Justice Gatson is a grassroots organizer fighting for a better Kansas City

Bad Ass Babes: Justice Gatson

Words & Photos By Kelcie McKenney

As a grassroots movement organizer, fighter for the end of police brutality, manager of bailout funds, legislative advocate at the ACLU, and a doula helping Black mothers bring babies into the world, Justice Gatson has been fighting for a better Kansas City for a long time. 

Gatson, the founder of the Reale Justice Network and a representative of the ACLU, is the organizer behind this weekend’s Women’s March where Kansas City will “unify to protect ALL Black Lives and ALL Womxn.”

Gatson grew up on the East side of Kansas City—in the same house her mother lives in today, just a few blocks from where she lives now. She was first introduced to social justice organizing at her middle school, Genesis Promise Academy, a nationally recognized alternative school for inner-city youth in Kansas City. 

Justice Gatson outside Equal Minded Cafe

“It’s where I learned that Kansas City had a black Panther party, and I learned the history of what that was like and the people involved,” Gatson says of her time at Genesis School. “It was the first time I was exposed to city council meetings. I was exposed to a wide range of authors, and I actually lived with the principal of the school for a time along with some other students. We were considered a bit wild, but in a way that was related to justice.”

Thanks to a school trip she took with Genesis, Gatson was connected with local radio stations KKFI and KPRS/KPRT, where she worked for four-years, before attending college at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a good fit for someone who had been interested in activism since middle school.

Bennett College is one of two historically Black colleges that enroll only women. It was founded in 1873 for Black freedmen and to train teachers, but became a four-year women’s college in 1926. On February 11, 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Bennett College, after the city of Greensboro refused to give him space to speak.

Justice Gatson sits outside Equal Minded Cafe

“When Dr. King couldn’t find space in Greensboro for when they were doing the boycott at the counters, A&T [a Black university in North Carolina] wouldn’t allow him to come, they were nervous. And that’s the school Jesse Jackson went to. But the women at Bennet, they were like, that’s our brother. He can come on our campus,” Gatson says. “That’s the history of that school, that rich history. I mean, some of my professors literally helped to integrate some of their schools.”

Those Black women inspired Gatson, and their legacy helped shape the work she would do after moving back home to Kansas City. In 2008, she founded the Reale Social Justice Network because of the surprising prevalence of women fighting for their children in custody battles.

“The women that I was dealing with, if they called the cops, they would oftentimes be blamed for the abuse that happened to them.” Gatson says. “And they were sometimes told if they call again, they would be punished. And so that’s where I started really looking at grassroots, like how can we take care of our community without involving the police?”

Since founding her organization, Gatson has led the Reale Justice Network’s fight in advocating for policy changes, domestic violence survivors, the end of cash bail, regaining local control of the Kansas City Police Department, ending police brutality, and so much more. 

In July of 2013, Ryan Stokes was shot and killed by a KCPD officer outside of the Power and Light District. Ryan did not receive the justice he deserved, and Gatson wanted to get involved, so she connected with Irene Stokes, Ryan’s mother.

“We sat with her and her family and worked with them and really built relationships with them. Once she felt comfortable enough, she really let us try to help that situation,” Gatson says. “We were able to bring enough attention, I think, so that other people who were ignoring it started talking about it, and now you hear almost everybody in the streets knows Ryan’s name.”

But police brutality is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2017, Gatson founded Kansas City’s first Black organized bail fund, The Reale Justice Community Bail Fund, in partnership with National Bailout—a collective of Black-led organizations that help bail Black people out of jail.

Gatson’s bailout organization  is so much more than just paying cash bail. Once someone is bailed out, they often need additional resources like housing, food, sometimes medical support, and often legal support or assistance making it to court dates. 

“I think that people who are just starting bail funds, they really need to understand where it comes from and why we do it. It’s not a cute little story, and don’t treat it that way, ” says Gatson, who stressed that white people getting involved in bail funds should look to existing organizations with Black leaders first.

“If you want to make sure that you’re doing the work and you’re going to have a real impact, connect, do your research, talk to people, connect with organizations that are committed to social justice and that are values based.”

Gatson says to white allies

Around the same time, Gatson started working for the ACLU.

“It was actually right after Charlottesville,” Gatson says. She started work the Monday after the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, VA on August 11 and 12, 2017. “So coming into that work environment, it was already pretty heated. People were talking about racial justice, waging between first amendment rights and racial justice. Black and brown organizers were expressing their views and really trying to come to a consensus on how you’re going to do this work.”

Since starting that position, she’s gotten to celebrate some wins. Earlier this October, Kansas City passed the CROWN Act, which outlawed discrimination based on natural hair. 

“It’s just ridiculous that in this day and age that we’re either fighting or having to fight for it, but I am really happy about that,” Gatson says. 

Between all the work she has done in grassroots organizing and at her position at the ACLU, Gatson is also a doula. While helping women delivery babies doesn’t sound like political work, it is. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Black babies are two and a half times more likely to die than white babies. Gatson works with Uzazi Village as a doula to “decrease Black infant mortality and racially based perinatal health inequities.”

With the many hats Gatson wears in the KC community, I am genuinely surprised she had time to sit down with us and share her story. But that’s the charm about Gatson—she’s all about community, and it shows in her work. She’s the kind of woman who wants to help you grow just as much as she wants to see all of Kansas City grow. 

That’s a big part of this Saturday’s Women’s March. Much like Gatson’s first Women’s rally, the Reale Womxn’s Rally, Saturday’s inclusive event will feature speakers sharing messages of unity as we face the upcoming election, Trump’s agency, and his attempt to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. “Trumps racist and sexist agenda will not be tolerated. We will unify to protect ALL Black Lives and ALL Womxn. This Rally is being organized by Black and Brown Womxn leaders along with white womxn allies and comrades in Missouri,” the Facebook event reads.

Gatson has been fighting a long time for Kansas City, and it’s time we pick up the torch and fight with her. 

At the end of our chat, I asked Gatson two final questions: What advice do you have for other Black women in activism? What advice do you have for white allies? I’d like to share her answers to you in full:

Black Women:

“In this sphere, maintain your integrity. No matter what. The moment you give an inch on it, you’ll be bought and sold all the time. Keep educating yourself. No one knows everything. And this is a constant space of mind and engagement. Keep learning, keep growing, keep evolving. Support other Black women, support other women of color, support people who are showing up and doing the work. And it’s okay to develop relationships with different people. It’s okay to step outside of your comfort zone. It’s okay to meet different people. Don’t hold yourself back. Travel. If you can go as far away as you can have those experiences, don’t be locked down to this time. Don’t be locked down to this particular space, be adventurous.”

White Allies:

“Advice I would give to white allies is if you want to make sure that you’re doing the work and you’re going to have a real impact, connect, do your research, talk to people, connect with organizations that are committed to social justice and that are values based. If a group tells you that they don’t care about LGBTQ+, that’s not the space 

The people organizing, that’s really important. It’s like number one, because there’s nothing more upsetting than when people who are really doing the work and engaged see allies or people who want to be allies, engage with the most harmful Black people. And, the other thing is, we’re not all the same. Black people aren’t all the same, we don’t all have the same values. Just because a black person said it, it doesn’t make it right. And don’t be afraid to listen to yourself. There are spaces where Black people have not been accurate and white people have went along. And use your judgment as, as well. Definitely some common sense is involved with that. If it doesn’t feel right, it may not be right. And if it isn’t a space where you’re learning and growing, it might not be the space.”

Women’s March KC – Reale Womxn’s Rally Oct 17th
Mill Creek Park
Socially distanced, masks required.
Saturday, October 17, 1-3 p.m.

Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Strategy Director at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie on Instagram with #kcdaddy, where she talks about her three-legged cat Luna, thrift finds, and ways to overthrow the patriarchy.

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