It's safe to say that superheroes are having a moment in the current cultural zeitgeist. Harrowing tales of people with superhuman strength who protect us from the villains who seem to be hellbent on global domination. It’s a hero’s journey, as well as a story we are all familiar with and entertained by. The epic battle scenes, the inevitable trials that have to be overcome and the satisfying success that almost seamlessly follows, leading to it all being wrapped up in a neat and tidy bow in the span of a two-hour movie. Cut to real life, and it’s not hard to see why so many of us enjoy the escapism that comes from watching someone with really cool superpowers throw on some ridiculous looking spandex (why is that a material that spans galaxies?) and save the city from whatever big bad is trying to destroy it this week. It’s quick, clean, and wildly entertaining. Life, not so much. We have a giant mess that has caused so much harm and still needs cleaning up. It’s understandable that the task can feel insurmountable at times. While we don’t have any humans who have been bitten by radioactive spiders to help us out (unless we do- in which case, speak up dammit!), we do have great people right here with boots on the pavement, a fist in the air, and their hearts in the fight.
So many times because of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and so many other oppressive systems we have internalized- we feel inadequate. We have been taught that we always need something more in order to be happy, successful, respected--the list goes on. This is where the three, badass, ready-to-take-on-the-world women of color who manage the Justice Collective (TJC) come in. TJC is a social impact consultancy whose mission is to center equity while countering cultures and systems rooted in white supremacy. With core values centered around abundance, collaboration, transformation, and radical and empathetic leadership, they come to all spaces ready to do some digging, have some really difficult conversations, and hold space for unlearning.
With their collective years of experience in organizational, management, and leadership development as well as their unique lived experiences, Danielle DeRuiter-Williams, Lena Carew and Ellie Tumbuan come as a team with a wealth of knowledge and a fundamental belief that people are the experts of their own experiences. This, in and of itself, is such a powerful way to come into spaces. We live in a time where imposter syndrome runs rampant and marginalized voices continue to be silenced, these women are using their unique positioning to disrupt and ultimately dismantle white supremacy in the spaces they are called to. Individually they each have their own areas of expertise and interest; putting this knowledge and their passions together has created a collective that is working towards breaking down systemic barriers in so many different fields, from supermarkets to the health field, that their impact is undeniable.
While these women would never consider themselves superheros (because saviorism is gross), it is important to acknowledge their collective power in finding and nurturing leadership not only on their own team of consultants, but also in whatever spaces they show up in. Digging into their stories, it is not hard to see how they ended up here and why they are so passionate about what they do.
As a biracial Black woman who was raised in the Midwest, Danielle DeRuiter-Williams is all in when it comes to the fight for racial equity. Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and raised by her single, white, mother, Danielle had to examine race and identity at a relatively early age. By grappling with her own identity and what it means in the context of a racialized America, Danielle brings a complex understanding of power, privilege, and empathy to her work with The Justice Collective.
There are a few learned experiences that, when coupled with her lived experience, deepened Danielle’s analysis of racial inequity. While visiting Nicaragua during her undergraduate studies, Danielle was exposed to the vast economic inequities of the country that shaped outcomes for its residents. Those inequities were primarily shaped by domestic and international policies that concentrated resources in the hands of the few by oppressing and exploiting the many. This was a lesson she’d carry with her as she continued to have to navigate predominantly white spaces in both her academic and professional careers. While attending Planning school at UCLA, Danielle saw in the classroom how often the institution left out the narratives of Blackness and how the exclusion of those stories ultimately shaped the policies that were driving inequitable outcomes. Moving to Oakland post-graduation politicized her blackness in a new way. It is here in Oakland where she has truly dedicated herself to the liberation and fierce protection of those around her and in the black community both in her academics and in her career. Danielle is clear on her vision of doing everything in her power to create space and a seat at the table for those around her to thrive. It is this dedication that she carries with her into her work with TJC, which she co-founded with fellow managing partner, Lena Carew.
Lena Carew, who has a history in storytelling and whose passions lie in bringing racial equity into higher education as well as digital literacy, also grew up in predominantly white spaces. While she had to navigate these spaces her home was a bastion of Afrocentrism and activism. Works from Varnette Honeywood adorned her family home where conversations with her father about his work organizing in the south with SNCC for voting rights were commonplace, while she watched her mother masterfully manage and cultivate talent in some of Los Angeles’ most beloved black artists. It was in this space that her parents nurtured black creativity and activism, that laid so much foundational knowledge for how she would move throughout her life. Having to not only navigate, but flourish in predominantly privileged, white spaces in her early life made her acutely aware of the voices and people in the community who were being left out and how necessary they truly were in those spaces. Moving forward in her academic career, this early education in activism and privilege fueled her to want to disrupt the white supremacy she saw in action.
Developing her own sense of self and trying to navigate spaces where she felt like she didn’t belong, she found empowerment for herself in organizing and community building. During her time at San Francisco City College, Lena decided to put her activism into action by founding Students Making a Change (SMAC). This group is still active today and that empowers students to become their own advocates in the educational system by getting involved in policy change as well as community engagement and activism. Lena’s love of knowledge, her grassroots activism, and unwavering dedication to creating opportunities in education as well as empowering the emerging leader in all of us, are foundational tenets in her work with the collective. Through the work she has done on her own sense of identity she understands that, while acknowledging systems of oppression, we are the only ones with the key to our liberation. This belief has led her down a path in her career that centers uplifting and empowering the community.
Similarly, managing partner, Ellie Tumbuan had found herself being called to a career path that centers liberation through empowering community after a lifetime decolonizing her perceptions of her own identity and the narratives she was taught. As the only non-black and queer member of the TJC management team, her career background had been anything but a direct route to this field. She comes with vast experience from so many diverse fields that it only adds richness to the collective that she became a part of. Born in Minnesota and then spending most of her childhood traveling she was exposed to so many different cultures and environments that she could not help but be shaped by the diversity that was always surrounding her. Ellie’s identities similarly reflect this abundance:being a daughter of an immigrant, Indonesian and pacific islander, Jewish, body-positive, femme, and white (and often straight-)passing. Given her various identities and the challenges that come with living a more nomadic life, as a survival tool she had to learn to create and find community wherever she lands. This tool has translated into growth and an ability to adapt that has helped her immensely as she moved through life being in spaces where she may not have always received the messaging that they were for her. It is in these spaces and through these experiences that she would hone in on her masterful talent as a bridge builder.
Constantly being confronted with and choosing to explore all her various identities and how that meant she was perceived in certain spaces, she began to embrace them as the gifts they are. It was through this that she was able to begin to develop her own leadership. Through this process she began to truly understand that we can’t be effective in work, or in life, until we step into our own power. It is in this power that her curiosity and openness to learning has landed her in spaces where she has worked with everyone from some of the most powerful people in philanthropy to where she is now in a more grassroots way with the community. This unique exposure to the spectrum of experiences is what she draws from when working directly with folks trying to get them to tap into their own unique needs and ways in which she can help empower them to achieve their fullest potential.
While these three have lead completely different lives, being raised in different communities around the country, it is easy to see the thread that runs through all their stories. It’s no wonder that this dynamic team has found their way to each other and have created such a unique collective that not only does the anti-racist and decolonizing work necessary with their community and clients, but also within their own company culture. All three have been in organizing and change-making settings from early on in their lives and careers. They are not interested in holding power or access for themselves; this is reflected in their work. They are committed to showing up authentically, compassionately, and with a special little dash of tough love to help push all those around them to be brave and fight passed all the internalized bullshit to see how truly magical and important they are. These women are here to use the access, they fought so hard to obtain, to kick down doors and help break open spaces to bring up folks who have traditionally been left out. Their message is clear- we support you, your communities need you, and you are perfectly capable of being the leader you are. They are here for one goal, that is to get free. As Danielle so eloquently put it, “let’s be dope together!” So, here is to the women leading TJC and to being dope together!