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The Voice of the Black Community

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New generation of social justice activists emerge with BLM initiative
Today’s warriors carry on a decades-long legacy
Published Thursday, June 18, 2020 10:40 am
by Hadiya Presswood

Charlotte’s social justice advocates and leaders tend to skew younger, much like they’ve been since the mid-20th century.

Charlotte youth are embracing activism on behalf of black lives.

During the past two weeks, organizers have taken to the streets to advocate for accountability and reform. Their efforts take the form of organizing protests, creating educational resources, contacting officials and creating art. Since George Floyd’s death on May 25, the Black Lives Matter movement has regained immense attention. Protests have occurred throughout Charlotte since late May as demonstrators demand police accountability and racial justice.

Autumn Dixon, 20, organized a protest on June 1 to honor black lives. She emphasized a safe and peaceful gathering where protesters expressed solidarity in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths.

Claire Tandoh, 17, is the founder of Kidz Fed Up, an organization “characterized by action.” Tandoh partnered with the NAACP Charlotte chapter and organized a mass protest downtown on June 2.

Her original intention for Kidz Fed Up was to teach people how to be an advocate in their community and how to organize for social justice, but the protest became seemingly necessary as reactions to George Floyd’s death grew. It was a peaceful, nonviolent gathering that garnered a lot of attention, but Tandoh says there is more work to be done.

“Black people don’t only do things that surround trauma; the stuff we do is beautiful,” she says. She plans to create inclusive community initiatives including collecting donations for homeless shelters, food drives, partnering with youth mentorship programs, hosting workshops and art events. She also wants to create pamphlets to distribute to the community that outline how to mobilize when the need arises.

Charlotte activists have historically leaned toward the young. The litany stretches at least eight decades, from Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP leaders Kelly Alexander Sr. and Fred Alexander in the 1940s to Charles Jones, who started the local sit-in movement and participant in the Freedom Rides in the 1960s are historic figures.

Dwayne Collins, another local NAACP leader, championed police reform in the 1990s and early 2000s. Bree Newsome Bass earned national attention in 2015 when she scaled a flagpole on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds to remove the confederate battle flag. Braxton Winston transformed his leadership during the 2016 Keith Scott protests into a seat on Charlotte City Council.

Today’s activists have lower profiles but are equally driven.

Jayden Rush, 20, has been compiling a spreadsheet titled Contacts for Justice that lists the contact information for government officials and law enforcement officers in different cities.

“Among my friend group, we are tired of seeing black and brown bodies being wrongly killed by officers, and there’s no level of accountability,” he said.

Rush asked himself how he could be productive when demanding change. He was inspired by Shaun King, who challenges his followers with an action step, whether it be signing a petition or contacting officials.

Rush started to post contact information on his Instagram story, and as more people responded to his call to action, he realized he needed to create a more organized, accessible database. He enlisted the help of friends to add names, phone numbers, emails and talking points for demands to the document.

The first time Rush made a phone call for social justice, it was on behalf of Ahmaud Arbery, who was ambushed and killed in February by white vigilantes in Brunswick, Georgia. Rush recalled feeling nervous that his voice would go unheard.

“My very first time calling, I was scared, I was nervous because I am talking to someone who was a higher official. The more I did it, the more comfortable it felt … the fact that hundreds of thousands of people calling made change, made me think that my followers should do the same.”

Now, he has grown more vocal and encourages others to press for action.

“With every phone call I made, I was not going to hang up until I got a new person's contact.”

Emani Caldwell, 20, and Courtney Harrington, 19, are using art as activism through BLMOFCLT, a safe space for people to create and share their art.

“This is activism,” says Caldwell. “We’re not being angry or violent, we’re being rageful. In my opinion, rage is love. If you can get so angry about something, you have to love something on the other end of the spectrum. Where they see we’re angry because this person lost their life, we really love the idea that everyone should be equal.”

BLMOFCLT is a biweekly open mic and market that is open to everyone. It’s supposed to be a peaceful, safe space as emotions and tension rise. Caldwell also describes it as a creative opportunity for people who don’t have the time or the ability to access it on their own, something that she experienced personally.

“I understand why people are being violent too …we have to utilize tools that make us better heard rather than looked at as bad. No one wants to hear you when you’re screaming or angry … we came up with the idea for them to have a platform.”

Caldwell and Harrington are taking their time to figure out BLMOFCLT. It is their first involvement with activism, and making sure everyone involved is on one accord and that operations run smoothly keeps them busy. It is a growing experience that they are excited to take on.

Even youth not directly involved with Black Lives Matter initiatives are hosting events in solidarity. Krissy Oliver-Mays and Ollie Ritchey are co-coordinators of XR Youth Charlotte, a climate change organization that hosted a “Silence for the Silenced” candlelight vigil on June 10.

Oliver-Mays explained the importance of separate causes acknowledging each other. “The work that we do is for everybody, the issue that we’re facing is intersectional. There is no climate justice without social justice and so we’re going to help fight in any way possible.”

Youth have historically been at the forefront of social justice movements. Willie Griffin, historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, proposes that the earliest accounts of youth leadership occurred during the 1930s when the New Negro Alliance was formed in Washington, D.C. During the 1960s there were a number of organizations and protests youth were involved in such as the Greensboro sit-ins, Mississippi Summer Project and Freedom Schools.

The call to action is fulfilled by those with the time, energy, and fluidity to respond, but for many, this was their first full-fledged experience organizing on a large scale and they looked to older people for advice.

“At the forefront there has always been youth, but older people have served as guides,” Griffin said. “They have often served as voices, they have more experience, they are articulate in many more ways than youth.”

Griffin referenced Kelly Alexander Sr., a Charlotte native who organized NAACP chapters in North Carolina and Virginia in the 1940s. His work led to an increase in youth chapters in those states.

“They focused on teaching young African Americans their history, the importance of voting, and they picketed during World War II about access to national youth administration programs,” Griffin said. “Youth have always been at the forefront of movements for civil rights in the African American movement.”

The youth organizers’ experiences with adults have ranged from skeptical to supportive.

“If I suggest a new way to do something, they might think I’m being disrespectful, I didn’t do my research, or they know better,” Tandoh said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but if the wheel is broken and almost half off, then it is OK to replace it.”

Despite that challenge, and a few others like acquiring funds, finding locations, or amassing resources, the overall responses to these organizers’ efforts have been positive. Tandoh acknowledges that saying, “When you do things for the community you get people to help you. We live in an individualistic society and my main goal is just getting us all together, just building the community, so people have reached out to help me with so many things. I’m really grateful for it.”

Instagram is the primary platform each of these organizers used to raise awareness, engage, and call people to action. It’s where they find followers to be most responsive. The highlights on Kidz Fed Up include resources and ways to help. Contacts for Justice started as screenshots posted to a story. BLMOFCLT gained traction through the power of reposts and direct messages. The digital age has allowed transference and consumption of information to occur at a rapid pace.

“With every generation [youth] get more intelligent with access to information and that’s what we’re seeing right now … I would think that they would always be at the forefront,” Griffin said.

Tandoh, a Providence High School graduate, will be attending UNC Asheville. Her goals for Kidz Fed Up are to have a website, pamphlets and how-to guides on organization, mobilization and advocacy. She also hopes to expand to other cities and see her mission upheld with fidelity. She continues to urge people to move beyond spreading awareness and towards action.

“You’re not too young to do something and spreading awareness can’t be the only thing you do. The movement requires us all so you can’t do the bare minimum.”

Rush, a junior legal communications major and political science minor at Howard University, says that despite media narratives showing a decline in activity, the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t slowing down. He will continue his work in legislative activism.

Caldwell and Harrington are West Charlotte High School graduates. They will continue to work to make BLMOFCLT feasible and sustainable. They are continuing to build their team, collect donations through their GoFundMe account and work with Charlotte officials.

“The same community that Trump is saying we don't have anything,” Caldwell said, “they’re actually donating their skill, talent, time, support … we pulled this out of our community.”
In the fall, Oliver-Mays will enroll at American University in Washington, D.C.; Ritchey at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. They have transitioned their leadership roles to XR Youth Charlotte members.

For more information, you can follow Kidz Fed Up on Instagram @kidzfedup, BLMOFCLT on Instagram @blmofclt, and XR Youth Charlotte on Instagram @xryouth.charlotte.


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