Project Hustle, Black Liberation Coop Academy

New Orleans, Louisiana
Edited & condensed

Introduce yourself.

Peace and joy my name is Toya Ex, I am the founder and coordinator of Project Hustle. Project Hustle is my seed. Since 2011, I’ve been a community organizer in New Orleans. I am a Black, Queer, Hood, feminist organizer, with a deep passion for weaving healing, joy, and loving accountability into every aspect of our lives.  

How did you first get involved with organizing?

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I was 18 years old, a senior in high school. I first got involved with organizing after Katrina with Stand with Dignity’s campaign to access reconstruction jobs in the Calliope projects. I grew up in the Calliope projects. The Calliope is a public housing residence also known as the B.W. Cooper housing development.  

Tell us about Project Hustle.

Project Hustle works on a question I wasn’t able to answer as a workplace community organizer: how do we as Black people – especially Black women and Black femmes – build our own? How do we tend to and harvest our dreams and skills that we already have? How do we take care of ourselves? Project Hustle is to answer that question.  

When I was growing up, both my parents had 9 to 5 jobs, but what got us by was the hustle. My daddy worked downtown in some of the most famous, tourist restaurants: Broussard’s, Pat O’Brien’s, and others. It was the relationships he built that gave him an opportunity to build additional hustles. He landscaped and painted, did maintenance for rich people to make extra money. My mama worked as a nursery school teacher, and when the nursery was closed, she would do childcare out of the house. My mama also was the candy lady. As a young girl she made hucklebucks, a kind of frozen ice treat like a snowball but solid. That led to my grandfather buying a candy truck, inspired from my mama’s hustle as a young girl. And so in the late 70s through early 90s, my family ran a candy truck in the Desire housing projects, in the 9th Ward.  

Even though structurally as Black folks in New Orleans we’re set up to work in underpaid tourist jobs, we rebel and push against it by using our genius to hustle. The hustle culture is strong, both in New Orleans and in Black cities across the world, and it’s about resistance against capitalism. It’s resistance because the economic structure for locals is shit. It’s set up for there always to be the working poor. And that’s us.

So hustling is not a new technology. As Black people in this country we needed to make a way to get out of enslavement, and the same structure of hustling existed then. For Black women who were kidnapped from West Africa and turned into slaves, in New Orleans we had Sundays off because it’s a religious, Catholic city. And in Congo Square in New Orleans on Sundays, Black women sold the things they made, and some were able to buy their own and their kids’ freedom. That’s deeply in alignment with women selling plates today to get people out of jail.  

Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. And at the same time, the highest Black poverty rate of all the states. Black women getting our loved ones free, supporting them while they’re inside, that’s unrecognized. That work is made invisible. Project Hustle is about celebrating how we survive and are brilliant, that the structure makes us the working poor, and that we don’t have to be the working poor. We can be hustlers.  

You often talk about how the Black working poor in New Orleans have lost infrastructure, or have had that infrastructure dismantled, what do you mean by that?

We used to have more infrastructure, like public housing, but we’re getting to a point where almost everything is private. Before Katrina, we had 9 or 10 public housing units that housed 3 to 8 thousand people each. Even before Katrina, that public housing infrastructure was being taken down. The Melph [Melpomene projects] started to be dismantled in 2002. BW Cooper was shutting down and moving all its residents to New Orleans East. With more privatization came the loss of housing. Public housing was replaced with mixed-income housing. And what was built back after Katrina couldn’t house all the people that lost it or needed it. A lot of promises were made to the people of New Orleans. There were promises of work. Promises of jobs in reconstruction of housing after Katrina. There were a lot of lies made to us about rebuilding. That’s how I first started getting involved in organizing. We found out through public records requests that there was a clear caste system with wages at these construction sites. Black people from the housing projects they were claiming to rebuild were put at the bottom, with Latinx workers put in the middle, and with white workers making the most. That’s what Stand with Dignity challenged.

Losing infrastructure is about losing housing, charters taking over education, and the lie of jobs, but it’s about the spaces we lost too. I think about Claiborne and Orleans, where Black Mardi Gras happens. That’s where Zulu comes early in the morning, a place to be around Black people, be around your people, Claiborne and Orleans is the place to be. The I-10 didn’t used to run right through New Orleans, right through Claiborne and Orleans. That was a decision by the city and federal government that caused destruction of the Black economy and community. A majority of those businesses were Black owned. What used to be a public park is now a major overpass. Along with Claiborne we lost Lincoln Beach, where Black people used to go swim and go to an amusement park. These were places and spaces to be with people. That was a precursor to 2005. A precursor to all the infrastructure we lost after Katrina.  

What do you want people to know about the hustle?

The loss of infrastructure, it’s traumatic and we need to heal from it. Project Hustle is about the alternatives we’ve built to all of that. The new infrastructure. The root of hustle work is often starting from food, art, and care. Food as healing, art in all forms as healing. We are sharing the stories of Black women hustlers to share stories of resistance, to celebrate Black women’s work, to heal. We are building hustle cooperatives as an alternative to dead-end jobs. Project Hustle is saying we’re building alternatives so that we can get free.  

A black arrow pointing upward