The Village

  • The “Dream” in Action: Power Through Youth Activism

    Aug 19, 2013. Written by Nicole Tinson

    Revius O. Ortique, Jr.
    On Nov. 28, 2012, Dillard University, my home institution, held their 3rd annual Revius Ortique Lecture Series which honors Justice Revius O. Ortique, Jr, a pioneering civil rights activist for more than 60 years, and the first African American elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

    For the inaugural lecture in 2010, we hosted United States Attorney General Eric Holder, in 2011 we hosted President Bill Clinton’s appointee Judge Carl Stewart, Chief Judge with the 5th Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and in 2012 we hosted Michelle Alexander. Michelle Alexander is, “a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar,” who authored the bestselling “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, which discusses mass incarceration and the African-American community.

    Moment of Revelation with Michelle Alexander
    President Walter Kimbrough selected a few student ambassadors to help volunteer for the lecture series, and I gratefully was selected. I had the task and pleasure of traveling with Michelle Alexander the entire day to ensure she was welcomed to the city of New Orleans, and Dillard University. During this time I was awaiting the response for an internship I applied for with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; this constantly ran through my mind because I understood how important the internship would be to my future career. I was so anxious and it was one of the first things I discussed with Mrs. Alexander. I expressed my love for the black community, how I wanted to “represent and mobilize the people” and how this opportunity would open so many doors for me; she instantly became my “diary of the present time.” She reassured me that I would be fine, and my passion would open enough doors. She asked if I’d heard of SNCC. I was familiar, but not sure exactly they did. I received a brief history lesson at Louis Armstrong Airport as we waited for her luggage about the power of student organizing and activism. I remember thinking, this isn’t possible in this day in age; I have yet to meet a youth organization as passionate about the black community as I am. She said, “Nicole I think it is time for a modern day SNCC. We need the youth to create a movement, we need you” and those words stuck with me.

    Acceptance and the Speech
    Later that evening, I was buckling my shoes as the driver called to inform me that he was ready to pick up Mrs. Alexander up. My phone rang again right after, the number had a “202” area code. I answered and heard, “Good evening, may I speak with Nicole Tinson?” I was a little apprehensive, but I replied, “Yes, this is she.” The man on the phone said, “I am calling you to inform you that you have been accepted to participate in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundations Emerging Leaders Internship Program for Spring 2013,” and I instantly burst into tears. I felt like I won the lottery, I was so excited then I remembered I had business to attend to. I said my thanks, wiped my tears, and headed out to meet Michelle Alexander.

    I was so excited, I told her the news before she even made it out of the hotel; she gave me a congratulatory hug and told me that I would be fine, and I was. With the worry of the acceptance into the program aside, we headed to Dillard University and discussed the New Jim Crow, and solutions. We discussed the possibility for creating opportunities for the community that would prevent Blacks from going to prison in the first place, such as more economical sustainability in our community by offering more career and job opportunities, and a better public education system and the for people who have already been placed in the prison industrial complex by creating programs for ex-felons to transition back into society, similar to Homeboy Industries. I finally began to truly understand what my role could be in this movement; how politics shapes the New Jim Crow.

    Students Interested in Politics
    When I arrived in DC, I kept thinking “wow – I made it. My dreams are about to come true”. I met 15 other black students who were just as interested in politics as I was if not more. It was my first time being with a group of outspoken leaders who were all interested in shaping politics. We discussed politics, the black community, and academia in our rooms, walking to Capitol Hill, during our leadership development sessions and in our class with our professor Julius Hobson, Jr., son of Civil Rights leader Julius Hobson.

    It was a great experience to be exposed to the minds of so many youth, and the thought-provoking conversations I had with my roommate Kirstin Cheers always allowed me to further analyze my purpose and why I want to “represent and mobilize the people.” The internship served as the eye opener I needed and was one of the best experiences of my life. It gave me reassurance that politics is an area I can see myself in because of the change I want to make in the community. I shared my experiences weekly via YouTube to keep my family, friends and community abreast of what I was doing while in DC. I also created relationships with many people in Washington, D.C., but one of my favorite relationships was with Lisa Fager-Bediako; she’s an advocate for HIV/AIDS and the way media portrays our community, and is very down-to-earth. I developed strength from her to become more outspoken about our societal ills; I began to find my voice.

    BYP100
    I received an e-mail from Lisa, President and CEO of Industry Ears, explaining the opportunity to convene with 100 black youth. She said, “This is an opportunity to get like-minded young black leaders from all over the country together to dialogue, strategize and build.” I applied instantly, and realized that was the environment I needed to be in. BYP100 is group of young black activists from across the country mobilizing communities of color beyond electoral politics. BYP100 were brought together by The Black Youth Project, and calls for the uplifting and encouragement of black people in the fight for equality and justice. I was fortunate to be accepted and was advised that I would meet in Chicago from July 12-14. When I arrived in Chicago, I was nervous, because I did not know what to expect. Gratefully, it became another life changing experience. During the weekend, we told our stories, we worked in groups by regions, interests and issues, we created collective solutions, and learned of the George Zimmerman verdict together.

    The Verdict and Fuel for Youth Mobilization
    On July 13, 2013, the BYP100 group began to wrap up our nearly 10-hour work day when someone announced “the verdict is in!” It felt like a scene from an old movie when a person runs to tell a crowd something, but this was no movie. The room was quiet, we prayed, and we awaited the verdict. 100 black youth activists from around the nation along with the team that put it together, Dr. Cathy J. Cohen, Melinda Weekes, Biko Baker, Kedar Coleman, Bakari Kitwana, Lisa Fager waited hand in hand.

    “In the Circuit Court of the 18th Judicial Circuit in and for Seminole County, Florida, “State of Florida versus George Zimmerman,” verdict, we the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty.”

    The room ERUPTED. So many emotions ran rapid; we cried, we screamed, we were angry, we were confused, we were hurt, we were disappointed, and most importantly, we realized that is why WE were here. After expressing how we felt about the verdict, we realized that there was a reason for us to be together DURING the reading of the verdict. We discussed how this added fuel to what we were already doing. We didn’t wait until the next day to strategize what we would do, we started at 10:35 p.m. that night and finished at 1:37 a.m. and some of BYP100 traveled to downtown Chicago to serve as peacemakers, mediators, and support to a community who were just as hurt as we were. Everyone had a role that night. “We’re ready and we’re coming” became an adopted motto, and we truly were ready to go back into our community and put in action what we discussed and strategized.

    National Emergence of Youth
    Post-verdict, the BYP100 issued a statement and video expressing our thoughts and feelings about the “not guilty” decision handed to George Zimmerman. This video went viral on YouTube, and gained attention from various media outlets. We began to emerge within our communities at rallies held around the nation; our voices were heard. I began to think, there has to be more youth involved in this effort than the BYP100. I knew of activists outside of the youth age range organizing Trayvon Martin teach-ins such as Michael Wilson and Samori Camara in New Orleans, but what about the youth? Then I read about the Dream Defenders and I followed the executive director, Phillip Agnew on Twitter to watch their progress and offer support.

    31 Days and 30 Nights
    The Dream Defenders are a group of youth activists who believe they will bring social change by training and organizing youth and students in nonviolent civil disobedience, civic engagement and direct action while creating a sustainable network of youth and student leaders to take action and create real change in their communities. The Dream Defenders’ principles include “loving our brothers and sisters, protecting each other, and combating racism and discrimination in our communities with love and peace.” The Dream Defenders occupied the Florida State Capitol for 31 days starting on July 16, 2013, demanding that the Governor of Florida call a special session to address what they call, “Trayvon’s Law” which would work to repeal the Stand Your Ground Law, confront racial profiling and end the school-to-prison pipeline. I first learned of the Dream Defenders when I met Steven Pargett and Eli Armstrong in DC through a friend, Genesis Robinson. We discussed what they did, and what I wanted to do. We were on similar tracks, and I told them I would love to connect with them in the near future. The near future came two months later when I had the opportunity as a BYP100 organizer along with my fellow BYP100 brother, Kelsei Wharton, to ride a bus as a freedom rider with a Philadelphia youth organization called Youth United for Change, and the Baltimore Algebra Project to the Florida State Capitol to stand in solidarity with the Dream Defenders.

    Power
    When I saw Charlene Carruthers, Austin Thompson and Carmen Berkley from the BYP100, I understood even more how powerful strength in numbers is. The Capitol was filled with hundreds of people from around the nation, all in support of justice. As I spent the night in the Capitol for those two nights, I realized that there are many people who believe that we can win this war against our community. From civil rights activist Harry Belafonte to 9 year old Jamiyra, from BYP 100 to Power U Change, from rapper Talib Kweli to Kevin Banatte, there are people working hard within their communities to make a difference, and all it takes is more people becoming involved and believing. I began to tell my story and heard others stories and I became inspired to encourage others to join the fight. In order to effectuate change we must come together and decide that it is time. The verdict served as another wake up call, and we have to keep that fire and passion we had when the verdict was initially read.

    It is up to us to continue the discussion and most importantly the work. It is up to us to continue to dream, wake up, analyze it, organize to create a better society, then execute that plan. It is up to us to understand that the movement begins with US. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, it is up to us to understand that we have to be the power because we ARE the power. The fight is not over, because we are just beginning. We cannot give up now.

    Honor the Dream by marching with us at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, Aug. 24th as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” with the “National Action to Realize the Dream March”. Click the link for more info and to register. http://nationalactionnetwork.net/mow/