Mary Hooks didn’t come from a family of organizers, but she still finds a way to create impactful change when it comes to addressing the pervasive problems plaguing her community. Hooks is an activist with many jobs and titles, but she prefers to be identified as the co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), which she calls her “political home.” Before her advocacy took off, however, Hooks was forced to overcome heartbreaking, life-altering obstacles while growing up in Racine, Wisconsin: She had an absent father, a mother who dealt with homelessness and battled drug addiction, she lived in poverty, and spent several years in foster care. Hooks saw firsthand the impact of the War on Drugs in her community, and knew that if she didn’t find another way to channel her frustrations, it might lead her down a destructive path.
At 14 years old, Hooks made what she considered to be her first “adult decision” by becoming deeply involved in the Pentecostal church as a devoted Christian. The church community brought Hooks comfort and solace, and was a tool that she hoped would prevent her from becoming pregnant or going to jail.
“When I didn’t have a bed, the church mothers would come to me and say, ‘Hey, we heard you don’t have a bed. We got you,’” Hooks said.
Hooks became so devoted to the church, she was even voted “most likely to become the first female pope” in high school. In her teen years, she spent much of her time traveling around with the church, meeting with other churchgoers, and teaching people about her faith and “white Jesus.”
“I would say it was probably one of the first times I organized,” Hooks said. “[I learned about] what it means to bring people in and how to draw people into a thing and be able to minister to peoples’ spirits. That’s something that has never left me and often shows up in the work I do now, because I do believe that organizing is very much spiritual work.”
But when Hooks went off to a private Lutheran college and came out as a lesbian, her sexuality formed a wedge between her and other churchgoers and her relationship with the community shifted.
“It was a horrible coming out,” Hooks said. “And then I began to ask myself, ‘Who am I in relation to the world?’”
In her college years, Hooks began to have several “watershed moments,” which prompted her to question the ways institutionalized racism had affected her community—especially when it came to the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs. At the time, Hooks said she didn’t have the language or the ability to politically analyze situations in order to get answers to her looming questions.
“I was angry, I was upset, and I didn’t know what to do about it,” Hooks said.
Not long after, Hurricane Katrina hit. Hooks was working at Olive Garden at the time, and desperately wanted to go to New Orleans to offer support to hurricane victims, but her employer wouldn’t give her the time off work.
“I remember just trying to make sense of it,” she said. “Natural disasters happen, but [seeing] Black people just being left to die on bridges really messed me up.”
Hooks eventually graduated with her MBA from Strayer University and went on to manage a job training program for formerly incarcerated people. She later transferred over to doing employee relations and human resource work.
All of Hooks’ work came to a head in 2009 during a chance encounter at an Atlanta bar. Hooks, while acting as a “wingman,” approached a woman she was hoping to set up with a friend. That woman turned out to be Paris Hatcher, a board member for SONG and co-executive director for SPARK Reproductive Justice Now.
“She said she was trying to stop the shackling of Black women while giving birth in prison,” Hooks said. “It blew my mind that it was happening, but also that she was doing something about it.”
The pair eventually became friends and Hatcher exposed Hooks to activism and organizing on a new level. Not long after, Hatcher encouraged Hooks to become part of SONG’s six-month mentorship program in Atlanta, which was essentially a “social justice 101” introductory program.
“Real talk: I didn’t understand half the shit they was talking about,” Hooks said. “I didn’t know [about] capitalism, the patriarchy, economic justice, and the history of liberation struggles and movement—particularly those rooted in the South … but I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know everything they’re saying, but I know how it makes me feel. Something feels righteous, something feels like gospel, and this is what I need to be doing.’”
Though Hooks didn’t have a firm grasp of organizing at the time, SONG gave her the opportunity to practice it in real life. She officially became a member of the organization in 2010, and eventually was given the assignment to travel to Alabama to connect with with queer and trans people around the state, listen to their concerns, and offer political education. In 2013, after welcoming her daughter, Hooks was invited to come on staff with SONG full time.
Since then, Hooks hasn’t stopped moving, and in 2015, she became the co-director of the organization. Her day-to-day work involves raising money, maintaining the infrastructure of the organization, and supervising and mentoring staff. She also spends much of her time doing community outreach and pulling people into the organizing space. In 2015, Hooks also became one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Atlanta.
“It is my love for my people, it is my love for my community, it is my love for Black women, [and] my love for future generations that really inspires me to do the work and to go and get this work done,” she said.
Being an organizer can come with its own set of disappointments and setbacks, but Hooks says her resilience and ability to overcome so many traumatic experiences has taught her to persevere and be a survivor.
“Staying angry all the time will burn you out, and there are [many] things to despair because this country, this empire, will always disappoint us,” she said. “I’ve learned what it means to have and have not and to be content in whatever state I find myself in.”
Currently, Hooks is focused on putting projects together to recruit new organizers to advocate for defunding the police. She is also deeply involved with the National Bail Out Collective, so much of her time involves gathering the funds to bail people out of jail. She regularly receives calls from incarcerated people looking for bail money or other resources.
“I usually have a running list of people who are waiting to be bailed out,” she said.
Hooks has vowed to never change her cell phone number so that people who are in trouble always have a way to reach her. Though she advocates for many causes, her primary focus, she says, is Black and queer liberation.
“Those who have been marginalized and oppressed in this country—those are my people,” she said.
Though Hooks has made a name for herself in the organizing space in the South, she hasn’t stopped working to directly help the members of her community—especially those in her neighborhood. In the spring, during a shoot-out in her neighborhood, Hooks’ kitchen was shot up while she was inside the house.
“The guy was literally doing the shooting and I ran out my house and was like, ‘Stop! Just stop. Think about what you’re doing right now,’” Hooks said.
The shooter was touched by Hooks’ words and approached her several days later, telling her, “I want to be doing something else.” Since then, Hooks has been working with the man to find a way to start a tutoring program in their area.
“We know public school ain’t got what our babies need,” Hooks said. “[We’re thinking about] the other infrastructures that can be built … for kids to get basic education. [We want] to be able to invite them to learn about history and learn about all these things that had I known when I was a shorty, I would have been in a different relationship in my community.”
As far as her relationship to the church goes, Hooks still uses many of the tools churchgoers taught her, but says there is “definitely still a distance there.” Still, she has a pastor and makes an effort to pop into some Sunday services from time to time. She’s adamant that while she’s juggling many responsibilities in her personal and professional life, she doesn’t do any of the work alone.
“I have to give a mad shoutout to the village that I’m a part off,” she said. “My daughter is seven years old and [has] three co-parents that hold her down. There’s also all these layers of unity in my family and my political family. There’s always a large amount of support.”