Why This 23-Year-Old Asked Celebrities to #OpenYourPurse for the Black Lives Matter Movement – ELLE.com
This past spring, as states went into lockdown and hospitals scrambled to secure enough PPE and space for the onslaught of COVID-19 patients, celebrities retreated into their multi-million dollar homes, mysteriously snagged hard-to-come-by coronavirus tests, and made jokes about how quarantine felt like “jail.” Maybe most notably, in the way that cringe-y social media gaffes have become notable, Gal Gadot and her cohort of colleagues took to Instagram with a pieced-together version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What was intended to be inspirational ended up feeling like a confusing display of goodwill, especially when you considered that the people in the video have the sort of funds and power that could actually make a difference times of crisis.
There have, of course, been those who attempted to use their fame for good. But as COVID-19 spread and unemployment rose—all while the usual glamorous outlets for celebrities disappeared—the sparkly celebrity bubble seemed to shift. Then, as the Black Lives Matter movement rightfully took over headlines in late May, 23-year-old Evelyn Atieno decided enough was enough. While organizers and activists went out into the streets—prepared to put their bodies on the line for justice—and reached into their pandemic-strapped wallets to make donations, some of the celebrities she saw online were doing the opposite.
Courtesy of Evelyn Atieno
In a now-viral Twitter thread, Atieno began calling out some of the celebrities she saw making inappropriate or uninformed comments, especially those condemning looters. “A lot of celebrities are like, ‘Please don’t. That’s not the right thing to do. Don’t tear down a building,’” Atieno told ELLE.com. “When I saw all of those celebrity tweeting these dumb things, I was like, ‘OK. At this point, don’t open your mouth. Just open your purse.’”
With that, her #OpenYourPurse initiative began, and she started reaching out to celebrities asking them to give back to the communities that support them. Atieno, who started the by-teens-for-teens Affinity magazine when she was just 16, explains that you need three things to fight racial injustice and oppression: Purse, petition, and protest. As for that first P: “People are suffering, yet those same people who have been unemployed have been the ones donating,” she says. To her, it only made sense to encourage celebrities to do the same, especially those—like Justin Bieber—who have admitted to profiting from Black culture. “I’m not asking them to make a statement. The statements are so empty and do nothing. If you’re not going to really help, at least donate to people who are protesting for your rights and really on the frontline.”
Some of her asks have resulted in real, tangible change. On Instagram, Atieno revealed what’s been happening in her DMs, including discussions with JT, from the duo City Girls, about supporting mutual aid funds and Black-owned businesses, and a conversation with Queen Naija that ended in her donating $5,000 to the GoFundMe set up for Breonna Taylor’s family.
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Atieno also appreciates the celebrities who didn’t need a push to start showing up for the fight, pointing out that Drake donated before people asked him to and celebrities like Halsey were out protesting for days. (A number of other celebrities have also announced large-dollar donations and surely even more have given privately.) “That’s really good. It’s what they’re supposed to do. I don’t understand people who criticize me for saying, ‘We need to donate,’ when there are celebrities who do it without anybody having to tell them.”
Atieno, who works in digital strategy and has been running Affinity from her home in Washington D.C. during the pandemic, says she hopes Black Lives Matter will continue to be more than “just a phrase” and that #OpenYourPurse will help end obsessive celebrity culture and instead inspire fans to hold people accountable. And as we go longer and longer without award shows and red carpets, she hopes people start lionizing a different kind of star—the local protestors and organizers making an impact in their communities. “Those should be the celebrities. Those should be the heroes.”
Madison is a staff writer at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture.
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