Born in 1984 to parents who had immigrated illegally from Nigeria to the U.S. during the previous year, Opal Tometi grew up in Phoenix and attended the University of Arizona-Tucson, where she earned a BA in history and an MA in communications & advocacy. During her college years, Tometi volunteered for an American Civil Liberties Union project that monitored and reported on the activities of “vigilantes” who sought to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the United States.
Tometi later worked as a leasing associate and marketing manager for the Phoenix-based real-estate firm Cowen Commercial from 2006-08; a self-employed public-relations specialist from 2008-10; and a communications & outreach intern for Witness, a group that produced videos designed to draw attention to human-rights violations around the world, for part of 2009. Since January 2011, she has been a national organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), a George Soros–funded group that strives to advance “immigrant rights and racial justice” for “African-American, Afro-Latino, African and Caribbean immigrant communities.” Tometi’s official BAJI profile describes her as “a Black feminist writer, communications strategist and cultural organizer.”
Tometi laments the “relentless discrimination and criminalization” to which African immigrants in the U.S. are subjected on a regular basis. In 2010 she condemned SB 1070, an Arizona law that authorized state police to check with federal authorities on the immigration status of criminal suspects. Characterizing this practice as “basically racial profiling,” Tometi warned that “if we don’t come together, we’re going to see the gains of the Civil Rights Movement fully gutted.”
Tometi similarly views Voter ID laws as racist schemes designed to disenfranchise nonwhite voters.
In 2013, Tometi collaborated with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors to co-found Black Lives Matter (BLM), an online platform designed to stoke black rage and galvanize a protest movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white man who was tried for murder and manslaughter after he had shot and killed a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin in a highly publicized February 2012 altercation.
In 2014, Tometi spoke at the annual Left Forum convention in New York City.
In a February 1, 2015 article which she wrote for the Huffington Post, Tometi asserts that “the racist structures that have long oppressed Black people” in the United States have perpetuated a “cycle of oppression” and a climate of “anti-Black racism” that “operates at a society-wide level and colludes in a seamless web of policies, practices and beliefs to oppress and disempower Black communities.” This racism is evidenced, she explains, by the fact that “every 28 hours a Black person is being killed [by police] with impunity,” “unemployment in Black communities” is significantly higher than in white communities, and “Blacks make up 40% of the imprisoned population” in the U.S. Moreover, Tometi claims, the combination of “divestment from the public sector” and the passage of “laws that criminalize non-violent activity” have led to “obscene rates mass of incarceration” for black people. In the same piece, Tometi charges that her own home state of New York “allows law enforcement to kill Black people at nearly the same rate as Jim Crow lynchings” once occurred in the Old South.
In a similar vein, Tometi’s December 2014 Huffington Post article, titled “Staying Focused in the Movement for Racial Justice,” condemns the “damaging and dangerous life-changing outcomes” that New York City’s “racially biased” criminal-justice system imposes on “communities of color.” The “overwhelming police presence in our neighborhoods,” says Tometi, “wear[s] people down.” In particular, she deplores the so-called “broken windows policing” practices rooted in the premise that cracking down on offenders who commit low-level offenses — such as panhandling, public urination, turnstile jumping, or graffiti vandalism — serves, ultimately, to prevent the commission of more serious crimes. Because blacks comprise a disproportionate percentage of those affected by the enforcement of laws against low-level infractions, Tometi considers those enforcement practices to be racist. “The time is now for real, deep, substantive change,” she writes.
In a January 2015 piece titled “Celebrating MLK Day: Reclaiming Our Movement Legacy,” Tometi calls for the development of a “new” and “radical” contingent of “Black trans people, Black queer people, Black immigrants, Black incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people, Black millennials, Black women, low income Black people, and Black people with disabilities” to lead social-justice activism in the United States.
In 2015 as well, Tometi attended a “People of African Descent Leadership Summit” in Harlem, New York. There, she had a warm meeting and photo-op with Venezuela’s Marxist dictator, Nicolas Maduro, who was in New York not only for the Summit, but also for events at the United Nations General Assembly. During a speech which she delivered at the Leadership Summit, Tometi thanked Maduro and his government for having given her an opportunity to speak there. She also condemned “Western economic policies, land grabs and neocolonial financial instruments like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” Moreover, Tometi quoted Assata Shakur‘s proclamation that “you must fight until all black lives matter.”
On December 3, 2015, Tometi traveled to Venezuela to serve as an election observer. While there, she tweeted: “Currently in Venezuela. Such a relief to be in a place where there is intelligent political discourse.” In 2016, Tometi penned an article in which she said: “[I]n these last 17 years, we have witnessed the Bolivarian Revolution champion participatory democracy and construct a fair, transparent election system recognized as among the best in the world.”
In March 2016, Fortune magazine named Tometi and her two BLM co-founders, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, to its list of the “50 of the most influential world leaders.”
“I absolutely think people are concerned with police brutality. Let me make that absolutely clear. We have been fighting and advocating to stop a war on black lives. And that is how we see it—this is a war on black life. And people understand that this system is filled with all sorts of inequality and injustice, and that implicit bias and just outright racism is embedded in the way that policing is done in this nation—and when you think about it historically, it was founded as a slave patrol. The evolution of policing was rooted in that. People recognize that. So their frustration is absolutely about the policing and the criminal-justice system writ large and the racial dimensions of it, and its lethal impact on our communities.”
In addition to her work with BAJI and BLM, Tometi is also active in a network called Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), which teaches black activists how to help build a “social justice infrastructure.” She is a board member of the Puente Human Rights Movement, a Phoenix-based group that opposes efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigration. And she describes herself as a “believer and practitioner of liberation theology.”
On October 21, 2021, Tometi announced on Twitter that she would thenceforth be known as “Ayo,” which was the middle name she had been given at birth. She explained that in the Yoruba language of Western Africa, “ayo” means “joy.”