Niki Franco Roots For A Better World

If we coincided geographically and weren’t in the middle of a poorly-handled pandemic, we’d likely be in Niki Franco’s home, inside her “sunroom” or maybe out in her little garden, relishing in that Miami heat. Our conversation would’ve lasted a few hours and then we’d do photos and video with the rest of the Emperifollá team. As it was, I looked at myself reflected through the grainy Zoom camera, tried to smooth my unruly hair behind my ears, shifting in my chair as I waited for Franco– aka @venunsroots on Instagram– to join the call. I desperately hoped the shoddy internet connection powered through, and (almost) nothing would be lost to the untranslatable warmth of being in presence with someone. When Franco finally pixelated into the call-existence with a smile, donning a blue silk robe with white flowers, I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. As she sat in a room surrounded by plants of all shapes and sizes, there was something close to magic.

A self-described forever student, Niki Franco is a Community Organizer at Power U Cntr for Social Change, a Political Educator at FemPower Miami, and the host of the podcast Getting to the Root of It with Venus Roots and a monthly book club. Clearly, curiosity, solidarity and collective study are at the heart of everything Franco does. Thriving in building relationships with others, dismantling the systems that oppress her communities and dreaming of a better world fill her with a hopeful consciousness that isolation sometimes begets. 

Franco grew up as a Black Boricua Panameña in a primarily white wealthy suburb in Miami, as part of the mixed income housing program. She remembers that, even as the area is “like Latinx central, there are still communities that are not represented.” For Franco, adapting as a kid wasn’t necessarily about Latinx identity or cultural heritage, but rather the layers and dynamics within that: class, race and coming face-to-face with the inherent anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity in Latinidad. Looking back, laughing at jokes at the expense of her Caribbean identity or Boricua Spanish accent, really was a form of survival. “When you’re a kid, you just try to make it,” Franco says. “Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘Wow, kids are just in survival mode’.”

Now, Franco is most interested in examining and questioning the relationship between race, class and her surroundings, as well as having those uncomfortable, often painful and necessary conversations to deconstruct what that means within Latinidad. Take, for example, the way in which the Latinx community is continuously marketed as a monolith. Sure, we share a painful history of colonization, but its manifestation still centers white people. Taking race, class and a myriad of other factors within that into consideration, necessitates a more nuanced conversation. In the systems that govern us (i.e. white supremacy), all Latinx peoples were not created equal. Nuance is our friend. 

These topics, of course, are at the very core of Franco’s journey as an abolitionist and organizer. She grew up with a connection to both the world’s oldest colony– Puerto Rico– and knowledge of the United States’s full control of the Canal de Panamá until the late 1990s, thanks to her parents, who were aware of the not-so-benevolent intentions of the Uncle Sam nation. After Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, Franco became deeply frustrated and hurt by George Zimmerman’s aquittal. At the time, she lived just three hours away from Sanford, “I was like, ‘Okay, this is my opportunity to find me people that care about certain issues that I think are incredibly important, and I think impact us’,” she says. 

Cue Dream Defenders, an abolitionist organization Franco credits to be the birthing ground of her political work. The organization is focused on “the fight for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment,” according to their website. Being in that space allowed her to ask the tough questions, like, “What’s the history of policing in this country? Why is there such a profitable investment in prisons and jails?” 

“Community,” “collective study,” “dialogue,” and “processing” were all words that inspired her book club, established in 2018. It was born out of a curiosity and need, not just for deeper, more nuanced discussion, but a necessity to evolve as a community. The goal was to step away from bite-sized hot takes and curated visual feeds, and move to a space where people could process out loud, hold each other accountable, laugh, cry, be frustrated and angry and hurt together. Only then, could they start to imagine a better world. A lot of Franco’s work reminds me of Mariame Kaba’s “Hope is a discipline.” It is something we have to choose every day. When I mentioned that, she said, “Rigor and discipline are two of the things I’m most interested in embodying, which I think maybe some folks would not assume looking at my pace, but I try to be super duper disciplined and rigorous.”

In an era where algorithms favor and spread misinformation like wildfire, paired with a capitalistic system that thrives on the oppression of others, Franco thinks that “unless we have the humility to study the past, we’re going to continue to be in a limbo of historical amnesia and be perpetually confused.”

Back in 2018, Franco posted on Instagram that she was starting a book club. Between 40 to 50 people showed up at her then tiny apartment with no AC. Picture strangers and friends alike, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, sweltering in the Miami heat with a willingness and hunger for discussion and community. “Having people I don’t know in my home is also a practice of generosity and practice of trust,” Franco says. They talked about the ICE detention centers that were about 20 minutes away, read Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang, dissected articles detailing how there’s a multibillion dollar industry profiting off the carceral state. People shared stories about each other’s family members, humanizing the mostly Black and Brown people that are consistently criminalized, and challenging each other’s internalized cop. 

Almost a year later, the book club group  was ready to do more. They were inspired by the work of an organization in Atlanta, Georgia, called Song, which fundraises and bails out Black mothers for Mother’s Day every year. “[We] don’t want to just read it about anymore. [We] want to practice. Let’s do it,” Franco recalls. They fundraised $35,000, established a community bail fund. Since then, they’ve bailed out and provided housing and food for nearly 45 people. “Nothing will make you more abolitionist than going through the process, being face to face with that sort of beast of a system,” she says. “I have a million and one stories of things that have happened when we tried to bail someone out waiting outside of jail.”

Adapting the book club to the virtual sphere was a challenge. For one, there was a worry that the magic of IRL meetings would be somewhat lost, stuttering the way unreliable Internet connection does. But the uprisings and protests brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement made it clear that the community needed a space to process– even through pixels. People needed a place to hold each other. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur proved to be a great place to start. Having the book club online meant people from the United Kingdom, South Africa and all across the United States could join too. The Internet bridges that distance one pixel at a time; seeing those Zoom squares in “gallery mode” is its own type of magic.

Let us remember– Franco also hosts a podcast, titled Getting to the Root of It with Venus Roots. When I ask her about it, she laughs, saying, “Again I’m gonna blame my Gemini sun. I see the podcast as this outlet where I don’t feel like I have to know all the answers, or I have to be the holder of all his knowledge. Rather, I’m leaning into curiosity to help me figure out some answers with others.” It’s not about putting content out there all the time, but more about offering intentional, nuanced conversation with people from different backgrounds and industries, but that share experiences and politics, and who she deeply loves and respects.

One of her goals is to demonstrate that the conversation of anti-Blackness “is actually going to come up in every single industry,” Franco says. “It’s not just a political conversation. When we talk about aesthetics, when we talk about commodification, when we talk about criminalization, all these things are going to be tied,” she adds. 

One of the most-listened episodes from Getting to the Root of It is called Unpacking Black Capitalism with Francisco Pérez, a Black solidarity economy activist and educator with a PhD in Economics. This episode came to be when Franco noticed that a lot of the response to the Black Lives Matter movement was celebrities and influencers with massive online platforms encouraging others to buy Black. “There’s nothing wrong with buying Black, I love to buy Black, but again, lack of nuance. I’m like, is that it?,” she says. So Franco invited Pérez to “unpack how Black capitalism won’t save us and how this crisis offers us some openings for transformation.” Franco shares that Pérez is one of those people that make her believe another world is possible, as they are a dreamer working with and supporting cooperatives, work co-ops, and unions, and explore how work doesn’t have to follow corporate systems.

“It is all about hopefully, contributing something of meaning into the ecosystem of dreaming for a better world,” Franco says. 

And in these dreams, food sovereignty is a must. This has always been in the back of her mind, especially after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in 2017. She questioned land displacement and food security on a regular basis. Now, if you follow Franco on Instagram, you’ve probably seen stories of her ever-growing garden, harvesting and brewing Pea Vine to make tea, massaging plants’ roots with her garras and generally looking like a real pro. However, reality isn’t exactly as it seems. Franco’s relationship to plants went from buying and killing them (yes, like the TikTok), to participating in the Femme Fairy Garden on Sundays and learning while doing. After one of her friends helped her build a garden bed that went untouched for a few months, she now officially has arugula, carrots, kale, pollinator flowers, gandules, cilantro, lemongrass, you name it. Tending to the garden is a lot like tending to the self. It requires patience, attention, a certain will to get your hands dirty, and maybe a fantasy or two of “getting on my jíbara shit, get a lot of land and learn how to shoot and get chickens.” 

The dream, basically.

“I feel it has also taught me that I need to prioritize Indigenous texts, and to also learn from Indigenous communities, who have been relating to the land for so long,” Franco says. “And who have been in the frontlines of fighting around land sovereignty, against pipelines, recognizing that water is life, recognizing that these things are sacred: our air, our water, our trees, our plants.” 

As for the process itself, it’s played a huge role in helping Franco slow down. A Gemini whose mind is always reeling, the garden has been an exercise in embodying a seed’s patience. Seeds take weeks to sprout, plants grow at their own pace. Capitalism centers productivity for profit, equates productivity with worth. But plants? “They made it so easy to remember resilience,” she says. Franco now pays attention to the butterflies, the birds, the bees, all these animals big and small, that play such a sacred role in our livelihoods. Our current pandemic reality emphasizes isolation to prevent more contagion, but it’s also filled with crushing loneliness. For a very social Gemini that thrives on community, “it’s also allowed me to move from a place that’s not neglect, which feels very important.”

There’s a honey longing for nuance and slowness in a world that prizes the fast and furious. Other than tending her garden, these days Franco is taking breaks from social media, cooking with whatever she has in her fridge, reading, beach sunrises, walks and checking in on her people. Comfort is also important, emotionally and physically. “That’s why I think [my style] ranges all over the place,” she says. “I would say the staple piece is the blue silk robe I’m wearing in these photos.”

In one of our latest email threads, when I asked if she’d ever heard the word Emperifollá before, she laughed, saying, “Of course. From my parents all the time. They love to always make fun of me, when I pull up somewhere and they say like, estás super emperifollá.” But being Emperifollá Franco says, “It’s more of a sentiment and a sort of place from which we navigate space. And for me, it really means confidence and means being in my agency, feeling rooted in my center.”

Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés

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