It's been a revolutionary year for the Radical Monarchs, who have harnessed their collective power, even as it was tested by the shift from in-person to online meetings, loss of a beloved mentor and protests against police brutality.
Founded by Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest in Oakland in 2014, Radical Monarchs is an organization of radical social justice troops for young girls of color. Like other scout troops, the girls—called Monarchs—earn badges they can wear on their uniforms; unlike most other scout troops, the Monarchs' badges celebrate the completion of radical educational units focused on topics like queer and trans pride, Black Lives Matter, accessibility, legislative advocacy, climate justice and more.
For those unfamiliar with the troops, the feature documentary We Are The Radical Monarchs provides a moving introduction. Completed in 2018, its broadcast television debut was this July on POV/PBS, bringing the organization visibility and many new supporters, as well as a few haters.
"Whenever we get any mainstream media attention, it's a double-edged sword," Martinez says. "We get recognition and donations, but we also get trolls who attack us."
The documentary itself addresses some of the condemnation the organization faces, peppering in clips of Sean Hannity and other conservative, white Fox News pundits saying they think Radical Monarch girls are being exploited. The allegations feel baseless when viewers hear from participants and their families about how being a Monarch has impacted them, from inspiring career goals to developing a sisterhood with other girls of color in their troop.
Martinez told EBX, "A few quiet and shy Monarchs decided to run for student government at their schools, directly inspired by the Radical Advocacy badge where we went to Sacramento and met with legislators."
According to Martinez, other Monarchs have gone on to intern with legal organizations, paint murals in East Oakland and advocate for their high school to teach Ethnic Studies.
Monarchs are third, fourth or fifth graders when they join the three-year program. Some alums from the first cohorts are now high schoolers. While there isn't an official alumni program, many of these girls remain tightly-knit with one another and the organization.
When disability-rights activist Stacey Park Milburn died in May, Monarch alumni memorialized her by starting the hashtag #StaceyTaughtUs through which they shared video and photo statements. Girls got to know Milburn while working toward their Radical Bodies badges. Testimonials shared through the hashtag include "Access should never be an afterthought" and "I took ASL as my second language in high school."
In June, a group of Monarch alums self-organized to plan a public vigil at Lake Merritt honoring the lives of murdered Black women. They also created a video teaching other young people how to become active in protest. Additionally, Martinez says high school–aged alumni are receiving training on direct action from The Ruckus Society.
"The alumni are older now and they're ready to take on bigger pieces of work ... they're learning what it takes to plan and execute your own direct action—things like sit-ins or banner drops," says Martinez.
While the Black Lives Matter movement prompted the Monarchs and so many others to take to the streets, the Covid-19 pandemic necessarily altered how the troops met. Four new cohorts launched in fall of 2019; two in Oakland, one in Richmond and one in San Francisco. Just a few months later, Martinez, Hollinquest and the troop leaders revised their programming to work via Zoom meetings.
Martinez says, "Every troop meeting got condensed to an hour, because it was like, these are young kids and now school is online, too. We had to really just boil down our objectives and condense our curriculum, so that it wouldn't overwhelm them to be doing so much on Zoom."
It was important to Martinez to do something to spark joy and connection while everyone was stuck at home, so the organization created 100 Pandemic Joy Kits for current Monarchs and alumni. Each kit included a backpack with the Radical Monarchs logo, stress relief tea, a coloring book of images of the Monarchs and women who inspire them, a handmade cloth facemask, a comic book and a quartz crystal. Almost all of the items were made or provided by local Black and Indigenous women of color creators and business owners. The kits were distributed through no-contact pickups.
On Instagram, one parent commented, "This truly brought my Monarch joy! Each item holds so much love."
While the pandemic created many challenges for the Radical Monarchs, the shift to online organizing comes with at least one silver lining. Martinez says they used to think about launching new cohorts regionally, but now they're able to consider launching troops across the nation.
"Our next move was going to be launching a cohort of four or five troops in Los Angeles," she explains. "But now that we've had to move everything online, we've realized that maybe we don't have to be restricted to launching a regional cohort—maybe it could be one troop in L.A., one in Chicago, one in Minneapolis, one in New York."
For now, however, funding continues to limit how much the organization can expand. The documentary traces the origins and first few years of the Radical Monarchs. Throughout the film, Martinez and Hollinquest work day jobs and struggle to find grants that will enable them to make the organization their day jobs. When the documentary ends, viewers learn Martinez and Hollinquest have received a grant from the NoVo Foundation that will allow them to work on Radical Monarchs full-time for three years.
That three-year interval ended in 2020. Martinez says they were told they would get a grant renewal, but when Covid hit, the NoVo Foundation announced they were going to move in a different direction instead.
"We called that one of our lifeline grants," says Martinez. "It allowed me and my co-founder to work full-time. It is a huge loss."
For now, the focus is on trying to get in the door with other foundations that can make up for the loss. Martinez says they are poised to go national, but they need investment for that growth.
"We are definitely looking for multi-year big grants," she says. "If we want to get bigger and meet the demands the community is asking for, we need to be able to grow and sustain our team."
Although they are regarded as too young or too small an organization in the eyes of prospective investors, Martinez says it's a tremendous benefit to have a feature-length documentary to show people their work.
"This is not just an organization," she says. "It's a movement about centering the voices of young girls of color in social justice work."
The current cohort of troops just celebrated earning their Pachamama Justice badges. The unit centered on climate justice, including preservation of ancestral practices, medicinal herbal plant care, environmental racism and beautification of urban spaces.
Radical Monarchs take a programmatic break for the month of December to honor their value of sustainability. As their Instagram explains, "We believe in replenishing our physical and emotional selves in order to create long term radical change."