Radically Different: A Conversation With Anayvette Martinez

In 2014 two community advocates, mothers, and friends, Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Holinquest, created the Radical Monarchs as a scouting alternative for young girls and gender non-conforming folks of color. I recently spoke with Anayvette about what radical space looks like, how she deals with the haters, and the undeniable appeal of earning badges.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Christine: Can you give me a quick overview of your origin story? I know y’all were founded in 2014, how did that come about?

Anayvette: When my daughter was in fourth grade, a bunch of her classmates were joining a local traditional scouting troop, and so naturally she wanted to join. And, you know, when I looked at the troop, she would have been one of two girls of color in the troop, and I had some feelings about that. And then, also, my daughter has been raised in a really politically conscious, social justice-oriented family. She has been attending marches since before she could walk, and we actively have conversations in our home about social justice issues, so I felt like that traditional setting would be kind of like a watered-down version of what she has been exposed to. She’s been raised in a family that we don’t talk about service we talk about justice. So, I started to think about what it would look like if there were to be a troop that kind of took from traditional elements of scouting, but then also centered young girls of color and their experiences, and also centered social justice movement work.

So, I had this idea, and told her, “I don’t know about you joining that troop, but what if Mommy were to put together this troop where you could earn badges on social justice work, and it centers young girls of color.” And she immediately lit up, and she was like, “oh my God, yes Mommy, that sounds amazing, let’s do it.” And I was like “OK cool.” You know, I’m a community worker/organizer by trade, and so, for me, thinking about how to create curriculum around these types of badges came really naturally and really easily.

And so, I got busy with my organizing community work, and then she never forgot about that idea. So, she kept mentioning to me, “when are we starting that group, Mommy?” Like, “I talked to so-and-so and they’re interested.” She started to, like, kind of recruit her friends. So, it got to a point where I was like, “I guess I really have to do this, because she is not letting this idea go.”

I knew, however, that I could not do this by myself, because, I have a family, I had a very demanding full-time job, and so I started to think about who I could ask to kind of help me do this for my daughter. I thought about my best friend Marilyn Holinquest, who is also one of Lupita’s chosen aunties. So, I told Marilyn, “you know I have this idea about doing this group thing for Lupita and her friends, would you be willing to do this with me?” Marilyn was like “oh my God, hell yes, that’s an amazing idea, let’s do it.” So, that was it, and that is kind of how we came about.

Christine: Can you say a little bit more about the specific needs, for your daughter and for other young women of color, that would not be addressed, or maybe not met, within a traditional scouting or club structure? What specific needs are you meeting in the Radical Monarchs?

Anayvette: I think that what makes our program unique is that we are centering young girls of color and their experiences. What I think you find in traditional girl-empowerment settings is that there is like a sprinkle, there is like a week here, a month here, of focus, but that’s not at the center. So, I think what makes Radical Monarchs unique is that we’re really centering their experiences as girls of color and not having it just be this kind of, like, Rainbow Week or Rainbow Month of, you know, emphasis. But, actually, saying, like, “no, you’re actually at the core of this conversation.”

Christine: I understand that when you started you were styled as the Radical Brownies, and then that shifted to the Radical Monarchs, can you tell me how that happened, how that came about?

Anayvette: Yeah, so, the initial idea for the name, was Radical Brownies, because I was thinking, “oh it would be kind of like a Brownie troop, but radical.” So, we launched with that name, and then when we got a lot of media attention—we participated in a children’s march for Black Lives Matter and there was media there—that kind of media exposure catapulted us into this huge media frenzy. And, so, as a part of that we got a phone call from the headquarters of the Girl Scouts. They were really nice about it, but they were like, “hey, your name and your work has been brought to our attention, we think what you’re doing is great, and we’re getting lots of phone calls from people that are either A. asking to be a part of this group, which is not a part of our organization, or folks that are like horrified that we’re supporting this type of a group for young girls.” And so, they said, “at this point we have to protect our brand, you’re creating brand confusion.” So, they were totally nice about it, and we were kind of like, “OK, thanks for letting us know.” We did work with a pro bono lawyer to explore different options, like what it would look like for us to fight to keep that name, and it was kind of like it’s not worth it, let’s just rename ourselves. The great part about that is that we were able to let the girls themselves be a part of picking the name Monarchs.

Christine: Do you know why they ultimately chose Monarchs? Is there any special symbolism?

Anayvette: Yeah, we brainstormed a bunch of different names, we came down to three. And out of the three they chose Monarchs. They chose it because they really liked the symbolism of the transformation, the kind of nod to migration. Those were kind of the main reasons why they really gravitated toward Monarchs.

Christine: Your group is designed to cater to, and support, specifically young girls of color. Any time that you have a group that serves a specific community, there are always issues of drawing the line, or figuring out how to keep that space serving that community. I was thinking about issues, specifically, about gender inclusion, and racial identity. How do you navigate that?

Anayvette: Yeah, so we’ve always been a gender-expansive and gender-inclusive group, and so we have had Monarchs who participate—which is why we tend to…we gravitate toward saying “Monarchs” versus “girls” in our language—that are part of the gender spectrum. Although our curriculum centers young girls of color, for sure, along with that are gender non-conformist identities, and trans identities. That’s something that we really feel passionate about, and that aligns with our values as an organization. And, you know, in terms of racially, we’re just very specific about who we serve and who we are centering. This group came out of a real specific need, and, it’s like, it wouldn’t be in existence if there wasn’t a need to create spaces centered on young girls of color. So, I think we feel really passionate and unapologetic about creating that space, and have seen the power and the brilliance that comes out of creating a space like that for young girls of color.

Christine: As you crafted the organization, you kind of necessarily made some aesthetic decisions. For example, Monarchs wear berets, which harken back to, as you’ve said in other interviews, the Black Panthers, and the Brown Berets. But, also, some of the aesthetic decisions reference traditional Girl Scouting symbols, like vests and badges. Can you talk more about that strategy of adopting and then radicalizing those symbols? What do you feel you get out of that?

Anayvette: I think [earning a badge] can be really powerful for youth; for them to be able to feel like they have worked hard toward something, they’ve learned about something, they worked, and then they earned a badge. It’s like this recognition and accomplishment. That’s why I think the element of badges is super important for us. And the vest was just kind of like, “what are we going to put the badges on?” And I felt like the vest was more practical, honestly, than anything else that I could think of, like a jacket, or a shirt, or a sash—those were all things I did explore—but I was like, “no, I think the vest does make the most sense.”

Our badges, however, are incredibly different than what you’d find in traditional scouting. For example, one of the badges is called Radical Bodies, where the Monarchs learned about consent, they learned about self-defense, they learned about disability justice. Another badge is Pachamama Justice, which was an environmental justice badge. Another badge is Radical Coding, where the Monarchs learned about coding; they actually got to create two coding apps with a volunteer from the Black Girls Code organization. So, the themes are definitely what set us apart—the topics and the themes—and, again, how our curriculum really centers women of color, herstories and leaders.

Three badges from the Radical Monarchs. (image courtesy of the Radical Monarchs)

Christine: I find your badges really engaging aesthetically. Who designs them? They look quite different than traditional scouting badges in my opinion.

Anayvette: Most of our badges were designed by local women and/or trans folks of color here in the Bay Area, who are supporters of the Radical Monarchs, and are these amazing community artists. And then two of them were designed overseas by this amazing woman of color in London, who I think came across us through our social media, and makes badges and patches. [She] was like, “can I please design some for you?” And we were like, “yes! totally!” So, it’s a mix, but definitely they are all designed by women and/or trans folks of color.

Christine: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that many of your units are heavily focused on intersectionality. And, I’m interested specifically in the issue of economics as you explore topics like environmental justice, radical beauty, and Black Lives Matter. How do you explore the realities of living in late-stage capitalism while you’re talking about intimately related issues like environmental justice? Is that something you engage with?

Anayvette: It is. I think it has come up largely in the units around environmental justice. We took a social justice walking tour in San Francisco and talked about impacts of gentrification on environment. We also talked about different victories the community has had in being able to claim land back for specific low-income communities of color to be able to create community gardens and/or playgrounds that didn’t exist before. I think, also it came up largely around our Radical Beauty badge, where we talk about what it means to be radically beautiful. We talk about consumerism, and media, and what messages we’re told by media in terms of what we need to buy in order to better or improve our bodies, or our skin, or our hair. So, there is definitely a way in which we talk about themes of capitalism, but we don’t use those words, right? But it naturally comes up in our curriculum, because when we talk about Radical Beauty, we’re not just talking about one standard of beauty; we’re talking about how colorism shows up in what society says, how ability shows up in what we see in the media as beautiful. So, we don’t only talk about race, or class, or gender within a specific badge. Those conversations are lifted up within other badges, where those identities intersect.

Christine: Do you have an idea—this is kind of a far-reaching question—but do you have any idea of what a Radical Monarch-endorsed economic system looks like? Would it be anti-capitalist? Would it be socialist? Would it incorporate any of those themes?

Anayvette: That’s an interesting question, I’ve never thought about that. I think it would definitely incorporate elements of that. Politically, there isn’t a type of, I guess, framework that I feel fits one hundred percent, so I think it’s like elements of this and elements of that. At its core, the Radical Monarchs believe in social justice and in equity, so whatever political platform was going to give folks the most equity and the most liberation would be what we stand for.

Christine: Y’all have received some pushback in the media. As a group, and as leaders of the group, how interested are you in responding to those folks, even engaging in that conversation? Is that a priority for you?

Anayvette: Yeah, we keep it moving, you know? We don’t have time to engage haters in that way. There is so much work to do, and building the organization is incredibly taxing and laborious, and, so, when we get folks who criticize, and who are trolls or haters, we just really block them out. We don’t have time for it. So, we just keep it moving.

Christine: I’m thinking specifically of the Sean Hannity segment, in which he decided to blur out some of the faces of troop members, because he claimed they were being exploited—that segment was wild—but it did make me think, as troop leaders, do you ever worry about visibility for individual troop members? 

Anayvette: So, when that happened, when that segment came out, that’s when we really got a lot…I mean, we got threats via our social media, and via our e-mail. So, we had to stop posting where we were in real time, with the Monarchs. So, we’d only post after the fact. For the most part, we actually still kind of do that. I usually don’t post things that we’re doing in real time, unless I feel like there is enough security or safety with us.

Like, if we’re at a march, we always make sure that we have tons of family and chaperones to help us with security. It’s definitely something that’s always top of mind for us. The safety of our Monarchs is our priority. The measures we take for that is we don’t use their names on social media—granted if they’re being interviewed their names will be used—but when we post pictures of them we never name them.

Christine: That kind of leads me to my next set of questions, which is thinking about self-care, and treating this kind of work as a marathon rather than a sprint. The Radical Monarchs, living in this moment in time, and doing the work that they do—demonstrating, marching, advocating—all of these things require energy and emotion. So how do you talk about self-care to your members?

Anayvette: Totally, this is a huge theme in our work. So, one of our operating principles that we came up with, as an organization, is sustainability. Both me and Marilyn come from the youth development world; we’ve been youth workers and community workers for 15 years, plus. So, the burnout is real. We are in it for the long haul. I think one of me and Marilyn’s joint philosophies in creating Radical Monarchs is, “how are we evolving past movements?” I think that past movements have been really hardcore, like, everything is for the movement, sacrifice everything. And, I think that we’ve just seen the effects of that, of mental health issues affecting powerful leaders, or also health issues, because people aren’t able to take care of themselves. So, for us, it’s really important that the Radical Monarch movement is about evolving that practice that was big in the past.

The conversation and element of self-care is something that is threaded throughout a lot of our curriculum. What that looks like is…you know…one of our badges is Radical Love, and that unit is really about asking, “what does it mean to love ourselves radically, and how is self-care a big part of that?” The Monarchs get to learn and practice yoga, or they get to learn and practice how to use medicinal herbs to make tea to take care of our bodies, strategies to help us with stress and depression. That is all a part of our Radical Love unit. And just throughout, in a lot of the units, there is always this very active conversation about self-care. About what it means to take care of our bodies, what it means to take care of our hearts, what it means to take care of our minds. You know, also, having Monarchs feel comfortable naming any needs that they have when they come to troop meetings, in terms of access, or ability, or just any kind of emotional care that they need for that day or that meeting. So, it’s an incredibly big theme with our Monarchs.

We also do retreats. In the retreats, we usually bring healers who come and talk about healing practice as a way to do self-care. And then, as an organization, and as co-founders and leaders, me and Marilyn are incredibly mindful about how, as we build and as we grow, we are thinking about sustainability, and not burning ourselves out. We, twice a week, start our mornings walking the lake here in Oakland; we have, like, walking meetings, but beyond that, we’re checking in with each other. That kind of practice is really important, and we don’t see it as selfish or frivolous; no, this is about taking care of our bodies, it’s about taking care of our hearts. Implementing strategies like that has really been critical to us as we build this movement, and want it to look really different.

Something else that I forgot to mention, that I think is connected, is that we’re working with young people. We recruit from third to fifth graders, so it’s like, if we are trying to build these young leaders, it’s like, how are we being mindful and not overwhelming them with social justice work, where they’re going to be burnt out by fifth grade? Those of us who got into organizing work in our twenties would burn out following the old traditional model of going so hard and sacrificing everything; we’d burn out in a matter of a couple of years. Here we’re starting with third to fifth graders, and we’re trying to build this next generation of movement leaders. We’re not wanting to overwhelm them.

One of our big core things is about cultivating joy and hope. If we’re not coming from a place of hopefulness and joy, how are we cultivating long-term movement leaders and change makers? They’re going to feel burnt out in a matter of years, they’re going to feel, like, jaded. We’re being really mindful about lifting up joy and hopefulness within the work.

Christine: Looking to the future, let’s say five years out, in your ideal world, what does the Radical Monarch organization look like?

Anayvette: We are currently launching five new troops locally here in the Bay Area. We’re in the process of launching five whole new troops. So, this is our biggest kind of crack at expansion thus far. So, in five years, I hope to be in many more cities and states, wherever the Radical Monarch work and movement is needed and wanted.

Christine: At the end of the day…I guess it’s kind of a fill-in-the-blank question…if you look in the mirror and you say, “I have achieved X, I have succeeded.” What is the X?

Anayvette: It’s hard to just make it one thing! I think the thing that makes me feel most accomplished is looking at our Monarch alumni—so, we’ve graduated two troops—and looking at the growth of the Monarchs. Some Monarchs who came in and were so quiet and kind of wallflowers are now, like, running for student body president at their schools. That is success to me, when I see the growth in the Monarchs that have gone through our program, and I see the amazing things they are going on to do. It’s kind of one of those things where as time goes by, we’re seeing elements of the work we that we did with those Monarchs, so I can’t wait to see where they’ll be in five years, in ten years, and the kind of change they’re going to be making. Whether it’s as lawyers, as politicians, as filmmakers, as writers, as artists, as all of the spectrum that exists.