We often don’t think of love as a radical act. From varying depictions of love in cheesy early 2000s rom–coms to the complex love we hold for our friends, our family, or even ourselves, love is something that is shared with another. But what does it mean to have love for a community—to practice love and care through advocacy and collective action?

In her work, author and feminist scholar bell hooks often writes about the importance of centering love in social justice. She explains that there has long been a societal obsession and longing for love, but also a deep cynicism toward it. Love is increasingly cast aside as empty sentimentality, reserved only for the naive and hopelessly romantic, not movements for social justice. But hooks argues that it is precisely these spaces that have strongly emphasized a “love ethic” in their work. Particularly in a country that prides itself on ideals of rugged individualism, there is power in choosing to move instead with care and compassion for one’s community.

Love isn’t expressed with ambivalence or complacency toward the status quo; it’s firm in its resistance while unafraid to envision a better collective future. As articulated in the words of bell hooks herself, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom.” 

For Racial Justice Organizing, The West Philly Bunny Hop, and VietLead—three Philadelphia grassroots organizations—love is the cornerstone of the work that they do in their communities.

Racial Justice Organizing is a coalition of activists working toward the abolition of racism and white supremacy in schools and communities. Its work ranges from various mutual aid initiatives to antiracism trainings, and is grounded in supporting Black and brown students in the city of Philadelphia. 

Clarice Brazas, a core organizer at Racial Justice Organizing, has been working with the group since she moved to Philadelphia five years ago. Brazas says that the organization’s work is very local—all of the coalition members are centered in Philly, and many of them are educators or former educators in the School District of Philadelphia. For years, Racial Justice Organizing has called attention to the need for radical changes in the education system and beyond, pushing for the district to hire and retain more educators of color and to develop clear policies for protecting students and staff when incidents of racism happen in schools. 

Brazas also explains that a fundamental part of Racial Justice’s work is based on the understanding that Black lives matter—not just in the sense of the political movement, but also in practice within education. She points to the many ways racism manifests itself in schools, from the school–to–prison pipeline to how students across the United States are denied learning about Black history.

Every year in the first week of February, the group hosts a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Philadelphia schools, inspired by the Day of Action led by Seattle educators in 2016. Although the event started in Philadelphia, the Black Lives Matter Week of Action is now a growing national event.

In many ways, love is what brought Brazas to the Racial Justice Organizing community, and what has continued to drive her in her work. “When I entered the organizing [space] for the very first Black Lives Matter Week of Action that I was involved in, I wanted to be there because it was very clear that it was such a loving, caring environment,” Brazas says. “I think a lot of that is because many of our core leaders are strong Black women, who at the root of their work [center] love.” 

Like much of the work that Racial Justice Organizing does—which centers the needs of its communities—Brazas sees love as “finding ways to provide for others, and working together to create a system where people can provide for each other.” 

At the same time, Brazas acknowledges that the idea of “love” can be a double–edged sword. There is a danger that love can be manipulated to prevent people from setting necessary boundaries or prioritizing health and rest. “I think we see this a lot in education. We do it because we love the students, so that means we work longer hours than we might need to.” The same is true for organizing—it’s easy for people to become burnt out when they aren’t given the space to take a step back if they’re exhausted and drained, Brazas explains. 

She argues that it’s important to find joy in organizing work, while also taking the time to have breaks. For Brazas and other leaders at Racial Justice Organizing, this can be as simple as having a meal together or joining a reading group to discuss the books they’ve been enjoying. “[This] time is really valuable as well … [it’s] time to build yourself up, to build your knowledge, and to keep building community,” she says.

However, Brazas ultimately sees love as a crucial force in activism. She argues that the potentiality of love is often downplayed because it’s so motivating and powerful. “The more [that] people have [love] at their core, the more they’re willing to risk and the more they're willing to do,” Brazas says, which becomes very dangerous for the oppressive institutions that groups like Racial Justice organize against.

Love can be expressed with resistance, but also with transformation. The work to dismantle systemic racism also involves envisioning a world that can be built from the ground up. For any world that Brazas hopes for, she wants that future to be founded on love. Specifically in schools, Brazas imagines what education could look like if classrooms weren’t overcrowded, and were instead composed of close, intimate groups where teachers would have the time and resources to really get to know their students. She wonders how conflicts could be resolved if they were to be addressed by mental health counselors instead of police, and what could be cultivated if students saw themselves reflected in culturally responsive curricula that affirms their lives and experiences.

In her work with Racial Justice Organizing, Brazas recognizes how interwoven systems like racism, capitalism, and patriarchy are, and how “at the root of all these things is the goal of dividing people. … I think love [instead] calls for us to be interlinked and dependent on each other.”

Photo courtesy of Racial Justice Organizing

The West Philly Bunny Hop’s mantra, “Free Food for the People,” aptly describes what the organization is all about. Launched in 2020 by co–founders Jena Harris and Katie Briggs, the community–funded and led mutual aid network arose out of necessity from the COVID–19 pandemic—deriving from the chaotic breakdown of supply chains, unreliable access to food and resources in stores, and for many, serious economic hardships. In these circumstances, Bunny Hop started organizing food distribution pop–ups throughout Philadelphia, initially focused in West Philly due to the locale of most of its volunteers, and then expanded to different parts of the city. The distributions typically take place in parks and public green spaces, but they’ve also been hosted in front of local businesses and people’s front porches. The site locations are organized with various considerations, including the level of traffic of people moving through the area and its accessibility.  

Chris Kane, a volunteer and core administrator at The West Philly Bunny Hop, shares that the organization’s work has taken multiple forms. Volunteers would come together every week to cook around 300 to 500 meals for ready–to–go distributions, and at one point, they would also deliver fresh produce boxes to people’s homes. But Bunny Hop is now leaning into a more decentralized form of work. Kane explains that part of this decision was “realizing that we don't have to be the only ones doing the work, we don't have to be at the center of the work. … It never should be that way.” 

The mutual aid network continues to organize food distributions, but it has also been important for it to assess and address gaps in need. This means focusing on expanding Philadelphia’s existing community fridge network so that areas with a lower concentration of fridges, such as Northwest and Northeast Philly, are properly resourced. Ultimately, Bunny Hop is working to empower people to take action for themselves and see where they can plug into food access work in their communities. The group particularly helps with logistical support for those that are interested in hosting their own neighborhood pop–up distributions.

Kane says that Bunny Hop is guided by the belief that everyone deserves access to free and nourishing food, no questions asked. “Under capitalism, we have seen that the way food is distributed … the way basic human need, in terms of resources, [is] distributed is inherently flawed,” they explain. In their work, Bunny Hop strives to get people what they need in the immediate, while recognizing the need for systemic change. 

For Bunny Hop, working to provide an unconditional source of food for people is an act of love. Regardless of lived experience or circumstance, everyone is welcome to come to them for a meal. This is the central belief that drives the organization to lead its work with compassion and care. 

This year, the group hopes to establish three new community fridges in different parts of the city that are regularly stocked, and create a zine on how people can get involved with food access and mutual aid work—collaborating directly with volunteers and other community groups to compile resources on what practices have worked for them.

Rather than sticking to a single form of organizing, Bunny Hop embraces the prospect of collaborating with each other and with different mutual aid groups to envision the many directions in which their work could lead them. “We are responding to the dynamic needs of the community,” Kane emphasizes, “and making sure that those needs are for and by the community.”

VietLead seeks to empower its communities through healing and challenging systems of power. Based in Philadelphia and South Jersey, the organization works primarily with Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in those cities, organizing around food sovereignty, health, youth, civic engagement, and community defense work. Through both direct action and political education, VietLead’s initiatives aim to develop leadership, political power, and self–determination with the communities it works with. 

For Jamie–Claire Chau, the youth projects manager at VietLead, the group’s mission is fundamentally driven by answering the question: “What does it mean to keep our communities safe when policies and our country’s leaders don’t?” Witnessing how money and capital continued to be prioritized over human lives during the pandemic, VietLead mobilized to organize vaccine clinics, distribute information on community health, and care for those in quarantine. 

In its community defense work, the organization has spearheaded anti–deportation campaigns and pushed for the release of Southeast Asian community members detained by ICE and at risk of facing deportation. VietLead explicitly identifies love as the driving force behind its organizing efforts. The love that its has for its communities, and the dedication to care and protect one another, is what strengthens its commitment to its advocacy.

Chau shares that they’ve learned and reflected a great deal about love through their own organizing work. “When I first started getting into social justice movement work, I don't think I was driven by love,” she says, “I think I was driven by anger and sorrow.” Chau, however, acknowledges that anger and grief are important pieces of advocacy as well. They explain that anger is what happens when we recognize the forces of oppression that we’re confined to, and it’s the energy that pushes us to dismantle these systems—but it doesn’t end there. “I had to learn very quickly, especially from VietLead, that if you only fight against injustice, you may have broken the chains, but you still haven't learned how to dance.”

Being driven by love means helping to build a foundation for a world that is restorative. “We're not trying to build an island, we're trying to transform the world that we [are] currently in. And that doesn't happen by disposing people,” Chau says. They recognize that many community members, parents, siblings, and cousins aren’t always aligned with VietLead’s beliefs and values. This doesn’t make them unworthy of learning or being invited to work with them in building a better future, but it necessitates setting limits—choosing to center and support those that are, and could be, harmed. According to Chau, this culture of care has been built within VietLead with the understanding that “what we’re trying to transform is holistic persons, not just material conditions.”

Especially in its youth programming work, Chau has witnessed how love can be transformative. VietLead works with youth who are queer, who are transgender, who grew up hating their racial identity or feeling disconnected from their ethnic backgrounds, she shares, and what has been the most energizing and heartening part of their work is seeing these youth truly “celebrate the wholeness of themselves.” Chau likens this to a ripple effect: Witnessing love can touch across generations and mobilize people to also be guided by these values of collective care. 

Photo courtesy of VietLead

Grassroots organizations like Racial Justice Organizing, The West Philly Bunny Hop, and VietLead emphasize the importance of care in the work that they do. Their love for their communities is ultimately what grounds their vision for collective liberation—in building movements for social transformation and affirming our commitments to one another. 

Love is leading with compassion; it’s practicing what bell hooks called the art of loving: forming collaborative relationships based on care, trust, and responsibility.

Toward the last few moments of our conversation, Chau reflects on what organizing with a “love ethic” has meant for them. “Practicing love … [is] building our ability to imagine and empathize for people that we can’t see, for people that we’ve never met. … Love is being able to imagine [with them] what healing and thriving [can] look like.”