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Voice of change: How Akron native Rachel Cargle became a globally known activist, author and speaker

Rachel Cargle
Posted at 5:46 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 19:22:00-04

AKRON, Ohio — As a young child questioning the ins and outs of the world, Rachel Cargle knew early on that her voice carried power.

Growing up in Green, Ohio, a predominantly white suburb, Cargle was subjected to see the stark differences her Blackness carried in the world.

“I grew up in a poor neighborhood that was surrounded by wealthy white people, essentially, and that gave me a very particular perspective where I recognized what privilege I didn't have,” Cargle said.

But Cargle’s experiences, which would later help lead her to the position she’s in now, were also an inspiration, in a sense.

“It gave me an opportunity to see what was possible. I wasn't surrounded only by one thing in which I didn't feel like I could get out of it. I was seeing things that wouldn't have been automatically available to me, whether it was friends taking me on vacations with them or just visiting people's homes and saying, ‘Wow, this is something that is an option at some point,’ whether I knew it was for me or not,” Cargle said.

Cargle’s journey is one that has paved the way for her to become a globally recognized author, speaker, activist and philanthropist—working to make the world a more inclusive place for all while also giving back right here at home.

Early experiences

Rachel C

After her eighth grade year at Green Middle School, Cargle enrolled at Hoban High School where her strong will and influential voice was really set into motion.

“I remember when I got to high school at Hoban, though it wasn't based around social justice per se, I was always known to fight for what I wanted, whether it was a varsity spot on the soccer team or I remember telling teachers that I didn't feel like they were giving me the type of education that I deserved,” Cargle said. “That was a lot of training, of me learning my voice and feeling like I deserved to be heard. That pushed me into the social justice space once I became an adult.”

Seeing the differences in education from one community to another while also understanding the differences in treatment between her and some of her peers set the course for Cargle’s journey to activism and philanthropy.

“It wasn't until I became an adult that I really started questioning all the things that existed at the intersection of my race and my womanhood,” Cargle said.

After graduating high school, Cargle spent six years in the Air Force National Guard where she would continue to unveil the inequity of the ways of the world and her position in it.

“There's so much injustice happening within the military. That gave me a lot of insight into the ways that the structures that, in America, we expect to protect us, or we expect to uphold some sort of values that we believe, for some reason, are woven into the fabric of and they simply aren't,” Cargle said. “And so that definitely gave me a lot of the insight I needed into being more critical about these organizations and not automatically trusting that they're serving the people. And we're definitely seeing—we've always seen that in the military. We're obviously, again, seeing it highlighted—it's always been there within the police force—and I think that gave me a lot of specific insight.”

Cargle’s cognizance into inequity and injustice was expanded when she moved to Washington D.C. and began nannying. Helping tend to children from both very wealthy white families and very wealthy Black families, Cargle saw racial inequities even across social classes.

“I was a nanny for many, many families. A lot of very wealthy white families, a lot of very wealthy Black families. And seeing how capitalism plays into this conversation a lot as well, particularly thinking about maternal mortality and the ways that Black women—no matter how much money they make, no matter how good their insurance is—they still are dying at higher rates than white women who might be in high school and have a high school degree and not have insurance,” Cargle said.

In fact, maternal mortality rates are approximately three higher for Black women than they are for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Disparities like maternal mortality rates in the United States are just one of many issues Cargle has been inspired to address and help solve after seeing the inequality firsthand.

“Witnessing the ways that Black people really can't outsmart their way out of racism, no matter what your degree is, when you walk out of the door, you're seen as a Black person and that affects how you can move through the world,” Cargle said.

After spending time in Washington D.C., Cargle moved to New York City—and that’s where her growth into a globally recognized activist and academic figurehead truly took off.

A picture’s worth 1,000 words

In the Big Apple, Cargle’s voice began to evolve into action and she found herself growing increasingly vocal about the issues of social injustice and racial inequity in this country.

“I moved to New York City, and I was recognizing that my race was playing a much bigger role, particularly in intersection with gender. And it was something that I couldn't not talk about,” Cargle said. “My time in New York really put me into a lot of more on the ground organizing, a lot more educating of myself and amongst my friends.”

Turning her words and ideas into action and movements, Cargle found herself back in Washington D.C. at the the 2017 Women’s March, one of, if not the, largest single-day demonstrations in recorded U.S. history.

Cargle and her friend Dana chartered a bus and brought around 40 people to the march with them, clad with signage pointing out important messages to be shared with the crowd.

“We were holding up signs that said ‘If you don't fight for all women, you fight for no women’ and also demanding that marginalized groups be centered in the feminist movement,” Cargle said. “And that photo went viral and a lot of majority-white spaces and people were cheering it on.”

Shared by sites such as Refinery29 and Huffington Post, the photo began to garner Cargle a lot of recognition, admiration and praise for the message she was sending.

“We got a lot of affirmation. Cheers. 'Yes, girl' type of situation where people were very in agreement with us,” Cargle recalled.

But what happened next is what sparked Cargle’s journey into “doing the work.”

A few months after the photo had gone viral, Cargle’s moment at the Women’s March was shared again by Afro Punk, a predominantly Black publication and platform, but this time, Cargle didn’t receive the same kind of response.

“I got a very different response. It was a lot of 'Why would you ever be part of the feminist movement?' 'How could you trust that white woman next to you?' 'Don't you know the history?' And I really started to question and trust that they were trying to give me information that I clearly wasn't privy to,” Cargle said. “And so I started to do my own research and kind of became fairly autodidactic in trying to understand what the history was of the feminist movement and how my race might play into that.”

Cargle made it her mission to educate herself into the deeper history behind the feminist movement and how it intersects with race—both in the past and within the current movement.

“What I found was a lot of very murky waters around this feminist movement that I thought was laying this path for me to have some type of empowerment as a woman without really taking into consideration how being a Black woman in particular played into that. And as soon as I realized things like seeing that Ida B. Wells was made to march in the back of the suffragette line, to see that a lot of the lauded leaders of the feminist movement, looking at Susan B. Anthony, they were saying things like, ‘If you give women the right to vote, white supremacy will be upheld and not diminished.’ And these types of things that made it clear that this movement wasn't really to be included with Black women, that Black women were foot soldiers to make it happen, but they weren't really being considered as people to benefit from it.”

These revelations made Cargle investigate and learn more about history, finding a deeper truth to the stories that have been forgotten in the modern retellings while also continuing her message of racial, sexual and gender equality. Knowing that her social audience was predominantly white, both from growing up in suburban Ohio and her journeys through life, Cargle made it her mission to use her platform to educate.

“I realized that if I didn't know these things, then there were a lot of other people who didn't know these things. And for my literal safety, and the safety of a lot of Black women and girls around the world, I needed to be in conversation with my world, which was a lot of times majority white. And so I started talking about it on social media. I started studying, kind of sharing what I was learning,” Cargle said. “And I started to gain lots of followers from that. And I quickly jumped from 10K to 375K. And now I am at 1.8 million. And it's been an ongoing space of community and conversation to be more critically about how we show up in the world.”

With a now-massive platform, Cargle’s already influential voice began reaching millions of people around the world and opened up opportunities for her work to grow.

A voice heard ‘round the world.

Since her platform began to take off, Cargle has carved a space for herself as one of the most prominent and up-and-coming activists working to reshape the United States and the world as a whole.

Cargle has shared her message on the TEDx stage and has held public lectures, titled “Unpacking White Feminism,” on top campuses including Yale and Harvard. The Washington Post, Glamour Magazine, PopSugar and Essence have all featured her work.

From being spotlighted in educational specials with the cast of Orange is the New Black to a collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton to joining a conversation on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk, Cargle’s work and voice have become globally recognizable. Cargle even joined Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan Markle on a special Time100 Talks.

Cargle’s quick but hard-earned success has reached great heights, but that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her Northeast Ohio roots.

Back here at home

Rachel Cargle Elizabeth's Akron

While the issues Cargle is working to bring awareness and change to are seen across the country, they also have an impact here in Northeast Ohio.

Societal issues, such as the continued effect of redlining, the preschool to prison pipeline, maternal mortality and educational inequity are all impacting the Northeast Ohio area to this day.

“There's a quote that I often share on my Instagram that says 'Maybe you manifested it or maybe it's your white privilege.' And it's a lot of conversation rooted in that statement around what generational wealth and what generational opportunity looks like,” Cargle said.

That generational opportunity, Cargle said, can be seen in the educational system and funding for schools which, when not addressed, continues to create divides, particularly in areas of redlining.

“We're having conversations right now about education funding, which is determined by tax dollars in any particular area. And if we think, 'It seems like white schools seem to have more resources and Black schools don't. And what does that look like? Is it the parents’ fault? Is this people simply not caring?' But if we think about what generational wealth looks like and considering that white families were able to buy the things that give you wealth property," Cargle said. "Those were able to be passed down to generations, that someone might not have had to pay a mortgage in their lifetime because a house was passed down to them, which meant they could pour it into their child's education. It's a continuous domino effect of privilege and opportunity. And it's the same on the other side where it's this domino effect of oppression and inequality that if I wasn't able to purchase a house, then I wouldn't be able to build that wealth for my children to go to school.”

Some of those stark differences in Cleveland were outlined by CNN’s “United Shades of America” last year.

“When we look at Northeast Ohio and where I grew up and how I exist there, and to go back home and see the ways that people are having these heartbreaking conversations about feeling stuck or feeling like they'll never get an opportunity to move, it's really everyone's responsibility to educate themselves and each other on how these systems can be unraveled," Cargle said. "What that looks like is a lot of sharing of resources. If you have more resources than you might need or you have some that you can give away, that needs to be put into communities that have been oppressed for long, long, decades, many, many generations in order to alleviate that pain and that frustration and that oppression that essentially white people are benefiting from that happened in the past.”

Cargle understands the pushback from people who see her work and her suggestions and think to themselves, “Well, I didn't own a slave” or “I didn't lynch anyone, so why am I responsible?”

“The responsibility is in being a little more critical and recognizing that people of color are still grappling with a lot of the pain that their ancestors had to deal with. And white people are continuing to benefit from the things that were done to make sure they were secure. That includes bringing over people of African descent to work to build a country that they're living in and thriving in, in most cases,” Cargle said. “I think it has to do a lot with a framework that I teach of knowledge, empathy and action. And knowledge is really rooted in learning information that isn't always white-centered. Look for books that are written by people of color who are telling their own stories, that isn't giving you a whitewashed version. As we know, if the hunter writes the story, he'll always be the hero. We deserve to hear the lion's story.”

While it’s up to the individual to educate themselves and desire the knowledge to help bring change to racial and social inequities in the world and Northeast Ohio, Cargle’s latest venture has made it that much easier for those in the area to begin “doing the work.”

In September, Cargle opened a pop-up bookstore in Akron called Elizabeth’s Bookshop and Writing Centre. Located inside Compass Coffee on East Market Street, Elizabeth’s catalog features writers “often excluded from traditional cultural, social, and academic canons.”

Elizabeth's Bookshop and We

In the bookstore, guests can delve into history from a perspective they may have never experienced, allowing the community to see the world, and themselves in new, life-altering ways.

“I went to the Akron Public Library religiously. It was one of the best parts of my childhood. And bookstores have always been a meaningful part of how I exist in the world. So being able to open Elizabeth's in general, but particularly in Akron, was really, really special,” Cargle said. “Knowing that there were many other Black children, particularly little Black girls, who might be reflective of my own experience, who deserved an opportunity to walk up to a bookshelf and see many versions of them, not just a little corner that was for people of color.”

At Elizabeth’s, you won’t only find books on Black history, or be subjected to only see the Black experience through the lens of Black trauma. Instead, readers can find books, written by people of color, about a plethora of topics and interests.

“Black people don't just write about surviving whiteness or write about race. There's Black biologists who are writing incredible books, there are Black surfers who are sharing their stories. There's artists and architects who all have really meaningful things to share. And we see them in these books. And so it's exciting to have a place that celebrates marginalized voices,” Cargle said.

Cargle’s bookstore also features writing workshops with local writers spreading their work and their message to people all around the world.

What’s next?

Rachel Cargle

As Cargle continues to educate and share her message on her high traffic social platforms, she also is working on her upcoming book “I Don’t Want Your Love and Light” which examines “feminism through the lens of race and how we are in relationships with ourselves and one another.”

Cargle also continues the work with her fund “The Loveland Foundation” which helps Black women and girls gain access to therapy and has been featured by The Obama Foundation, Lady Gaga, James Blake, Solange and designer Christian Cowan.

A percentage of all sales from Cargle’s bookstore also goes to The Loveland Foundation.

As Cargle continues to inspire change around the world, she is also working to make sure her hometown evolves and grows as well.

She hopes that, through Elizabeth’s and other accessible resources, Northeast Ohioans can begin to reflect and learn about ways to make this place a better land for everyone.

“I think it starts with curiosity, a genuine curiosity in asking yourself 'What don't I know and what could I find out?' And even if you don't know what you're looking for, being able to—I call it knowledge grazing—being able to knowledge graze things that you might not even know you have interest in,” Cargle said. “You might find connections to your own story and why a particular issue is important to you. Or you simply realize that you haven't read a book that shares the Black experience that wasn't rooted in trauma and you might need to pick up something that is rooted in our joy and rooted in innovation and rooted in a lot of the good things. And so it's really questioning yourself, questioning the world and being willing to explore the possibility of how we exist with each other.”

While she continues to grow her platform and spread her message of growth and change in the world of social justice and feminism, Cargle is happy to be a beacon of knowledge and education—and a bearer of better days for so many around the world and back here at home.

“When I'm walking through Akron and someone recognizes me and they say, ‘Oh, I was able to go to therapy because of your fund,' that is the most meaningful thing to know that what I do doesn't just live with me and what I do doesn't just live with one generation,” Cargle said. “As we continue to heal, to learn, to understand, the world will continue in hopefully sharing that with the people in our lives. And so really, the future of me is the future of how we're all continuing to heal and learn and show up for each other. And I'm very, very grateful for that.”