Like many recent revolutions in thought about what’s possible in America, Eunique Jones Gibson’s epiphany was sparked by the presidency of Barack Obama. Her first son was born during the 2008 election and her youngest son was born in 2012 during the re-election; these awe-inspiring moments in Black history—American history—caused Gibson to look towards her sons’ futures with new hope. Days before Black History Month in 2013, Jones got the idea to dress children up as Black icons in order to educate and inspire young people to do the previously unthinkable.
Titled, “Because of Them, We Can,” Gibson’s campaign quickly went viral, getting more than 500,000 post likes and nearly 28,000 page likes on Facebook. Gibson quit her job as an online advertising and social media marketing manager in order to keep up with the demand for a year-round celebration of Black history through photos and now focuses on this campaign full time. With a 365-page coffee table book and a calendar available for pre-order, EBONY.com caught up with the visionary and social activist to hear her thoughts on raising and empowering Black children in these trying times.
EBONY: At what point did you realize that your Because of Them, We Can campaign had a momentum of its own and needed to expand beyond your original idea to feature these photos during Black History Month last year?
EUNIQUE JONES GIBSON: As the month went on, I thought it would go viral but I didn’t really have a definition of what that meant, I just thought people would like it. As it got close to the end of the month people started saying things like, "I did not want to see February end! I did not want to see March come!" and it really showed me we were successful in doing what I wanted to do: get people excited about this campaign. I also did an interview with Tom Joyner that month and he said, "You should continue," and I started thinking about that and why I didn’t want to limit the campaign to just 28 people [to honor]. There were so many other individuals I wanted to highlight and that was such a hard decision in itself to limit it to 28 days. So, I started feeling a responsibility to keep it going and felt like if I did not, I would have not only let other people down but I would have let my kids down and myself down because the entire premise behind this campaign was getting people to believe that they could achieve greatness and get past some of your fears or other challenges that might come up.
For me my challenge was my job. It was a blessing but at the same time, it kept me from being able to keep the pace [with the campaign] so I had to make the serious decision to resign from my position with my full-time job so that I could go out and take this pictures so that we could keep it going real time especially since I hadn’t planned it out a year in advanced. I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to keep it going.
EBONY: How did you make the step to say, "I’m going to quit my full-time job and focus on this exclusively"? Did you expect that this would be more than something that people would enjoy but would also be immediately profitable?
EJG: I wish I could sound super responsible like yes I had x amount in the bank, but I did not! I didn’t think big enough when I first launched the campaign. I didn’t have any of those assurances, I just knew that people needed the message and in February, I didn’t even know we would have a book. All I knew is that I would regret not taking the leap of faith. It was kind of like, this was the fork in the road and if I didn’t make the decision, I would always wonder what the opportunity would have been, to change the world, which is how I see this campaign growing. So, no, I didn’t have money in the bank. It wasn’t that well thought out. You just have to work as hard as you can. I believed it would all come together, and it has.
EBONY: It’s easy to see how people can look at these pictures and be inspired, but when you’re taking the pictures of the children, are you teaching them who the person is that they’re dressing up as and why that person was special?
EJG: It depends on the age. We’ve taken pictures of one-year-olds, but a number of kids come in to the studio with little print-outs of their icon because the parents have taken the opportunity to teach them about the individual. When the kids come in, I ask them, "Did you know what your person did or why they were special?" Some kids are definitely more into it than others. My little Stevie Wonder, who is a great kid, his mother emailed me and said, "I just want to thank you for allowing him to portray Stevie Wonder. He never knew who he was before, never cared, but now, every time he sees Stevie on television, he says, 'Look, look! It’s Stevie Wonder!'" He’s 3 years old!
Also, a little girl named Lyric who is 4, portrayed Marion Wright Edelman, who says “If we don’t stand up for children, we don’t stand for anything at all.” I just found out that Lyric is autistic and her mom says that everyday Lyric points to that picture of her as Marion and says, "Look, mom. I did something important." So, these kids are definitely learning and feeling empowered.
EBONY: The purpose of this campaign was to show children what it is that they can be, what is possible. In a time that’s so encouraging for Black people, it’s also a time that’s very stressful and painful, when you think about Stand Your Ground laws across the country and no justice for Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis. As a mother of Black sons, what is it that you plan to teach your sons about what is out there, both the positive and the parts that can be negative and scary?
EJG: It’s a really good question. As a mother of black boys, I fear for my kids. That fear is really what pushes me so hard, to make sure that my kids are aware. I was inspired to create my first social awareness campaign when I found out about Trayvon Martin and when I met Mr. Martin, Trayvon’s father. I told him that I was thankful that [he and Trayvon's mom, Sybrina Fulton] were so committed to getting the word out about Tryavon and even now, trying to repeal the Stand Your Ground laws. I would never have opened up in that way in regards to that responsibility to use my lens to create social change or to highlight social injustice. So there wouldn’t be a Because of Them, We Can campaign, and I told them that.
For my boys, it is important for me to let them know the dark side of this world that we live in, but the way I’m going to do it is not in the way that’s going to scare them or make them fearful but in a way that really motivates them to make it happen. It’s a scary time, but I feel like there’s a couple of reactions to fear. There’s anger, but Malcolm X said when you get angry, you bring about change, right? How do we use these emotions, these hurtful times to really push the agenda forward, to unite and speak out against injustices that are taking place? But also fill our kids with the King mentality.
I think that as a parent, it’s my responsibility to share the story of Malcolm X, Dr. King, Barack Obama, the Nat Turners, the Dred Scotts, the people that the world wasn’t kind to, and to know that those times are still very, very real today, but here’s how you work through it. You can’t control other people. You have to be really focused on your individual contribution to the world in general, to peel back some of this ugliness and that’s my message to them and my message to me. Otherwise, I’ll just be angry all day every day. I’m thankful for this campaign because I am angry, but I can be positive through this campaign and these images.