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Alumni Stories


Michelle Antoinette Nelson ’03

A Conversation with an Activist

Michelle Antoinette Nelson ‘03, poet and advocate, is the founder and CEO of Brown and Healthy, a global health and wellness initiative formed out of the countless and traumatic police killings of Black people.

How many years have you been an activist?
I've been an activist for 24 years.

How do you define activism?  
Identifying a social injustice or a systemic issue and working toward fixing it or dismantling it, while motivating others to join in the work or the fight with you.

What triggered your interest in activism?  
The year was 1996 and I was a sophomore in high school when I had my first real moment of clarity about what the world expected of me as an American born woman of African descent. My high school was predominantly white. I was in homeroom and it was time to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I decided that I was no longer going to say the pledge nor stand up for it because there was a part in it that just was not true, at least not for me and the people who looked like me. So, when it was time to say it, I didn’t stand. My white teacher decided that she was going to make me stand. She yelled across the classroom, "Michelle, you need to say the pledge!" The word about what happened spread and before I knew it, I sparked a movement. Other teens followed my lead and did not stand for the pledge. That's when I realized that standing in what you believe in will spark real change and affect people's perceptions and their lives forever. 

Michelle Antoinette Nelson

What issue/s do you champion?
I deal with eradicating the negative narratives that plague the Black community in America and cripple our mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. I also work to eradicate 'colorism' across the African diaspora.

How did you begin your activity on this/these issue/s?
I started as an arts activist. I founded the longest running monthly open mic in Baltimore City called BE FREE Fridays. It's 14 years old. There we cultivated some of the world's greatest performance poets/spoken word artists and helped effectively shift the negative narrative around Black people in our city by creating a space for expression, resistance, and growth among ourselves, in our community. Once I realized I could only do so much from a stage and from behind a microphone I founded Brown and Healthy, an initiative that goes beyond opinions about our lives "mattering" and lands at the absolute undeniable truth, which is, that "we exist." 

What effective skills do you need to be an activist?
Listening and critical thinking

Imagine you are speaking to a room filled with younger women thinking about getting involved in social activism. What advice would you give them based on your experience?
I would tell them to listen to their hearts and trust their instincts. If there is something you believe in study it; and find people who can work with you. Also, the small victories are what will keep you going. Celebrate each one.

For more information about Brown and Healthy visit


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