Yavilah McCoy has been channeling Queen Esther lately as she described navigating power and privilege as a Jewish woman leader of color. The noted Boston-based social justice activist knows a thing or two about inhabiting difficult spaces and initiating complicated conversations across her communities. “Taking seriously the questions of why I’ve been placed in particular positions of access and who that access makes me accountable to sits with me all the time given the intersectional identities I hold,” she told JewishBoston in a wide-ranging conversation.
McCoy was most recently in the spotlight as one of the Jewish leaders of the 2019 Women’s March. Her appearance, along with April Baskin and Abby Stein, drew admiration, criticism and confusion in equal measure. McCoy described the story of Esther as having deep connections to her own story. “One of the things about Esther is that she was both privileged and oppressed simultaneously,” she said. “Her position as queen provided her with access to the king and an opportunity to speak truth to power on behalf of her people. Her position also required her to hide her Jewish identity.”
McCoy pointed out that she was also in Washington, D.C., at the Women’s March leading the Jewish delegation in 2017 with Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women. Five million women came out in 2017 to assert their values regarding the direction our country was taking. Two years later, McCoy said these same women “have an even greater need for justice.”
McCoy does not shy away from issues of anti-Semitism that were raised during the 2019 Women’s March or in the Black Lives Matter movement. She is forthright, smart and strategic. Most important, she said that to understand and address the pain of prejudice and, yes, anti-Semitism, “People will need to recover their deepest sense of their humanity in relationships. All of my work is based in relationship-building. And the first thing I ask people to do is to agree to be proximate to one another.”
McCoy is president and CEO of a non-profit she founded called Dimensions Educational Consulting. She works closely with groups including Hillel International, Bend the Arc and The Mandela Institute in South Africa. Perhaps among the most controversial things she does is to show up wherever she is called as a Jew and as a woman of color activist. She recalled a time when she was on a panel at Harvard University that addressed issues of racial justice and the civil rights movement. Hillel International would not participate in the program with Dorothy Zellner, a prominent supporter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement on the panel.
“I agreed to sit on the panel with Dorothy Zellner, and two local Baptist ministers and activists, Dr. Weldon McWilliams and the Rev. Willie Bodrick, discussing our common history and commitments to the struggle for civil rights,” McCoy said. “Through my participation, Hillel symbolically came back to the table. This was a great example of what can be accomplished in relationship. My forte is to create a context and a container that can hold courageous conversations that center the need for faith and justice.”
It should come as no surprise that McCoy has had what can be regarded as difficult and arguably courageous conversations with Tamika Mallory, one of the founders of the Women’s March. McCoy does not shy away from nuanced conversations with Mallory regarding anti-Semitism and has developed a distinct understanding of Mallory’s point of view—an understanding that incorporates “Jewish sisters of color and their conversations about the need to end anti-Semitism in 2019.”
McCoy pointed out that Mallory’s activism comes from the gun violence in her community and her husband’s subsequent murder. McCoy further noted that Mallory’s activist work in communities of color did not bring her into proximity to Jews. These are not excuses for McCoy, but facts. “[Tamika and I] had a conversation about sharing what it’s like to be targeted in bodies with gun violence,” she said. “It’s a point of synergy. Do I feel that as two people of color we need to learn and share more in communities of color regarding dismantling anti-Semitism while standing in solidarity with people who are targeted for oppression? Absolutely.”
McCoy acknowledged that the Nation of Islam (NOI) has a disturbing perspective on Jews, LGBTQ people and women. But she also recognized that NOI helped Mallory recover from her husband’s death. “They cleaned up her community and gave a voice and resource,” she said. “The beginning of her work came from NOI, not directly from Louis Farrakhan.”
As for Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian activist who has had a well-known and troubling relationship with segments of the Jewish community, McCoy said: “I try to hear her humanity. As a Palestinian woman and social justice activist, she’s not going to easily align with anyone who supports Zionism. I listen for what she needs in order to realize a more just and equitable world, and I ask her to listen to what I need in order to work toward the same. In a more just and equitable world, no one gets to denounce the Jewish people. To be in relationship with me is to understand the Jewish people as not being monolithic in our identities, political assignments or values. Many of us have a relationship to Israel that is not about oppression. Israel is called ‘home’ by a multiracial Jewish community, and many of us are already working together to address the need for justice in Israel-Palestine.”
McCoy further stood her ground on staying in the Jewish community. “Leaders in our Jewish community have done and said things that targeted me and my body as a black woman,” she said. “I have made choices over and over to stay in this community despite the racism. In contrast to demanding that our leaders be denounced for the racism and sexism they have exhibited, I and many other Jewish activists that I respect have figured out strategies to engage in ‘teachable moments’ where leaders can listen, learn and change their behavior in accountability to the people and communities they have been empowered to serve.”
Like Queen Esther, McCoy has commanded respect and admiration, as well as attracted controversy over the years. However, as she has described herself over and over, she is a Jewish woman of color who invites everyone to study with her and learn from her.