As Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the National Action Network (NAN)—the civil rights organization founded by the Reverend Al Sharpton in 1991—Ebonie Riley works to translate demonstration into legislation. On issues ranging from criminal justice and policing to employment protection, healthcare, housing and voting rights, Riley educates lawmakers on the challenges and opportunities faced by underrepresented communities. In her eight years at the organization, she’s helped coordinate major national events, including the 50th Anniversary March on Washington in 2013, and was the lead organizer of the 2020 March on Washington.
Riley says she understands the community she is representing because she is part of that community. Not long before joining NAN, Riley was working multiple jobs to put herself through college and support her daughter, whom she had when she was a teenager. Riley says that even though she works in Washington, it’s imperative not to get caught up in political rhetoric. Here, she discusses making moral appeals, staying hopeful and carrying the torch of her heroes.
What are some obstacles you faced growing up that brought you to where you are today?
I was born in Chicago and moved to Maryland at a young age. When I was 16, I found out I was pregnant. The household I was raised in wouldn’t accept that. So I hid my pregnancy for the majority of the term. To carry a child to term alone and hide it was very traumatic. After that I graduated from high school and moved out.
As a teen mom, I felt rejected and, to some degree, made to feel ashamed. I didn’t really have much help, so I had to navigate growing up and maturing by myself. But I needed to be a positive role model for my daughter. So I put myself through community colleges and then a four year-university. My senior year I began an internship with the National Action Network.
How did that experience inform your work and advocacy?
I feel that I represent those who I advocate for. I’ve been homeless. I’ve sat in social services. It’s hard to tell someone how they’re feeling if you haven’t experienced some of those things yourself. So I bring the community’s voice to the table even if they’re not in the room because I am part of the community.
What is an example of an issue you saw in your community and how you and the Nation Action Network took it on?
One example would be the ban on chokeholds. The murder of George Floyd happened last summer, but for several years we’ve seen record numbers of Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) people being killed by police. When Eric Garner happened, I was new in the role as Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief. We immediately wanted to see legislation. The National Action Network organized rallies and demonstrations; we set up conversations with New York senators. We brought Eric Garner’s mother, Mrs. Gwen Carr, in front of legislators to make sure they heard her story.
We also appealed to the Department of Justice and others in Washington. So all of these mechanisms were meshed together. It is still unfinished. Unfortunately, we’ve seen how bills get passed in the House and stalled in the Senate. But now under this new [Biden] administration, we hope to get that legislation pushed to the forefront immediately. It can be voted on through the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which has pieces of the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act within it. It’s something I’m very proud of.
Why was it important to have Eric Garner’s mother actually meet people face to face?
It’s so important to bring impacted families in front of members of Congress or whoever it is we’re advocating to—whether it’s on the federal level or a state level—because stories appeal to people. We want to make sure that we’re not just caught up in political rhetoric. We want to make sure we appeal through emotion. Making a moral appeal is standing in the tradition of Dr. [Martin Luther] King.
What has it been like working with Reverend Al Sharpton?
When I first met the Reverend Al Sharpton, I was an intern at the D.C. bureau. Trayvon Martin’s murder had recently happened, other really horrible national tragedies were getting brought to light. We began to have conversations around strategy and how we could translate demonstration into legislation. So we cultivated a relationship around specific issues first and foremost, but then as my role grew, he became my mentor. Now we speak every morning and we talk about the status of our movement.
I think he’s a great individual who sacrifices a lot. Movement work really means sacrifice. It’s thankless and sometimes it’s hopeless and you have to remain hopeful in the midst of hopelessness. That takes a special type of courage and strength.
How do you remain hopeful?
By understanding the history of what movements look like. I understand that it’s not about instant gratification. There may be small battles, but overall, there are wars to be won. We have to endure. We have to make sure we keep encouraging others to move forward and make change.
Find out more about the National Action Network here