Meme Styles, activist, entrepreneur and Afrofuturist

Edited By: Deborah Hamilton-Lynne. Photos by Annie Ray. Styling by Teresa Test. Makeup by Livia Pope. Hair by Selamawit Mera

Mother Nature’s awesome power sticks to the body like Texas humidity in summer. She sighs and the wind funnels into a gale force that rearranges the very molecules in the air.

Meme Styles embodies the perfect storm—-a brilliant, blistering and admittedly chaotic being who imagines worlds beyond our comprehension, then creates those worlds from seemingly nothing, stardust and ambition. She is a swell of potential energy, waiting for the catalyst to jumpstart her into action.

“My dad used to always call me a tornado when I was young,” she says, a smile bringing light to her already ebullient disposition. “He would say that I’d come into a space, and I would completely wreck it. Then it would be rebuilt into something way better than what it was before, and then it was just a space of peace and tranquility the next day.”

Perhaps prophetic, or perhaps her father sensed a spiritual twin in his progeny, a bite-sized firecracker. Styles was always more than the sum of her parts with one part composed of his activism, one part her mother’s entrepreneurship and one part dynamite.

“The origins of my story come from growing up in the ’90s in a home with teenage parents who worked as hard as they possibly could to create a normal household.” Ultimately Styles wants to emphasize that she comes from “a line of brilliance and complexity.“[My mom] was such a fierce businesswoman,” she continues.

“She was one of the top Black women in commodities trading in San Diego when I was growing up. She even had her own news segment. At the same time, I was watching my father, who was having his own battles, but my dad was also an incredibly fierce advocate. He was a Black Panther, and his father, my Papa T, was a community organizer. He worked between the police department and his community to build bridges.

“Gosh, it’s so complex,” she says. “My origin story really comes from complexity and brilliance when it comes to social justice and social action. Then there’s also this super savvy business woman who was incredibly strategic and at the same time loved to see other Black women and other women of color be empowered.”

As Sly Stone said, “It’s a family affair.” The result of her father’s and grandfather’s activism manifested quite early in Styles. Influenced by her experiences of going with her father to NAACP meetings when he was the vice president led to her first successful brush with activism. In fact, the young students at Pacifica Elementary School have Meme Styles to thank for having chocolate milk included in the lunch menu.

“I came home one day and my dad asked me what was the matter. I told him, ‘I don’t understand why all milk has to be white. Why don’t they have chocolate milk?’” The memory brings a smile to her face. “I’m this little kid, and that was my interpretation of race.” With encouragement from her father to “lead a movement”, she got signatures for a petition, got teachers involved, made her demands clear to the principal, and was successful in her activism.

“I learned the power of community and how the power of collectivism can truly change a system.” This belief in the power of collective action followed her throughout her school years. At Martin Luther King Middle School, she was part of the effort to choose the school mascot. Captain of the cheerleading squad and peer advisor, she worked directly with the principal. Interestingly, the same female principal later invited Styles to speak at a conference for African American Women.

Where’s the Damn Data?

Styles has followed her innate curiosity through many different occupations including anchor for NBC News in Alaska; executive assistant in the U.S. Army in El Paso, Texas; privacy officer for the Health and Human Services; and becoming a franchise business owner alongside her mother and grandmother. When she created Measure in 2015, Styles drew upon aspects of her prior experiences and her certification from George Washington University in the PuMP Method—a methodology of data collection and performance measurement created by Stacey Barr. Style’s time in the U.S. Army, as part of their Agile Workforce, planted the seeds of what would become Measure. “I was creating Measure as I was working at the State of Texas too,” she says. “I would go to my 9-to-5, and then as soon as I was done, I would be working from 10o’clock until 2 a.m., building Measure.”

However, it was her participation in a panel with former Mayor Steve Adler and Austin City Council member Ora Houston that became her catalyst. As with most innovations, Styles ultimately created Measure to answer a relatively simple question: Where’s the data?

“We were talking about community policing,” she recalls, “and I’m there as the activist, right? I’m supposed to be this Black woman, angry activist type, and I told myself, I’m not going to talk about traditional activism on this panel. I’m going to push them in a different direction. So that’s exactly what I did when I asked, ‘Where is the damn data? If you are going to say that community policing is a priority, and you want to rebuild trust?There never was any trust here.’ I said, ‘What are the key performance indicators that are assessing this idea of trust or community engagement or community policing?’ At that point they could not answer me.”

With that simple change in approach, Styles was able to lay the foundation for much of the equity work that’s taken place in Austin. With their data-forward approach, Measure laid the foundation for Austin’s first Office of the Chief Data Officer and a community policing initiative.“Because our community came together to say, ‘This is what we want.’ Before we knew about the ineffectiveness of implicit bias training—that’s what all the data shows us—Measure pushed for that training for all police officers.”

This Woman’s Work

This seemingly never-ending battle for equity is often thankless, and most certainly bone-achingly exhausting. It’s exhausting to constantly have to battle a broken society. Particularly for Black women, the expectation is heavy, feeling like a lead cloak over the shoulders, not being afforded the right to be quiet and calm. Styles has reclaimed rest as a form of rebellion. Inspired by poet Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance and her own health crisis, Styles took thisform of revolution, quite literally, to heart.

“If I have any legacy, my legacy is going to be that she rested as a means of restoration. There’s just so much power with rest.” This also explains, at least in some small part, her decision to pledge as part of the Pi Omega Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. Part of the “Divine Nine,” the Zetas provided Styles another family dynamic to tap into for positivity, healing, fellowship and rest.

“I never thought I would be a sorority girl, to be honest with you,” she admits. “But when I learned about Zeta, I felt like I was learning about myself. When it comes to Zeta and her activism and her love for humanity and her global scope, I thought, ‘I am going to one day be a Zeta.’ So I leaned in.

“I’m the social justice chair for Zeta. I’ve been able to really make progress with the work that I do already in the organization. We were a big part of getting the CROWN Act passed, alongside representative Rhetta Bowers and Measure. Outside of my children and my husband and my church, I feel that Zeta Phi Beta is a true form of sisterhood.”

This connection to a Greek organization spoke to very fundamental elements of Meme Styles and taps into another aspect of her form of resistance: joy. Waves of it radiate from her as she speaks about this latest avenue of the revolution. “I literally found my sisters.”

Meme Styles: Afrofuturist Time Traveler

With all of her frenetic energy, Styles has always found ways to find a calm space, dating back to her childhood, when she’d stare up at the popcorn ceiling of her family home and count the bumps. Collecting data: It’s her way of visualizing the world, combing through all the information to find solutions to its problems.

Where many would see a pock marked ceiling, Styles saw constellations. “I would lay there for along time, and that was the way that I put myself to sleep,” she says. “It was all data for me. It was all science and being able to create new pathways and routes for myself, to kind of travel outside of my home.”

Styles is an Afrofuturist, a spirit unbound to the limitations of the mind. Put simply, Afrofuturism is a philosophy of connectivity, allowing those of the African diaspora to connect with the spirits of their ancestors as means to project and portray their futures. It’s science; it’s fiction; it’s art; it’s data. It’s the physical manifestation of the Akan concept of Sankofa: looking backward in order to move generations into the future. Styles calls it time travel, and it makes perfect sense.

“Afrofuturism for me is the manifestation of data, or the other way around—data is the manifestation of Afrofuturism. It’s the infinite possibilities for Black women to rise and to thrive.” Meme Styles is an activist from 3024, born of the prayers of her ancestors, traveling between time to connect Meme with seven generations in the future to the ancestors who led her here. She is an undeniable force of nature, sweeping in and rearranging the DNA of the space to create something remarkable.

“You know, being a person who time travels so often, I’ve seen the liberation of our people. Being a person that is an Afrofuturist, I see their ancestors standing behind them. I see your ancestors standing behind you. It’s also very much so grounded within my Christian faith. What that means for me is that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He has no concept of time. There is no concept of time when you exist infinitely. I believe that’s what data allows us to do: to reflect the image of God and be infinite beings.”

Meme Styles has always found home in people. Home, of course, includes her children, whom she adores with every ounce of her being, and her husband, whom she credits with propelling her on a path of excellence and goodness.

“I love him so much. He’s definitely my backbone. He’s been able to see me grow up. I met him when I was 14 years old. He was a part of his Black Student Union, and I was a part of mine, and we met at the Black Student Union dance. I asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he’s like, ‘My name is Cliff Styles.’ I told him, ‘I’m going to marry you for your last name.’ I said that at 14 years old, and it happened. He’s such a great guy, and he deserves a great woman. I’m grateful that I’m that.”

She also finds home in a group of Black women, self-identified baddies endearingly called the Brown Sugar Babes (a squadron of brilliant, powerful women comprised of Pamela Benson Owens, Dr. Melva K.Wallace, Keiko Griffin, Terry P. Mitchell and Shuronda Robinson). “Without my BrownSugar Babes, I felt like I was doing this thing alone, because I was, to be honest with you. I’m really grateful for Black women. We pray together; we cry together; we support one another in such an incredible way.

Zeta Phi Beta

Founded January 16, 1920, Zeta began as an idea conceived by five coeds at Howard University in Washington D.C.: Arizona Cleaver Stemons, Myrtle Tyler Faithful, Viola Tyler Goings, Fannie Pettie Watts and Pearl Anna Neal. According to the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated official website, the founding members “envisioned a sorority that would directly affect positive change, chart a course of action for the 1920s and beyond, raise people’s consciousness, encourage the highest standards of scholastic achievement, and foster a greater sense of unity among its members. These women believed that sorority elitism and socializing overshadowed the real mission of progressive organizations and failed to address fully the societal mores, ills, prejudices and poverty affecting humanity in general and the black community in particular.”

Zeta Phi Beta continues its mission today with 125,000 members worldwide. Meme is an active member of the Pi Omega Zeta chapter in Round Rock.



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