How Jess Moore Matthews is training the next generation of digital activists
In recent years, the internet has become an essential social justice tool. People go online to disseminate key information for social movements, like street medics sharing guides to aid protesters during last summer's nationwide uprisings, or to practice transnational solidarity, as seen when Palestinians tweeted tips on how to combat chemical weapons to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Let's face it, though: While the power and potential of digital spaces cannot be understated, knowing how to effectively utilize them is a skillset that takes time to develop.
After the coronavirus pandemic forced the world into lockdown, time was simultaneously abundant and in short supply. Nobody knew when the pandemic would allow for in-person activities to resume. Left to rely on digital mediums alone, people were scrambling to adapt their strategies for activism and organizing to a completely remote world — and needed guidance on how to do it fast. For political campaigners, this was especially crucial as the United States approached a consequential election under lockdown.
In 2020, Jess Moore Matthews responded to this need by launching Backbone Digital Leaders, which she describes to Mic as "an organization made up entirely of Black women and nonbinary activists." Backbone's mission, Matthews says, "is to spearhead a revolution at the ballot box and beyond by training the next generation in digital activism." With over 10 years of experience in digital communications, Matthews is just the person to take on this challenge.
After getting her start at Google and The New York Times, Matthews made the switch from marketing and branded content to politics after the first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, hired Matthews to be her personal digital director. In 2018, Matthews was promoted to work with McCray's husband, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as his chief content officer, where she ran a team of photographers, video producers, and social media writers.
A year later, de Blasio launched a presidential campaign and decided to take a few of his staffers with him — including Matthews. The rest, Matthews says, is history. "I ran that campaign and ended up getting on board with Elizabeth Warren," she explains, "and then ran a bunch of campaigns after that, which is how Backbone got started."
Backbone launched with a bang in its first partner, Michelle Obama's When We All Vote. This week, the organization announced that they'd been hired to take over digital advertising for Stacey Abrams's Fair Fight Action. While Matthews's robust experience helps draw in partners, her dedication to investing in the future generation of Black leaders is what sets Backbone apart. And this is perhaps reflected most clearly in Backbone's paid fellowship for young Black women and non-binary individuals. Through it, fellows gain hands-on experience and training in digital marketing, organizing, and civic engagement.
"Our fellowship is going to open to college students for the full school year beginning in September," Matthews shares. In the future, Backbone hopes to expand its fellowship to include workshops and summer symposiums for high school students. But for now, Matthews says, "We're really excited to bring on young Black women and nonbinary activists who are interested in digital marketing and organizing."
While Backbone's mission of building the next generation of digital activists is inherently future-oriented, Matthews is firmly tied to and drawing from the past, too. On its site, Backbone proclaims that it is conceived by "unbought and unbossed" Black women. Some may not be familiar with that phrase, but others will be immediately reminded of Shirley Chisholm, who made history as the first Black person and first woman to run for president in 1972 with "unbought and unbossed" as her campaign slogan.
Although Chisholm never became president, she left her mark on politics. From 1969 to 1983, Chisholm, who was also the first Black woman elected to Congress, represented New York's 12th District. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus, she championed anti-poverty programs and educational reform, and never shied away from making waves.
"Her slogan of 'unbought and unbossed' always inspired me," Matthews tells Mic. "It was unapologetic about intersectional feminism, womanism, and what they stood for. I knew that whatever Backbone would be, it needed to be rooted in that sort of courage."
Chisholm's slogan is so fundamental to Backbone as an organization that anyone who is interviewed to work with them is asked to reflect on what it means. Doing so, Matthews says, "landed us with a group of activists who have been on the front lines of Black Lives Matter, the movement against climate change — we are all kind of spearheading that revolution while focusing on digital tactics."
Backbone has made a name for itself outside of the political sphere, too. Lauren Legette, the founder of Black Women to Watch, a podcast created by and for Black women to celebrate Black women, tells Mic, "I've seen a lot of the work that Backbone has been producing with a number clients they've worked with in the political space and, frankly, I've been so impressed."
While Legette says her experience working with Backbone has been "nothing short of phenomenal," she originally worried that she may not be a good fit as a partner for the organization because she isn't a political candidate. However, Legette says, "I have a relationship with Jess. She and I had a conversation about the vision and what they're building. It became very clear that Backbone would be the perfect partner to help Black Women to Watch."
Legette explains, "Prior to working with Backbone, I was delaying on launching until the world could open back up. But my partnership with Backbone helped me to really understand there's so much out there, and the voice I'm looking to amplify needs to be heard right now — and we can do that right now."
Dayna Cunningham, the executive director of MIT's Community Innovators Lab, also came to hear of Backbone through Matthews's previous work. "We, over the years, have done a lot of work with city government and most recently the Mayor's Office of New York City," Cunningham tells Mic. "We had been hearing fantastic things about Jess and her team at Backbone — how effective she was in political communication, mission-driven communication, and with a particular lens on voices of Black people and people of color."
Before Backbone, Cunningham says the CoLab had a number of different social media channels that were "completely underutilized." In less than a month, Cunningham tells Mic, "They had already revved up our channels, increased engagement by thousands of percentage points. We were like, 'Are we really that bad, or are you guys just that fabulous?' The truth is, they were just that fabulous."
"I deeply believe that though this is a very contentious moment we are in, it is the era of the Black woman, and Backbone inhabits that fully."
For both Cunningham and Legette, part of what sets Backbone apart is its focus on Black womanhood. "The entire team that powers the work out of Backbone is women, and Black women in particular. For me, that's really important," Legette says. "I want to be able to work with vendors who understand the work that I do. There aren't really a whole lot of options who instantly understand the audience that I'm looking to speak to."
"I deeply believe that though this is a very contentious moment we are in, it is the era of the Black woman, and Backbone inhabits that fully," Cunningham adds. "That's a significant part of who we are. So we wanted to be part of that with Backbone."
Despite being a relatively young organization, Backbone is already making waves. But while Backbone is new to the scene, Matthews herself has put in over a decade of work. And as anyone who has spent a single second in political spaces can tell you, it can be exhausting. No matter what, taking on movement work is a monumental task, and organizers often warn others of avoiding burnout. This is especially true in a decade whose beginnings are defined by a global pandemic, nationwide uprisings, and reignited global struggles for freedom.
"I'm not a big proponent of increments," Matthew says. But to keep herself from becoming overwhelmed or feeling burnout, she does like to look back at those small changes. "I do think something needs to be acknowledged about what happens when you're able to push the needle even a little bit," she says. "That spirit of optimism keeps me going."
As someone who is deeply concerned with the future, her children give Matthews drive, too. "One of them was born a week after I started working with Michelle Obama," she says.
"Looking at her," Matthews says, "I think that's what kind of keeps me pushing forward. I'm like, I have to keep going."