To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV executive Jasmyn Lawson and spiritual adviser Emilia Ortiz, return to the full list here.
Like most of us, Janaya Future Khan, the international ambassador for the Black Lives Matter Network, has slowed down their social life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, they sit in solitude in the California sun, reading novels such as “The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi. They miss human connection, particularly with their fellow boxing club members.
“The meaning of those relationships has been so shockingly profound to me and [revealed] how important that was for my mental health,” said Khan, a 33-year-old activist and educator who uses they/them pronouns.
Meanwhile, their social justice work sped up.
“What made the pandemic so revelatory is that everything froze and we all had to pay attention to what was happening,” Khan told HuffPost. “That is why George Floyd’s murder hit us the way that it did, the way that Breonna Taylor captured our imagination.”
Khan spoke about our nation’s current political climate and what it will take to build an inclusive future. They spoke with the same care and consideration they put into the widely viewed Instagram Live sessions they began hosting last spring, Sunday Sermons. In these weekly livestreams, served to more than 280,000 followers, Khan gives insightful breakdowns on timely political and pop culture conversations.
“I don’t see myself as the next great champion,” said Khan, whose nickname “Future” comes from their obsession with thinking about the future. “I think that that’s a boring narrative. But I do see myself responsible for training the next generation of champions, and lots of people are going to come through those gym doors.”
Khan’s Sunday Sermons boast tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments each, and they usually last under an hour — just long enough for the activist to get their points across. Just a few of Khan’s recent sermons include March 28’s session on solidarity between Black and Asian communities, Feb. 7’s “Is Cancel Culture Real?” and Jan. 10’s session, “This Is Not Normal,” about the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
In April, after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, they posted a short message to their followers about the verdict.
“Use our care to move toward commitment, use our commitment to fuel it with courage,” Khan said. “We have to change the system if we really want to end the needless and awful reality of police killing Black people. This means something. Our job is to make it mean everything — not the conviction, but our conviction for change.”
Khan’s work has also put them in the crosshairs of detractors, including The New York Post, which reported on the real estate assets of Khan and their partner, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. In the Sunday Sermon on April 18, Khan addressed the reports, calling them “coordinated and funded right-wing attacks against movement leaders.”
Khan isn’t opposed to criticism of the movement; principled critique of leaders is “expected and even required to push for justice,” they said in a tweet earlier in April. Some activists and BLM supporters have also criticized the movement for a lack of transparency in regard to its funding.
But racist claims must be rebuked, Khan said.
Sunday Sermons aren’t like the services Khan attended when they went to Catholic school in their hometown of Toronto, where their Jamaican-British mother and Trinidadian father had immigrated to in the 1970s.
“I thought it was a bit cheeky because look at me, this nonbinary raging homosexual who’s Black,” Khan said.
Khan’s experience centers on Black masculinity. They listed Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and James Baldwin as their inspirations, saying, “They all had a connection to providing that supernatural, spiritual, religious set of oratory skills and relationship to freedom.”
When they spoke at rallies last year in Los Angeles, Khan wanted to lend their voice to the moment even if their boots weren’t on the ground. The activist said having a connection to their community on a spiritual level is vital for their personal growth.
“I believe there are parts in us that can only be accessed through other people, and every time we have that exchange, we become more of who we are,” they said.
Seven years ago, Khan experienced this firsthand. In 2014, their activism began when they organized a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Toronto after teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Only nine people showed up to the protest, and three of them were babies. Months later, after a grand jury declined to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting, they held another protest. This time, thousands of people came, along with a lot of press.
“That was a new thing that we had to grapple with,” Khan said of the increase in media attention around the protests. “That’s when we decided to become Black Lives Matter Toronto.”
In the years that followed, Khan started attending various conferences to further educate themself about social justice movements. Khan, who grew up in poverty, was tight on cash so they paid their way into these gatherings by teaching boxing to other attendees.
“Before long, I was doing workshops on anti-oppression, the prison industrial complex,” Khan said. “It started because I felt like I had something to offer. I used what I knew to get to the place that I wanted to get to in terms of understanding and language.”
This training prepared them to take on the current shifts in our society. Earlier this year, the NFL and corporations such as IBM and Uber spoke out publicly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of ongoing protests since Floyd’s murder last spring.
To Khan, many of these declarations were too little, too late.
“Every time that corporations say something or do something that is ‘correct’ or ‘righteous,’ it is because we demanded it,” Khan said. “Nothing in this country — no law, no policy, no leadership — has ever done what is right on their own.”
Declaring that “Black Lives Matter” means making a genuine commitment to Black people — one that turns words into actions, Khan said. That means companies need to establish internal audits focused on inclusive practices, create internship pipelines and place Black people and people of color in leadership positions, for example.
In 2020, the United States saw now-President Joe Biden unseat Donald Trump, and Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to be elected vice president. But the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January shows there’s a clear power struggle between Americans who want to live in an equitable world and those who don’t.
The way forward, Khan said, is “uprooting racism,” which affects every social condition. That requires a full reeducation of U.S. history — not a cherrypicked version, but a version that actually tells the truth about climate change, slavery, Indigenous Americans’ experiences and the agency of transgender people.
“Imagine. It excites me to think about that,” they said. “I want to fight for it. And I want to believe that that’s possible.”
Hair: Marcia Hamilton/Forward Artists; Makeup: Joanna Simkin/The Wall Group