Having fled war-torn Liberia as a child, Kula Koenig understands that the freedom to speak out against injustice is just that, freedom.
“Seeing dead bodies, seeing people with guns coming at you, having no place to live or be. You just didn’t have any control,” she shared.
“There wasn’t even a mechanism to speak out. A civil war broke out and one night you have to run out of your home. There’s no control. There’s no speaking out, there’s no going to a council meeting or going to a Board of Supervisors meeting. Not even close,” she said.
Fast forward to today and Ms. Koenig does in fact voice her dissatisfaction with the ways of the world, Sacramento specifically. Hers is a familiar name and face at local meetings. From defunding the police to the County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, if there is an issue that impacts the Black community and there is an opportunity to give public comment, she’s there. And she often leaves officials “shook.”
“For me it’s about control,” she shared. “Being able to have some level of control over your life and politics affect our lives, so if you can understand what’s going on politically and know how to share your voice and go through the system effectively, that’s you having some sort of control over your life and what happens. It’s empowering.”
Community work and activism started for her when she collected money from the residents of her apartment complex for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in junior high school.
“It sounds corny, but I don’t know how else to put it,” Ms. Koenig said. “People helped me and I legit, would not be where I am today if people didn’t help me.”
In her “day job,” Ms. Koenig serves as Director of Impact for the United Way California Capital Region directing its Square One project, an initiative to end poverty through education. She previously acted as government relations director for the American Heart Association and district director for former Assemblymember Roger Dickinson.
“My previous jobs have allowed me to understand one, about campaigns and how people run for political office, how they look for money, who they look for money from, what they think about when they’re doing their platforms, and how to run, but then being on the inside working for an elected official, also knowing how staff is and how the system works inside government and be able to navigate those things and also working with community groups.
“It’s helped me to be an organizer which is what I am at my core, an organizer for social justice. Organizing people to come together to say, ‘hey how can we create this big force to be more socially just. To do that, you have to have a fundraising background, a campaign background, a policy background. In addition to having the passion, these other things help you to be successful. The jobs that I’ve done before have been in all of those areas. They’ve really allowed me to do that.”
Calling for change comes with some opposition from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. More surprising, Ms. Koenig says, is the pushback she’s gotten from those she considered to be allies in the work.
“There’s a certain level that people who call themselves progressives are willing to go to, but then when it comes to really thinking about how we fund the police instead of community-based programs, how we really want to dismantle these systems, that’s when these people start to say, ‘oh no you’ve gone too far.’”
Because she is unapologetically vocal in calling out people and “weak policies,” there are people who no longer pick up the phone when Ms. Koenig calls them.
“It is what it is,” she said.
“What I’m fortunate for is that I have a huge community of people who help each other and we send each other love in these moments when we may be getting push back and people are not willing to play ball with us,” she shared.
Harnessing the power of that community of social justice activists, Ms. Koenig launched Social Justice PolitiCorps, which she calls “her baby,” in July 2020. The group plans to put on an annual social justice report card to inform the community on where elected officials stand when it comes to social justice issues. A passion for seeing Black women in positions to influence policy led her to also start a separate group, a political action committee called Social Justice Now.
“I understand that money plays a big part in politics, so we need to be able to raise money to support candidates who care about social justice issues,” Ms. Koenig said.
“You need both. You need the education arm and you need the money arm. I also know this game,” she continued.
The game can leave players tired and weary. Burnout is real, said Ms. Koenig, who is also the immediate past president of the Sacramento chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA).
She relies on her community of other social justice advocates who have literally had her back on low times. There are days when she simply has to turn off her cell phone and put it, and herself, on do not disturb mode. It’s necessary for her to reset, reboot and be sane for the work that remains, she says.
“Before I leave this earth, I want to know that I have pushed myself to the max to create social justice in my community. I would be happy with that, knowing that I did all that I could to bring about it more socially just Sacramento, or if I move somewhere else, a more socially just X, Y and Z place.
“When I’ve shied away from that is when I’ve been really unhappy with my life. Even though it’s stressful and all of that, I know that I’m living my purpose.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE