Oakland’s Radical Monarchs Spreading Their Wings and Raising Fists for Social Justice

By Karen Gullo

A group of young girls of color wearing brown berets and brown Girl Scout-style sashes across their chests look at a photo of author, activist, and model Janet Mock. Their eyes grow wide when they’re told Janet was assigned male at birth and is transgender. Earlier, the girls had been asked to describe how gender roles of men and women are depicted in entertainment and advertising. 

Males are always the superheroes, women are housewives, said one. Males control women and women seldom control men, said another, adding that men have cool secret handshakes. “Society says women have to have big breasts, long hair, and small noses,” offers a 10-year-old.

The discussion about gender stereotypes is part of a journey for the young girls, who meet regularly to discuss racial and gender equity, share experiences about growing up as people of color in tumultuous times and, importantly, become activists for social justice.

This is heady—and heavy—stuff for 8- to 12-year-olds. But this is the Radical Monarchs, an Oakland-based activism organization for young girls of color with a mission to empower girls, teach social justice and equality, and make radical contributions to their communities.

“It’s really important to create these spaces for girls of color because their voices haven’t always been heard,” said co-founder Anayvette Martinez.

Radical Monarchs at San Francisco International Film Festival after the screening of “We Are The Radical Monarchs” documentary film. Photo by Karen Gullo

Radical Monarchs at San Francisco International Film Festival after the screening of “We Are The Radical Monarchs” documentary film. Photo by Karen Gullo

The organization’s story is the subject of the documentary film “We Are The Radical Monarchs,” recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the film follows the group from its founding in 2014, through its earliest years with a core group of 10 girls, two founders, and no budget, to a successful and celebrated force for social justice activism in Oakland with new troops planned for San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” chronicles the young girls—particularly Lupita Martinez, Amia Carillo, and DeYani Dillard—as they march, fists raised, for LGBTQ and women’s rights. They are seen organizing to raise awareness about racial injustice. They discuss how it feels to be left out and made to feel different. They support each other, and talk about what ‘pride’ means. They each do something that expresses their appreciation for their culture—Amia performs a traditional dance, and Lupita models a traditional costume.

They make posters and banners, and participate in rallies protesting discrimination against and detention of immigrants and other people of color. They speak at San Francisco City Council meetings and knock on lawmakers’ office doors in Sacramento to advocate for affordable housing (an issue directly affecting the girls living in Oakland). They earn badges for Radical Pride, Radical Bodies, Radical Roots, and Radical Beauty that they display on their signature brown vests. They learn about Black Lives Matter from co-founder Alicia Garza, who speaks at their graduation ceremony. They hear about the work of the Black Panthers from former member Cheryl Dawson.

They also go camping, learn to set up tents, and journal about how they’ve changed since school started. Their feelings of empowerment grow, replacing doubts about themselves.  

“I used to worry about how I looked,” said Amia. Now she feels proud of her culture. “You don’t have to try to change yourself to make everyone like you.”

The film also stars the group’s two founders, community organizer Anayvette Martinez and educator Marilyn Hollinquest. The organization’s curriculum of building confidence, self-love, power, beauty, independence, and activism is their vision for an alternative scouting club for girls of color.

Martinez first came up with the idea when her daughter Lupita, then a fourth grader, expressed interest in joining the local Girl Scouts troop.

“When I saw what the troop liked like, I said, ‘I don’t think that’s for you,’” Martinez said. She wanted her daughter to be part of a group that focused on issues that specifically affect young women of color, and talked to her daughter about starting a new kind of troop. Lupita was excited about the idea, and kept reminding Martinez, a single mother working 60 hours a week, about pursuing the idea. Martinez knew she needed a partner, and reached out to Hollinquest—the two had met years before at San Francisco State University, where they both obtained graduate degrees in ethnic studies. 

Both are strong females who grew up in conservative families. Martinez was born in San Francisco; her mother was from Nicaragua and her father from El Salvador. In the movie she talked about struggling in school, and being told by a high school counselor that college wasn’t for her. Her father said she should stay home until she got married. Martinez followed her own path, attended UCLA and SFSU, and got into community organizing in a big way, sometimes ruffling the feathers of men who didn’t easily accept females in leadership roles.

Radical Monarch parent Jessica Allen (left) and Monarch Neveah Kelly after the screening of "We Are The Radical Monarchs" at Castro Theater. Photo by Karen Gullo

Radical Monarch parent Jessica Allen (left) and Monarch Neveah Kelly after the screening of "We Are The Radical Monarchs" at Castro Theater. Photo by Karen Gullo

Hollinquest, who is African American, is from a mostly white Tulare County farming town and said she was raised in a Pentecostal, patriarchal, conservative family.

 “Women were in the background,” she said. Looking back, “I would have loved a troop like the Radical Monarchs.” With an undergraduate degree in community studies from UC Santa Cruz, and a masters from SFSU, Hollinquest went into teaching, community organizing, and nonprofit work.

When it was founded in December 2014, the Radical Monarchs was called the Radical Brownies, but the name changed after the Girls Scouts of America said it was causing confusion with its group. The girls who formed the first troop chose the name monarch.

The group’s founding came on the heels of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Eric Garner, after a New York City police officer put him in a headlock. Studying those incidents and the Black Lives Matter movement, and discussing how communities can respond and affect change became the troop’s first unit of inquiry.

“Social justice is optional at schools, but it should be required,” Hollinquest said during a presentation to educators. “If we want to evolve this society we need to teach social justice now.”

The group has earned praise from activists like Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and criticism from Fox News pundits, including one who said the girls should join the Brownies and learn to sew rather than be turned into “little racists.”

The praise is greater than the criticism. The troop has been profiled in The Guardian (reading the piece gave Goldstein Knowlton the idea of making a documentary film about the Monarchs), PBS, SF Weekly, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and The Real. “We Are the Radical Monarchs” premiered in March at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and has been screened at film festivals around the country.

The group has received a multi-year grant from NoVo Foundation (co-founded by Peter Buffett, son of investor Warren Buffett), is hiring new troop leaders, and plans to form new troops in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley.

Martinez and Hollinquest have faced questions about whether an activism group only for girls of color is excluding others. They are unabashed in their commitment to and belief in their vision.

“The reason that we have a separate girls group as opposed to joining the existing ones is because we didn’t see anyone talk about social justice,” said Hollinquest in the film. “And also talk about young women of color’s experiences explicitly, like specifically address them as opposed to doing a general girl culture, all girls’ experience. It’s important to have this.” 

Karen Gullo is a freelance writer and former Associated Press and Bloomberg News reporter covering technology, law, and public policy. She is currently an analyst and senior media relations specialist at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.