As protesters poured onto the streets of Boston in early June, When We Disappear author Lise Haines watched with a growing sense of frustration that she could not join them. At risk for the new coronavirus, Haines wanted to support Black Lives Matter, but did not know how to do it. Three weeks later, Haines and five other Boston-area authors are the leaders of Writers Against Racial Injustice, a fundraising coalition that has blown past an initial goal of generating $10,000 in funds to raise more than $55,000 in support of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative.
“After I started my day and opened the newspaper, I was feeling my mood get lower and lower. It was this feeling of utter helplessness,” Haines said. “There are so many of us who are aware of the inequities in our society that never seem to go away, or get a whole lot worse. Something in me snapped.”
When it did, Haines reached out to Strangers in Budapest author Jessica Keener, who has an extensive background in fundraising. Keener leapt at the opportunity and suggested a primarily Facebook-based fundraiser. They swiftly formed a group with Delia Cabe (Storied Bars of New York), Michelle Hoover (Bottomland), Elizabeth Searle (We Got Him), and Rosie Sultan (Helen in Love).
All of the authors have robust social media networks, and like Haines, four were unable to join the protesters because of the risk of coronavirus. With help from Haines’ daughter Siena, they launched the one-month fundraiser on June 4. The $55,000 raised to date, comes from more than 1,000 donors, and the initiative brought in $11,000 on Juneteenth alone.
The first 30 contributors of $100 or more are receiving a signed copy of We Can’t Breathe, an essay collection by Haines and Cabe's Emerson College colleague, Jabari Asim. Two $50 gift cards to the Black-owned Boston-based independent Frugal Bookstore will also be given out. One writer, A Life in Men author Gina Frangello, raised $4,000 for the initiative.
“It’s nice to have a literary community come together for a good cause, elevating the role of writers and the power of language,” Keener said.
Haines and Keener chose EJI in part because of the decades-long dedication of founder Bryan Stevenson, author of the memoir Just Mercy, to dismantling the language that underpins structural racism. “Language is so powerful,” Keener said. “What we tell ourselves and what we tell our friends; the language we use and the words we choose. What are the words we accept and don’t accept? You can take it down to a micro-level. You can take it down to the word. You should.”
Part of what has been effective for the authors is their level of personal engagement, reaching out to small groups of people, sometimes one at a time, to ask them to contribute. “When you consider that there have been at least 1,000 people who have contributed, it reminds me that even the smallest donation really adds up,” Haines said.
With more than a week remaining in their fundraiser, the authors are busy writing thank you notes on Facebook to each donor, but they already have their eyes on the fall, where they hope to engage fellow writers in support of voting rights initiatives, using the same name, Writers Against Racial Injustice.
“We’re not done,” Keener said. “We’re not done.”