At recent local protests for racial justice, young people have led chants taken up by thousands of demonstrators protesting the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Some have engaged their colleges’ administrations in discussions about redressing campus inequities, while others joined forces with a multigenerational effort, Black AVL Demands, to advocate for dramatic changes in city policy and spending. Many have been involved in all of those efforts and more.
“Our youth are the energy of the movement,” says Libby Kyles, CEO of the YWCA of Asheville and a Black Lives Matter leader and mentor. “They felt very much like things have not been happening fast enough.”
To understand the stories and visions of these emerging leaders, Xpress reached out to four local racial justice organizers — all younger than 25 — to learn about their experiences and what has motivated them to act.
Stepping into the role of change agent was just a part of growing up for London Newton, 20. “I’ve always been a pretty involved student in school, so then I really had no choice but to be that person and do that work because I was always having to navigate white spaces,” says Newton, who’s president of the student body at UNC Asheville.”I was always the token Black person and I knew that before I even had the language for it.”
As a person of color, Newton says she sees herself, her siblings and other friends and family members reflected in every news report of a Black or brown person killed at the hands of police. Those too-frequent stories are “triggering,” she says, so “instead of letting that be sadness, I’ve kind of turned it into working for change.”
In the wake of protests in late May and June, Newton addressed her UNCA classmates in a June 24 email that later was forwarded to the faculty and administration. She criticized the institution for not using the words “Black Lives Matter” to support the movement and for tokenizing students of color in its marketing materials. And she urged the student body to “examine campus issues such as Eurocentric curriculum, implicit biases and lack of diversity in professional faculty and staff.”
Since then, Newton has collaborated with other members of UNCA’s student government to explore how the school can exemplify community policing on campus and redefine what constitutes “merit” in scholarship awards to provide more equitable access to those resources.
In a July 22 email to Xpress, UNCA spokesperson Sarah Broberg expressed gratitude for Newton’s leadership and said that the university is collaborating with selected faculty, staff and student leaders to create “the first draft of a racial justice road map” that will guide racial equity work over the next two years. Broberg said the road map will be shared at the start of the fall semester. In addition, UNCA Chancellor Nancy Cable has earmarked $65,000 to “support campuswide projects, programs and analysis to promote racial justice and understanding.”
”We look forward to working with [Newton] during the coming year to make sustainable change at UNC Asheville and to make sure that it is very clear that Black lives matter.”
Like Newton, 23-year-old Bryan Thompson, president of the Black Student Union at Warren Wilson College, got an early start in racial equity advocacy. In elementary school, “This kid Johnny stole my necklace and used a racial slur, and I took my carton of chocolate milk and poured it all over him,” recalls Thompson, who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as queer.
As Thompson got older, they focused on ways to contribute to inclusive and equitable environments. They served in a leadership role with first-year students at Warren Wilson and recently became a program coordinator for Youth OUTright, which serves LGBTQIA+ youths in Western North Carolina.
“I’ve always had this niche for community and for providing spaces for people to exist in that have difficulty existing in spaces outside of ones they create with chosen community and family,” Thompson says. “I speak a lot about radical self-love and what that looks like, especially in the face of white supremacy.”
In early June, the Black Student Union issued a list of 16 demands to Warren Wilson College. Citing incidents on campus such as “spray-painting of a racial slur on the inside of a Black student’s dorm room,” the letters “KKK” carved into a tree and “microagressions, racial profiling and exclusionary remarks,” the list focused on prioritizing “the safety of past, present and future Black community members” and amplifying Black and brown voices.
“The overall narrative we are wanting to drive home is that Warren Wilson has never been a space or environment where [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community members felt seen, heard or safe,” Thompson clarified in a July 4 email to Xpress. On June 26, Warren Wilson responded to each of the demands. Among other commitments, the college agreed to hire two new diversity-focused positions, establish a $25,000 scholarship fund in Floyd’s memory and expand counseling opportunities with people of color.
But Thompson and BSU leaders Shidaria Solomon, Bria Scott and Elizabeth Patton are continuing their push for more accountability. They formed The Alma Shippy Coalition, a network of students from different backgrounds who are committed to building on the BSU’s accomplishments. Shippy, the coalition’s namesake, in 1952 became the first Black student admitted to the college.
In an official statement on July 9, the coalition asked the college to revisit the demands in a process that would include more active and campuswide participation and that students be involved in policy changes through compensated work.
In a July 30 email, Warren Wilson spokesperson Mary Bates indicated that the college was listening to these suggestions. The institution recently hired Daleah Goodwin as director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. She is forming an advisory committee that will include students, faculty, staff, a member of the college’s board of trustees and a senior member of the college’s administration. “Members will hold their appointment for a two-year term and will be compensated with a onetime $500 stipend,” said Bates.
Now 18, Ajax Ravenel says she experienced racial profiling and bullying from peers and teachers at public and private schools in Western North Carolina. Those traumatic experiences were followed by mental health challenges that led her to drop out of school at 16.
“In those spaces, there was no one who really understood me from a cultural aspect or a mental health aspect,” says Ravenel. “It was a terrible experience, but moving forward, that got me to where I am now.”
She earned a GED diploma through local nonprofit Green Opportunities and now works as a community engagement coordinator for the YMI Cultural Center, where she is mentored by Black leaders including Michael Hayes and Dewana Little.
Ravenel has carved out a unique role as an intermediary between younger activists and the elders of the movement, who sometimes struggle with the language of the current “woke” generation. She also helps different age groups navigate the concept of “intersectionality,” which explores how race interacts with other aspects of a person’s identity, such as sexual orientation or gender identity.
In collaboration with the YMI, Ravenel recently launched the Noir Collective, a new storefront project on Eagle Street that exclusively features the products and artwork of local Black creatives. The space hosted its first pop-up event, “Bring Black Back to the Block” on Aug. 8.
“Once we start having capital and are able to buy storefronts and have storefronts, then there’s that money flow coming through. … Money is power,” she explains. “Right now our city will dangle $500 in front of us, and we end up fighting over it.”
Former Enka High School student and Asheville native Tashia Ethridge says it wasn’t easy “being a Black, gay femme in a predominantly white school,” and Ethridge, who uses they/them pronouns, struggled with self-acceptance. Now, at 20, Ethridge majors in mass communications at UNC Asheville and hopes to promote more equitable representation of Black voices in media.
To that end, Ethridge is working on a podcast about urban renewal in Asheville. The series aims to shed light on ways the taking of Black-owned property in the 1960s and ’70s shaped present-day racial dynamics in the city. Many people “act as if they have amnesia to the fact that this city was built on the backs of Black people,” they say.
Ethridge helped organize the city’s Black Liberation March on July 4. They point to the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — an unarmed Black high school student who was shot by a white resident, George Zimmerman, in Sanford, Fla. — as an event that shaped their activism.
“That’s when I really confronted what it means to be Black,” recalls Ethridge. “I remember sitting with my family and grieving and then feeling what James Baldwin describes as Black rage: this fire in the bowels that can either be the driving force for us or the bane of our existence.
“When I had to confront that rage that came from a child being killed by a white man — and feeling my ancestors just moan through all my family members — I think when I confronted that Black rage is when I confronted the necessity of doing this sort of work.”
Across the generations
Nearly every activist emphasized that, while the majority of folks on the front lines of recent protests have been young people, much of the work behind the scenes is being orchestrated by other generations of Black leaders.
“The youth are showing up so our elders don’t have to march at such a frightening time. … We are working together intergenerationally and finding our commonalities and our differences and confronting them and having conversations,” says Ethridge.
In early June, a collective of self-described “Black Individuals and Black-led organizations across Asheville and Buncombe County” published Black AVL Demands, which calls for reallocating half of the Asheville Police Department budget to Black communities, creating an all-civilian oversight committee with the power to hold the APD and individual officers accountable for wrongdoing, removing Confederate monuments and renaming streets that memorialize former slave owners.
While many members of the Black AVL Demands Collective have chosen to remain anonymous, Newton and Thompson agreed to go on the record as members of this local and multigenerational organization.
Kyles of the YWCA says that every part of the age spectrum has an important role to play. “We have our elders who have lived through the civil rights movement and who experienced much of the racial discourse and hatred and effects of systemic racism, longer than some of us have been alive,” she says. “We have our resource group, which I consider myself a part of, and then we have our youth.”
She continues, “What I love about our young people is they recognize the intersectionality of this movement. It’s not just about Black lives, it’s about all Black lives. It’s about trans Black lives. It’s about nonbinary Black lives … and that’s the thing we have to hold on to. If one of us [is] bound, we all are bound.”
“We owe it to the ancestors who did the work they did, who got us to where we are now, to where we can even protest,” adds Newton. “We have to keep speaking out, because someone already did the work to get us to where we are now.
“I don’t want future generations of Black people to deal with the same trauma and heal from the same trauma that I have and that my parents’ generations have.”