ACTIVIST SPOTLIGHT: Rashaun Ellis

Emily Rose Thorne, media intern

 Photo courtesy of Rashaun Ellis

Photo courtesy of Rashaun Ellis

In a 19-bedroom house called Morningstar in a commune called the Farm, nudity is commonplace.

Once, Rashaun Ellis stepped out of the shower - the only one in the house - to find a five-year-old boy brushing his teeth at the sink. Another time, an elderly housemate casually walked in on her when she was using the bathroom and proceeded to take a shower.

“One day, I was taking a poop, and a sixty-year-old man named Harold walked in completely naked and started to shower,” Ellis said, laughing. “Harold walked naked from his bedroom to the bathroom - the bathroom was downstairs and outdoors - with a towel on his shoulder.”

Ellis says Harold was a great roommate.

The Farm’s proper name is Twin Oaks Community, and it’s tucked into the mountains of Louisa, Virginia, about 30 miles north of Richmond and two hours from Washington, D.C. Rose quartz covers the ground and sticks up out of the road alongside a massive garden. Residents, a hundred or so during the warm months, work on the farm, take care of children, lounge in the saunas, host festivals and compost.

It’s an income-sharing, feminist ecovillage where Ellis completed a 4-month media and marketing internship as a recent graduate of Delta State University.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Ellis is a bold Black woman of about 35 with a southern accent, a contagious laugh and a tendency to swear. Since spending her twenties in communes, land trusts and Washington, D.C., the activist settled in the Classic City, where she's worked at a community-owned grocery store, co-founded the Athens Queer Collective, led workshops in white allyship, and started writing for The Flagpole, the local alt-weekly with a cynical, liberal tone that suits her perfectly.

Ellis holds a Bachelor’s in journalism, a degree she said was worth nothing more than the paper it was printed on until she found the Flagpole. Since then, she has written about Roxane Gay’s memoir, misogyny in the Athens music scene, the importance of Athens PRIDE in the Trump era and the efforts of local law enforcement to deconstruct racial biases amid anti-Black police brutality nationwide.

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Athens calls itself progressive; Ellis calls it “crunchy.” 

“Before I really got involved in local activism, I already lived and worked among the predominantly white, crunchy-hippie community here in Athens,” she said, referring to her time as a Produce Manager and Board member at the Daily Groceries Co-Op, which sources locally grown, organic food -- and where, Ellis remembers, “a half-pound bag of kale costs 3 dollars.”

The people who shop at Daily are generally white and affluent, and most would consider themselves progressive. However, Ellis says many Athenians aren’t as culturally aware as they might think they are.

Ellis recalls a time when one of her favorite regular customers at Daily told her that she and her husband had just moved into a large, beautiful home downtown. The customer begged Ellis to visit, and when she did, she discovered that the lady was living in what was once a Black schoolhouse when Athens was racially segregated.

“She was like, super proud to be living in this house, and talking to me about it like I would be so fascinated to see this fucking house,” Ellis said. “Why would anyone want to invite a Black person and be like, ‘Oh, I live here now, we’ve renovated it?’”

Ellis said this moment, which continues to bother her after several years, exemplifies the tone-deafness among many well-meaning privileged people in this community. She said it's one experience where she realized just how often people living in the status quo don't realize that their actions have racial implications.

“It should either be a museum, or it should be razed to the fucking ground,” she said.

This lack of awareness is one factor that motivated Ellis to get involved with local activism. Her work involves helping well-intentioned Athenians become the beacons of progressivism they believe themselves to be. 

“I’ve experienced the community, the people here in Athens who swear up and down that they’re not racist, that there’s no racism in their communities,” Ellis said.

But, she says, those people are generally affluent, predominantly white, mostly heterosexual and primarily Christian, proudly living in gentrified areas of a town where systemic racism runs deep and long. This can lead to the level of tone-deafness that breeds implicit bias and a false sense of allyship.

In Ellis’ experience, people who live with privilege don’t always realize when they contribute to the marginalization of certain communities, because it often happens through microaggressions.

Some people are just straight-up racist,” she said, but “we really have to be able to draw the line between blatant racism and microaggressions and implicit bias.

And that’s exactly what Ellis facilitates in the white allyship workshops she leads. 

Deconstructing the implicit biases enforced by American society and culture is her primary focus. She helps attendees accept their places of privilege and shares with them data and facts supporting the existences of casual and systemic racism. Many people in privilege won’t accept the experiences of marginalized people, she says, but statistics and documentation help them grasp it.

Attendees have been generally receptive to her messages.

“I think there is a community of privileged people out there who want to use that power for good,” she said. “In general, I’ve encountered people who want to learn, who want to grow, and I think that as time passes and as this conversation continues, privileged persons are understanding more and more that one of the most important, powerful things they can do is listen and follow the lead." 

Ellis said she learned a lot of the skills she utilizes in these workshops back at Twin Oaks and other communes she lived in, like Open Circle in Virginia and a land trust called Blueberry Hill.

Sharing resources exposed her to “the sometimes exhaustive (but always worth it) processes of collaborating with others to make decisions and meet goals,” she wrote in her application for a Daily Co-Op Board position. “I can listen, I can go slow, I can rethink my decisions, and I can admit when I am wrong.”

Now, in the crunchy Athens that she’s come to love, Ellis is involved in work regarding women’s issues, casual racism in the workplace and workplace discrimination in general. She's a freelance writer, works for admissions at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and serves on the Board of the Athens Queer Collective, spending much of her time focusing on outreach and ally education.  

“We (the Athens Queer Collective) do what we can to create safe spaces for queer people and queer people of color,” she said, adding that the organization emphasizes helping “the marginalized within the marginalized.”

To that end, the Collective (still in what Ellis calls “its beginning stages”) runs an LGBTQ+ Youth Group and a Transgender Support Group.

As a woman of color, as a Black woman and as a queer person, I feel very grateful to be involved that organization and to be able to play my own role - and to be able to write my own history.