48 Hours With a Social Justice Superhero by Harry Harding
In the early morning Sunday hours, amidst the scattered foot traffic of a Chicago O’Hare International Airport corridor, a woman, coffee with cream skin, raven hair, full lips and large doe eyes, stops walking towards her gate. She is wearing black. From head to toe. Her hooded sweatshirt shouts“FLINT LIVES MATTER” across her chest in white lettering. Her eyes are screaming expletives her lips might form, if she could speak. The DiDi Delgado is livid.
Operating on less than six hours of sleep over the course of two days, Delgado just landed in Chicago. She is over-tired and under-caffeinated. She is also hungry, but Delgado has only a few minutes to find her way to the connecting flight back home to Boston. This combination of factors is plenty enough to put even the most patient, most tolerable, human being on the verge wrath. Although none of the factors are the cause for Delgado’s seething now..
On the way to her connection, a burly male, owning a round, pale face, decorated with stubble and indifference, bumps into Delgado nearly knocking her over. The man hastily continues on his way without apology or even acknowledgement before Delgado’s voice prompts him to stop and turn around.
“You could have said excuse me.”
“Oh, did I run into you? Sorry.”
Delgado does not avoid eye contact with the man. “Cool.”
Her one word response is doused thickly in sarcasm. And disdain.
As Delgado continues past him, the man is loud. And combative. “Well you don’t have to be a f — — -g b — -h!”
Among the haphazard flow of passing travelers, the two adults exchange more heated words before the man stomps on. Delgado stands still, just outside a woman’s restroom. She freezes in disgust. When fury slightly fades from her face, and the angry lump in her throat dissolves, Delgado expresses her sentiments on the last few confrontational minutes.
“White male fragility is out of control.”
Complicated. Complicated is the best way to characterize Delgado’s relationship with white people. There are many white people she respects. Many she has strong professional ties to. She has white friends! She cares deeply for white former roommates. In her absence, Delgado would not think twice about leaving her child, Egypt, who is just under two years old, in their care. While she might prefer to sleep in a bathtub filled with flesh-eating ants then to have dinner with the white man that insulted her in the airport, that has nothing to do with skin color. Delgado’s complaint with white people is rooted in the lengthy and painful history of mistreatment and subjugation of others by white people in power. That, in fact, has everything to do with skin color (as told by those with a lack of melanin in their epidermis).
Delgado, 33, operates comfortably owning the separation between the personal relationships with white people in her life (who are a healthy mix of persons acknowledging power dynamics and humanity) versus the systemic relationships with white people in lives of people of color (who are always problematic). On a daily basis, Delgado’s work is rooted in anti-racism and advocacy for the most vulnerable populations.
Just after 8AM on a Friday, I arrive outside Delgado’s grandmother’s home in Roxbury, which is a short distance away from her own home in the same neighborhood. After an exchange of texts, I wait in my idling sedan for fifteen minutes. It is now 8:34. In less than an hour, Delgado, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Cambridge, is scheduled to appear as a featured panelist at a BLM symposium hosted by Brandeis University.
My phone rings and it’s Delgado apologizing for the delay, and confirming which car I’m in. In the background, I hear scattered conversation and a barking dog. All sounds of a busy morning household. Delgado texts me shortly after we speak: “Sorry. To be honest, I wasn’t really listening when you said which car.” I reply with “lol” and retell her it’s the Black Mitsubishi across the street. This is early insight into two realities that will be reinforced over the next 48 hours with Delgado: She is transparent. And has a lot going on.
Driving only into the next zip code, Delgado has five different conversations. With five different people. About five different subjects. At least. She secures care plans for Egypt, handles financial business with a vendor, coordinates dates and times to have coffee with two associates — a fellow organizer from out of state and a leader of a local non-profit. She discusses talking points with fellow panelists and discusses travel details for herself and several organizers from the BLM National Network.
Delgado is traveling to Flint, Michigan later this afternoon where she’ll be volunteering to help execute the first annual “Water Is Life Expo” hosted by Black and Native rights activist Yonasda Lonewolf Hill. The event will raise money to fund filtration systems for the homes of families without access to clean water.
Halfway to Waltham, Massachusetts, Delgado has barely stopped to adjust her seat or even peer out the window. Delgado returns a phone call to musician and organizer from St. Louis, MO, rapper Tef Poe, to solidify his travel details. She hangs up and immediately starts recording voice notes to herself about edits to an article she is writing simultaneously for Medium and the Huffington Post. The deadline is today. The subject is the lack of action or participation by non-whites in white led organizations like SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). Delgado’s take on the matter is soaked with sarcasm. In her lede, she pokes fun at white people responsible for generating ideas such as “purple ketchup”, “George Zimmerman’s acquittal” and “the Holocaust”. Delgado writes:
“All of these bad ideas started with a bunch of white folks sitting around a table being extra white. If history has taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing more disappointing or dangerous than a room full of white people. With that in mind, I’d like you to consider why anyone would expect white-led anti-racism organizations to be any different.”
Delgado, in person and via pen, is scathing and hilarious. Thoughtful and provocative. And not without considerable amounts of both praise and controversy. The article, posted on April 1st, has more than 170,000 views to date. During our drive to Waltham, the co-president of SURJ, Heather Cronk, contacted Delgado requesting to have a conversation about her stance.
In between talking and busy fingers on her smartphone, Delgado is intrigued by two voices coming from the car speakers. She has never heard of The Read podcast. The two voices, hosts Kid Fury and Crissle, exchange laughter over a news story involving five white men filing a lawsuit against a black owned media outlet for race discrimination. Delgado is fascinated by the banter, but it does not keep her attention. She is more occupied by the messages she is getting about her current social media situation. She say, “I’m in Facebook jail,” as she cracks up.
Yesterday, Delgado posted critical comments towards a woman she describes as a “white liberal feminist.” The woman offered praise and support to Tomi Lahren, the fiery, ultra conservative internet pundit who is heavily unfavorable of BLM. Delgado is now banned from posting content or answering messages on Facebook for the next 24 hours. She appears more amused than frustrated. Many of us would take the ban from social media as a fair warning. It might even encourage us to tone down our future responses. Delgado handles it her own way. The next day she circulates a link petitioning Mark Zuckerberg and six other Facebook executives to stop censoring and banning Black and Trans activists.
Masai Andrews, an employee of the Office of Mental Health in Upstate New York, met Delgado at a BLM conference in North Carolina in the early summer of 2016. The two have stayed connected since, largely via social media. “DiDi’s strength isn’t in her politics, but her ability to convey them,” says Andrews, “I’ve witnessed exchanges on social media where she has had strangers embrace new understanding… I’ve only come across a handful of people with DiDi’s gift.”
— — —
In the early afternoon of Friday, March 24th, as we drive away from the Brandeis campus, the theme “DiDi Delgado might be a superhero…” started to sound better and better to me. For more than 25 years now I’ve been a collector and general enthusiast of superhero stories. I know all the types and tropes. Maybe I’ve shared space with a real-life superhuman. But superhumans have superpowers. Or expensive gadgets. I spend our remaining time together trying to figure out what Delgado’s power might be. What gadgets she might have besides her phone. In the time span of five hours, I witnessed one woman coordinate more stuff, do more tasks, and talk to more people than I had done in the previous three weeks. Hmm. Multitasking. Perhaps that’s her superpower.
“It’s Black Liberation… what do they think we’re demanding to be liberated from? Are they not terrorizing our lives by their very existence?
11:06 AM: The flight to Flint boards in less than two hours. Without traffic or other issues, the drive from Brandeis straight to Logan International Airport is 15 minutes. That is not ot possible today. Delgado must return home to Roxbury to retrieve her laptop and identification.
On the drive back, Delgado resumes talking and tapping on her phone. There is no mention of the ninety-minute dialogue with over a hundred students and faculty that just occurred at the symposium. These speaking engagements are important to Delgado, but frequency has made them par for the course. She has four scheduled, at four different universities, in the next ten days.
Before reaching Delgado’s apartment, American Airlines sends a text notification that the flight to Flint is delayed an hour. The anxiety of having to rush through TSA is relieved. The anxiety of finding her ID to get through TSA, however, is not. After a solid twenty-minute search, Delgado emerges from her front door with two small bags and no driver’s license.
Since I am not banned, on the way to the airport I post a Facebook status : I feel like I’m riding in the backseat of the Batmobile. Actually, it was the backseat of a Lyft. Although she continues to sift through one of her bags, it is difficult to tell if Delgado is actually bothered by the missing ID. She coolly calls one of her friends and sidebars to me, “I know she has been through this before. She’ll know what to do.” The friend tells her if she has her birth certificate and another card with her name on it that will work. Delgado has both. She hangs up.
She proceeds to contact another comrade, Elle Hearns, an organizer from the Ohio area who is flying into Boston this afternoon to speak at a conference on the abuse of Black transgender women. Elle’s arrival time and Delgado’s flight delay creates an opportunity for the pair to connect for lunch.
Imagine two members of the Avengers plotting strategies on how they will undo the ills caused by the devices of the villainy. At a mini Legal Seafood in Terminal B of Logan Airport, listening to two community organizers catch up is equivalent to that. They could easily be spending time exchanging anecdotes from the activist battlefield. Remember that time we got arrested here? Remember that time we avoided tear gas there? Instead Hearns and Delgado’s conversation focuses on the work that remains to be done. The thread throughout the dialogue is that there are too many marginalized communities: black, brown, male, female, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans gender, gender non conforming and queer communities- which are all suffering. These Avengers are committed to changing that. Constantly. Loudly. Even if it makes some observers, casual or otherwise, uncomfortable.
In 2014, after the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Delgado refused to travel to Ferguson, MO to volunteer support for Brown’s family members and organizers on the ground there. “Everyone was going on buses. I didn’t know if I could be useful there. I didn’t know the area, or if we could DO anything except provide a large presence. If that was the case then I could do that here in Boston and in Cambridge.” As a result, Delgado provided her support to Daunasia Yancey for the first protest in October 2014, and then subsequently to the BLM Cambridge event in January 2015; where hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Central Square in protest of state sanctioned violence.
Delgado is well aware of the distaste for organizing types like herself, particularly the inflammation associated with BLM and the ever present “charismatic leader” moniker. She rolls her eyes at the perception of Black liberation organizers as being agitators, trouble-makers, even terrorists. As vexing as the characterizations are, Delgado insists they are more confusing than upsetting. “It’s Black Liberation… what do they think we’re demanding to be liberated from? Are they not terrorizing our lives by their very existence? When we protested for seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, for 12 year old Tamir Rice, for 18 year old Michael Brown,” says Delgado, “I just don’t understand how me raising my hand and saying ‘Hey, stop this is, it’s a violation of our rights’ is considered terrorism.”
The original itinerary slated arrival in Flint around dinnertime Friday evening. Two delays and a missed connecting flight later, it is shortly past 1 AM early Saturday morning when Delgado and I arrive at the hotel to check in. Following a jam packed day, and even more congested day to follow, I expect Delgado will head directly to her room to rest. Not a chance . With luggage in hand, she heads directly to a room on the third floor. Delgado knocks. An excited voice announces, “That’s her!” Smiles, handshakes and hugs greet Delgado as she enters. Inside, organizers from New Jersey, Baltimore, DC and St. Louis, many representing the BLM network, are gathering for a meeting. Not an official meeting. There is plenty of wine. There are plenty of potato chips. Delgado helps herself to both. It is never said out loud, but the energy in the room speaks clearly. Her arrival means something.
Some of the organizers have been in Flint since Wednesday. Without prompting, the organizers begin getting Delgado up to speed. A young organizer named Jazz from BLM DC shares a few stories from the week, including some frustrations around planning the Expo. There have been challenges communicating with Expo leadership. There is lack of clarity about what role BLM volunteers will have at the event. The Expo begins at 9:30 am.
Delgado sips and snacks as she assesses the information. “April and I will talk to her,” she says of fellow comrade April Goggans of BLM DC. “We will all meet at seven, figure out our own stuff first, then we’ll have a conference call with everyone involved and work it out.” Delgado’s confidence puts the room at ease. More wine. More chips.
Saturday 7 AM: in the hotel lobby lounge, the group of organizers assembles. Wine and potato chips give way to coffee and waffles. Delgado, wearing sleepy eyes and what she calls “pro-heaux pajamas,” is at the center of the discussion. After fifteen minutes of prep, the crew heads back to the third floor hotel room to initiate a conference call with local organizers of the “Water Is Life Expo.” Pleasantries and generalities are exchanged with the organizers and,, several minutes into the call, there is still confusion about expectations of the BLM volunteers. Delgado introduces herself and guides the conversation, “Black Lives Matter DC and Black Lives Matter Cambridge, as well as the entire BLM Network are here in the spirit of making sure the burden is shared equally. We appreciate you. We will be there at 9 AM to make this happen.”
8:50 AM: the team of volunteers from the hotel arrive at a middle school auditorium near the center of Flint, the Expo venue.. It’s gray and rainy. The weather is likely to curb attendance for the morning program. It gives the volunteers slight breathing room to set-up and prepare for the day. Delgado works the room. She is a stranger to most, but she quickly establishes herself as a do-er. She greets vendors. Networks with locals. Arranges seating and makes sure fellow volunteers get breakfast.
At several points throughout the morning I ask Delgado if she’s good. Need anything? Help carrying something? Water? A piece of chewing gum? Anything? Not because she looks stressed. Because she should look stressed. Delgado declines every time. Instead I watch her step purposefully to the next to-do list item posted inside her brain, with a face decorated with determination. No makeup and sporting a grey sweatshirt that reads “Weekend Warrior”.
It is clear. Delgado moves people towards…well, whatever the hell she says to move towards. She leads. She mobilizes. In short, she gets people to get things done. Ahh that’s it. It hits me. Her superpower is organizing…Delgado is a Super Organizer.
2:00 PM: A noticeable lull in the program has fallen over the Expo. Attendance has thinned. Vendors are avoiding boredom by reorganizing table displays. Photographers are fiddling with their equipment. Volunteers are milling about, some engaging in conversation, others enjoying a snack.
There has been a disagreement on whether or not to replace the sound system, which has failed, or to use that money to purchase water filters for the thousands of Flint residents still without clean water. A phone call has to be made to Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM to ensure funds are reimbursed. For the first time since we connected the previous morning, I sense an anger that is weighted by fatigue and I wonder how much fatigue is a factor. Delgado is frustrated. She walks by me without making eye contact and heads down a hallway toward an exit to the parking lot. She says that she is going to the van for a minute.
The Expo is concluding the evening program with a concert whichstarts at 7 PM. Delgado is scheduled to perform. An hour after walking to the van, I notice Delgado has not returned inside. She does not respond to a text. Shevone, an organizer of BLM New Jersey, tells me that Delgado has headed back to the hotel to nap. Good for her. She is human after all.
Or so I thought.
3:30 PM: I connect with Delgado by phone. She confirms she returned to the hotel. She also says she did not sleep. At all. Instead, she connected with another colleague, Leslie Mac who put her into contact with Nayyirah Shariff, a local organizer in Flint. The two updated one another on happenings in their respective worlds and discussed plans to meet for dinner following the evening concert. Delgado is already on her way back to the Expo when she informs me the decision is to make due with the sound equipment and that BLM DC and BLM Cambridge collectively will give the water filter vendor $3,000 to purchase shower head filters for residents and to provide four water filtration systems, which are $500 each. Delgado finally voices her frustrations: “It’s just super frustrating that with as much criticism that we receive, that we’re ‘just a hashtag’, ‘that we as organizers don’t move things’, ‘that we pretend we’re superstars’… no one sees the actual work that we do because they’re focused about they themselves being in the limelight. I don’t need the limelight. I’ll do this in the dark bro.”
8:28 PM: Delgado is pacing outside a teacher’s lounge, the makeshift green room across from the auditorium stage. Trayonce, a BLM organizer from DC, shouts out the scheduled sequence of performers. Hip-hop artists, dancers, musicians and a group of Native American orators scramble about in preparation for their respective appearances. Delgado is the only poet.
Delgado is one-fifth of a socially conscious collective of Boston-based artists known as S.O.U.P. (Society Of Urban Poetry). S.O.U.P. is comprised of writers and professionals that actively serve community causes, from violence prevention and youth development to affordable housing and food sustainability. Delgado founded S.O.U.P. alongside fellow poets and colleagues, Matt Parker and Crystal Beck in September of 2014. She is currently running operations for S.O.U.P., hosting trainings, workshops and poetry competitions -while Parker is on sabbatical and Beck heads to maternity leave.
Akin to her journalistic writing style, Delgado constructs poetry with language and imagery that is judicious and jarring. Sophia Smart, a 28-year-old educator from Albany, NY witnessed Delgado perform at a BLM event in 2016. “I don’t remember the words but the feeling she leaves you with is unforgettable,” says Smart, “It leaves you raw. Sometimes comforted. Sometimes exposed. I am just in awe of how she manipulates words into a story that is always authentic.”
Outside the greenroom is the first time I sense nervousness, since meeting Delgado. She notes she is not concerned about the audience members on hand. She is more concerned with the 10,000+ pairs of eyes who are streaming the concert live online.
The poem she shares is titled “Pennies”. Delgado was inspired to write the piece, in part, as a response to media coverage of the water crisis in Flint becoming smaller because of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Delgado attacks the stage. She is ferocious. The butterflies seeming to swarm in her stomach moments before have clearly flown away. They are likely ducking for cover. With intensity gripping her expression, she moves side-to-side on stage and emphasizes the lines:
“We don’t live in Flint; at least we don’t have to drink the water you say! ‘All Lives Matter’ you say! Money is money honey, you say. Well miss me with that erasure bull-ish I say. ’Cause when’s the last time you paid your rent in pennies hmmh?”
The crowd oohs, ahhs and snaps their fingers in approval. All are transfixed. Delgado leaves the stage covered with a warm ovation. Her job in Flint is done.
Aha! Her super power is captivation. Drawing people in. Capturing people’s attention with language, spoken and body. Similar to the sticky web Spider-Man delivers from his wrists, Delgado ensnares others with her delivery of performance art. The only difference is people actually want Delgado to catch them in her web of words. They love every minute of it.
While waiting to board our returning flight, I ask Delgado how she digested the experience in Flint. Given such a sardined scheduled, I wanted to know if Delgado had arrived at some sense of accomplishment. This is the type of evaluative question you ask someone when they have completed something impactful. Delgado scoffs at my question with rolled eyes. A dismissive gesture, but not rude. Yes, we are leaving Flint, but still there is plenty work left to do.
When the Multitasker, the Organizer, the Captivator (all terrible superhero names I admit), arrives back in Boston, less than two days later, at noontime on Sunday, is that Delgado’s weekend is not complete. Minutes after landing, she is scheduled to speak on another panel, this time at Harvard University’s Kennedy School alongside Kendra Lara-Hicks of Resist, Inc, a radical philanthropic organization funding radical movements and Bob Bland, co-founder of the Women’s March . Afterward, she will attend a BLM Cambridge committee meeting. Then BLM’s monthly discussion forum, Race Talks. “I may have to skip that,” Delgado says while stifling a yawn. Given what I have observed, Delgado will be there.
She will not be deterred or discouraged. Not by the constraints of time. And most assuredly not by a white male of large stature and small mind in an airport corridor.
I stopped trying to guess what type of mutant powers Delgado possesses. I realized what was actually going on. The real reasons why I found her behavior to be so marvelous (or is it Marvel-esque?) are the same reasons we are all attracted to, and fascinated by, superheroes: capacity and virtue.
Superheroes do the things we can’t do. It is effortless for Superman to stop bullets with his chest, push mountains with his arms, or fly around the earth fast enough to reverse the Earth’s revolutions and travel back in time (yeah I love that movie too). Delgado does not have supernatural strength. Although it does appear effortless for Delgado to write publishable pieces of literature, mobilize hundreds of community members across the country, and raise a child. Without sleep. Capacity.
Superheroes do things we won’t do. Batman does not think twice about thwarting evildoers. He just does it. He has the resources. He has the smarts. Most importantly, however, he has the will. Whether as himself or Matches Malone, the webbed winged hero in all Black puts himself in position to help the people of Gotham because it’s the right thing to do. Many of us have to be reminded, instructed, even coerced into doing the right thing. It’s why when you learn CPR, they tell you explicitly to direct someone to call 911. Most will just stand and watch as someone lays on the ground unresponsive. We expect someone else to act. Delgado is far from a billionaire ala Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. She does not have cool gadgets at her disposal. Delgado involves herself in social justice causes because she’s willful. And it’s the right thing to do. Virtue.
Throughout the weekend, and I would imagine most days, more than a few people took notice of her super skills. Whenever a compliment came her way, I overheard Delgado reply sheepishly, “I’m just a regular person.” Hmm. Isn’t that just would Clark Kent or Peter Parker would say?
“DiDi just wants to leave the world a better place,” says Andrews, “DiDi’s not the type of person that will change the world someday. She’s the type of person who already has.”
As our 48-hour adventure from Boston-Flint-Boston ends, Delgado climbs into a waiting taxi outside South Station. I notice her tuck in what appears to be some kind of black cloth material into one of her bags. I’m almost certain it was a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt and not a cape. Almost certain.
Harry Harding is the Vice President of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at Children Services of Roxbury (CSR). He recently earned a Master’s degree in journalism with a professional certification in organizational behavior from Harvard University Extension School. An avid writer, Harry published his first book of poetry in 2017 titled, Perspectives In Progress.