ACTIVIST SPOTLIGHT: Q&A with KyKy Renee Knight

KyKy Renee Knight grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved to Athens in 2010 to study at the University of Georgia. Now, she is an activist for a variety of causes including racial and economic justice, a Girls Rock Athens volunteer and Board member, a leader of the band Harlot Party, and the writer of the poem/zine “Black Heart.” Knight collaborated with Avid Bookshop to use the proceeds from zine purchases to donate copies of Justice While Black: Helping African-American Families Navigate and Survive the Criminal Justice System to schools and libraries in Clarke and Oconee counties.

Knight’s activism, music, and poetry reflect her perception of today's political and social climate, her lifelong struggles with mental illness, and the challenges she faces as a result of her identities and intersections. Previously, she worked at Cine, where she led a diversity workshop and attempted to create a position as a diversity manager to combat what many have felt to be “an unwelcoming environment for people of color,” according to the Flagpole. She recently served as a coordinator and campaign manager for Mariah Parker, who ran a successful race for the county commission.

We are thrilled about and thankful for the opportunity to do a Q&A with Knight as the third installment of our Activist Spotlight series!

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Emily Rose Thorne: What are some of the topics/causes you are most interested in?

KyKy Renee Knight: Anti-discrimination, economic justice, and restorative justice are high-priority causes to me. Specifically, that’s non-discrimination in our workplaces, fair and living wages for all, quality education for our youth and especially those of color, and fair and non-discriminatory applications of law and policing.

In order to move forward in closing accessibility gaps in our community, we have to recognize and specifically address the reality that those gaps exist largely due to longstanding discrimination and the upholding of barriers to economic and social stability for our most marginalized members. Our town is essentially economically and racially segregated, and you can’t really walk around town for long without noticing that as a stark reality. This segregation manifests itself in access to affordable housing, access to (and really lack of existence of) jobs in the city that pay living wages, in achievement gaps in education, in targeted and discriminatory marijuana arrests, and in the usage of public space (as in, who gets to feel safe and accepted taking up space in town).

Athens has to (and is attempting to!) reconcile and work to combat that fair and quality access to a standard of quality life that some experience has not been equitably distributed to all. I am interested in equity and justice for all and pursuing that in different ways.

ERT: What motivated you to get involved in these causes?

KRK: Honestly, I think a lot of activists have the same or a very similar answer to this question: I was angry af!

My involvement in specifically being publicly invested in issues of justice was very personal, as I was tired of seeing and experiencing disenfranchisement both at work and in school, and I wanted to do and say something about it. Navigating predominantly white environments and spaces as a low-income, black woman has its share of microaggressions, discriminatory experiences, and blatant racist, sexist, and classist interactions anywhere. The difference in experiencing these things constantly in Athens is that there seems to be woven into the fabric of this town a real accessibility to at least say something and be heard however the interpretation of what you are saying is taken--someone will hear you. There are so many literal stages to stand on.

It was actually a priority of mine and many other artists in town to make those platforms accessible to more folks, too. "Getting involved" more obviously for me kind of came after the uptick of the Black Lives Matter movement and when the national conversation about the humanity of black folks came center stage tragically after the increased publication of deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police. I started writing and reading poetry that was politically aimed in 2016, after (of course) a tumultuous, hyper-emotional political climate. Secondly, I came to know a lot of community members in town who felt similarly and who invited me to participate in various activities and organizations. "Motivation" is, I think, an interesting word to use when talking about "getting involved," because it has a connotative function of placing agency on the specific individual involved, but in my experience, it was being invited and feeling compelled after overwhelm and exhaustion. I would say I was nudged and pushed into activism for the causes, more so than "motivated."

 Credit: Krishna Inmula/Harlot Party

Credit: Krishna Inmula/Harlot Party

ERT: What organizations/movements are you involved in, and what is your level of involvement?

KRK: I volunteer with and am a Board member of Girls Rock Athens, where I have volunteered as an instructor and a coach for Grown Assed Rock Camp as well as for the youth camp. GRA does incredible empowerment work and exists itself as a commentary on equity and access for those of marginalized genders.

I recently served as a coordinator and manager for Mariah Parker’s county commissioner campaign in District 2, and that seriously changed my life, positively. Campaigning is source work: you get to go right to the door of the community and meet and commune, and it is empowering and educating.

As well, I play in the band Harlot Party with my partner and friends, which has served as a platform to share some of my politically invested poetry. Like many community members, I listen out for what is going on and show up when I can, with the nudging and constant encouragement from others in the community.

ERT: Relatedly, what changes do you want to see in our community? In other words, what do you want the community to take away from your work and your activism/what is the primary message you are trying to get across?

KRK: I want to see, primarily, equity and justice tangibly in our community. Whether from my work or the people who inspire me, I want to contribute to holistically meeting the needs of our community so that Athens feels like home for everyone. Students, for instance, are positioned such that they are largely separate from the community and its needs, many of them being transient and in a lot of ways insulated by the University. I do not want people of color to feel like they don’t belong in certain areas downtown or longtime residents to feel as though the town belongs to the University. I want to see more faces of color employed at our downtown local businesses, and I want to see people everywhere making enough to live. I want spaces to feel truly, genuinely inclusive. I want to see that there are people living better and more equitably. Particularly those of us who have been systemically and historically ignored and disenfranchised.

*Responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.