invite students to start learning how to do that themselves. The city archive is on the top floor of the Gilliard building. Few things are digitized, but there’s a way for you to search for what you want and the staff there will pull the boxes, and you literally have to sit there and put this together like a jigsaw puzzle. Cyrus did a lot of work with the original crew which was Friends of Gadsden Creek. I came on because what was missing was that race analysis. Cyrus had that in him. He lived in that area, so he’s not just this white guy that’s just coming in and trying to be a white savior, no.
He saw it.
Yeah, he saw it. He actually lived there, and what I loved about Cyrus was that he had real friendships with area businesses and neighbors, like these were literal friends that were Black folk. It wasn’t fake; it was all organic. This was just who he was, and he reminded me of the friendships that I had when I lived elsewhere. And so, what we are poised to do is to model what environmentalism looks like, and what does centering the dismantling of environmental racism - what does that look like? Versus just conserving a creek for aesthetic reasons or for recreational reasons. No, we actually need to dismantle these systems that keep taking land from Black and marginalized folk, just to help promote wealth and luxury. I’m so proud to be a co-chair with them.
- CHARLESTON AREA JUSTICE MINISTRY -
And with CAJM, that’s the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, which is just an interfaith collaborative. I was a little apprehensive. It just so happened that we were at the Nehemiah Action last night. We’re talking about two thousand people, arguably, that are all in one sanctuary in Mount Moriah (Missionary Baptist) Church in North Charleston. And it’s not just folks who are christian - you had rabbis - you had UCCs (Unitarians who aren’t christian) - you had again this interfaith, cross-race collaboration of thousands of people coming together to stand up against the inequalities in policing, advocate for better housing/affordable housing, and advocate for restorative practices in schools. So that means that they’re fighting so that your Black child does not get suspended but has the resources to stay in class and to thrive in school. And so, CAJM has had this justice focus for years, and so it’s just a great collaboration between us, Friends of Gadsden Creek, and CAJM. A former leader with CAJM is my campaign manager, Treva Williams. These two groups are the two things that I never thought that Charleston would foster. Like last night, everyone just wrote a letter to the county council person. Literally, everyone just opened up the packet, they collected it, and they’re going to deliver those thousands of letters. That’s action.
And easy and accessible.
Right! You could just write, ‘do better,’ and put your name on it
But that’s all you need to do! To me, that’s how you get people to be more of a participant in their democracy and not just a passive actor that has to take that type of hyper-rigidity or hyper-tenure in office; it’s not good. It’s not democratic. They also have not been taught to be more proactive in their own democracy. That’s why I really gravitate toward CAJM’s work.
- GETTING INVOLVED IN LOCAL ACTIVISM -
For someone who maybe is really closed off to politics, maybe the firehosing from the past decade in American politics, how does someone start chipping away at becoming more active again after facing that overwhelm and burnout?
I’m not going to wag my finger, but if you’re one of those people who say, ‘I don’t like politics, I say away from it.’ I’m going to say you think you don’t. You think you’re staying away from it. Everything is political. When you go to Target and buy a jug of milk or an eyeliner, at the bottom of the receipt are your taxes. The bags that you might use that they might have, well, it might be a product of a referendum. You can’t avoid politics, so stop trying. Again, this is not finger-wagging, but I want people to understand that you can’t remove politics from society/your life. You’re already in it; you have to find your way of engaging with it. For the everyday regular degular person, engage with what you can engage with. If it’s environmental justice, engage with that. Your neighborhood association doesn’t want a certain business opening up on the end of the street; get involved with that. Politics is not just a mayoral election or who’s running for president. The most important thing people should do is get involved with their own community, even if it’s only down the street. Our communities are made up of people, and a lot of that humanity has been removed. I would urge folks to pay less attention to some of the distractions and just turn to your neighbors and work collaboratively to be better neighbors with each other.
I love that because that’s doable! Like, it’s doable to go next door, or even just in passing, ‘Hey, what’s going on with you? What’s impacting you today?’ Those are, I think, much easier and more actionable solutions than potentially trying to be political science majors when you’re not a political science major, perhaps.
Exactly. It could be something like getting a speed bump on your street, which I’ve had friends actually advocate for that. Then get that done; that’s politics! Do not let the mainstream narratives keep you disconnected. That’s what they want, and they want you to stay home in the next mayoral election.
Mika, if people want to learn more about the work you’re doing both on campus and in the Charleston community, where can they get more information?
They can listen to me on Twitch; that’s what they can do. So Twitch Monday, Wednesday, and Friday right now at 8 am. Twitch.tv/mikagadsden.
And if students want to come to meet you?
I am here! I am usually here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students on campus can drop in. They can definitely email me, but I’m here in the Women’s and Gender Studies conference room. If you can find Women’s and Gender Studies, you can find me, so I’m here! And if anyone wants to know more about my mayoral run, they can go to votemika.com.
Mika, thank you so much for making the time to be here today!
Thank you so much, Bria. This was awesome.
To find the works cited in this podcast, check out the episode transcript on Buzzsprout, and be sure to follow us on Instagram at @cofcwgs. I’m your host, Bria Ferguson. Thanks for being curious, listening, and learning with us today.
- WORKS CITED -