‘We have to evolve towards a better future for ourselves’: Detroit area teens demand racial equality

As Chalkbeat Detroit spoke with more than a dozen students over the last few weeks, we heard outrage, frustration, and exhaustion. But we also heard this: They feel empowered and inspired. (Eleanore Catolico)

As the nation faces a reckoning over racial injustice and police violence, many metro Detroit students are speaking out and taking action. 

Many have attended protests. Some have organized marches and others have become politically involved. As Chalkbeat Detroit spoke with more than a dozen students over the last few weeks, we heard outrage, frustration, and exhaustion. But we also heard this: They feel empowered and inspired.

One of those students — Makiah Shipp — is part of a virtual student panel discussion on race that Chalkbeat Detroit will moderate from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday. If you’d like to hear what school leaders and teachers can do to better support young people in this moment, sign up here.

‘Give us our justice’

Layla Allen is a 16-year-old activist and poet. (Courtesy of Layla Allen)

Layla Allen is a 16-year-old activist and poet. So when protesters hit the streets in Detroit to denounce the killing of George Floyd and racism in general, she couldn’t just join in. She had to get permission from her mother.

“What she said at first was, ‘no, you can’t do this, it’s too dangerous; they’re tear gassing people. I don’t want you to go to jail because no one has money to pay your bail.’ ”

Allen, who attends Davis Aerospace Technical High School, expressed herself through online petitions and Instagram posts, but she didn’t stop trying to convince her mom to let her protest in person.

“I was emotional and enraged all in the same breath,” she said. “After I explained how I felt about the situation she kind of started to look at it with a new perspective.”

Last month, Allen helped lead a small protest with some of her high school classmates outside of the Detroit police headquarters.

“We’re tired of the justification — just give us our justice,” she said. “When people ask me if anything is occurring now takes me by surprise, it’s like, no. It’s more so disheartening and infuriating than it comes by surprise.”

‘Everybody deserves equality’

King Bethel, 14, hopes to inspire change with his music. (Courtesy of Netha Johnson/King Bethel)

Being an aspiring rapper and singer has given King Bethel, 14, an outlet for dealing with a chaotic 2020. It began when his mother was diagnosed with COVID-19 (she’s since recovered) and has continued with protests over police violence.

At a recent protest organized by Detroit’s charter schools, Bethel recited  a poem by Haywood Glenn that reflected on the nation’s history of racial oppression and the Black community’s resilience. Glenn is a staff member at Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, where Bethel attended school last year.

“We make broken streets whole,” Bethel recited, delivering each verse with rhythm. “The key is the children. Tomorrow is promised because we intend to build it. We are a community of beauty and passion … as the elders imagined.”

Days after the event, Bethel said he hoped his performance compelled people in the crowd to take action. 

“I wanted to inspire and encourage the youth about the racial inequality and the racial injustice that is happening at this very moment — and keep fighting,” Bethel said. 

“No matter if you’re young, Black, white, brown, no matter what color you are, everybody deserves equality,” he said. 

‘Being Black is not a crime’

Ridgeley Hudson, 18, wants to elevate the stories of Black people. (Courtesy of Ridgeley Hudson)

Ridgeley Hudson, 18, sees both sides of the debate on police brutality. 

His two brothers and a cousin are Detroit police officers. They taught him his rights as a citizen, and he’s seen them forge positive relationships with the community. But he’s also had his own negative encounters with police and believes he’s been a target of racial profiling.

George Floyd’s death left him angry. 

“I’m frustrated, outraged,” he said. “George Floyd deserves justice … and being Black is not a crime.” 

Hudson is a student of Black history, and believes education can be a great influence. He recently graduated from Martin Luther King High School and will be starting college soon, but he hopes to return to the Detroit district one day and uplift the stories of Black people. 

“When people know their history, they know how to be active in the community and know how to speak up for all people, for equity, equality, and justice,” he said.

‘My life should be equal to anyone else’

For Joy James, 17, her fight for racial justice is about recognizing the worth of every Black life.  (Courtesy of Joy James)

Joy James, 17, fears a tragedy like George Floyd’s will one day crush her family. She’s watched  too many deaths during arrests on TV and social media. 

“I don’t want to be judged based on the color of my skin. My life should be equal to anyone else. My life shouldn’t be less valuable. For the race I am. For the gender I am,” said James, a student at Cass Technical High School. 

She believes it’s up to young people to fulfill the promise of racial equality. The protests, she said, have made her feel more empowered.

“I want to have a voice to change the world I live in,” she said.   

‘We can’t stop’

Kyndall Bouldin, 13, said she won’t stop advocating for racial equality until meaningful changes come. (Courtesy of Reanna Akins/Kyndall Bouldin)

At 13, Kyndall Bouldin is already exhausted. She’s spent years learning about the long fight for civil rights for Black people, and she said it’s frustrating that the fight continues.

“It matters so much to us. Because we haven’t really gotten to a point where everything is equal and everyone is getting the same amount of respect,” said Bouldin, who attended Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences last year. 

After Floyd’s death she became passionate about protesting for racial justice. She’s starting conversations with family members and inviting her friends to participate in peaceful demonstrations. 

“If we keep protesting, these changes will soon come. We can’t stop,” she said.

‘I just want to walk outside, enjoy the day like everybody else’

Stefan Perez, 16, is fighting for the freedom to venture on the streets without fear.  (Da’Aron Donohue)

Like so many other protestors, Stefan Perez is fighting for the freedom to venture on the streets without fear. 

“I just want to walk outside, enjoy the day like everybody else. Be alive and come back home,” said Perez, who attended Communication and Media Arts High School last school year. 

Perez has had his own run-ins with police. When he was 13 and in middle school, he and two friends were stopped by police officers because they fit the description of a robbery suspect. Now 16, Perez is active in fighting against police violence and oppression.

Last month, he was heralded as a hero for his role during the fourth night of demonstrations in Detroit, when he convinced the large crowd to abide by the city’s curfew.

Perez said it doesn’t matter how long it takes to achieve racial justice — days, weeks, months, or years. If he has children of his own, he doesn’t want them to be afraid of being outside.

“We have to evolve towards a better future for ourselves,” he said.

‘I always had to downplay my Blackness’

Taylor Martin, 17, become an activist in part because she didn’t want her younger sister to experience racism. (Eleanore Catolico)

Taylor Martin, 17, attended predominantly white suburban elementary schools, and remembers being the little Black girl so many adults ignored.

She believes she was singled out several times for discipline because she is Black. When a white male classmate called her the n-word, she received flak from some peers for reporting the slur to school administrators. Those are just a couple of examples of incidents she said left her feeling lonely, isolated, and adrift. 

The teachers “told me to get over it,” said Martin, who attends Carlson High School in Gibraltar. “I always had to downplay my Blackness for acceptance, and over time, I felt sadness in my heart.” 

She became an activist in part because she didn’t want her younger sister to experience racism. Recently, Martin helped organize a peace march, drawing hundreds of youth and adults from across the region. She also launched @justiceinthemitten, an Instagram account where Taylor posts information on local protests and youth activism.

Her hope: No more deaths from police violence.

‘Get out of your comfort zone to learn’

Makiah Shipp, 17, is helping her community fight for racial justice by engaging them in the political process. (Courtesy of Makiah Shipp)

Makiah Shipp, an incoming college freshman, said there’s much work to be done when it comes to eradicating racism in the classroom.

Growing up, she remembers being frustrated that her textbooks taught about slavery, but didn’t focus enough on Black leaders, social movements, and indigenous history. These stories, Shipp said, need to be elevated to cultivate cultural understanding and help people connect across their differences.

Diverse cultural lessons are important for all schools, she said, including those that have a predominantly white student and teaching population. 

“The white teachers need to take that step to be like, ‘OK, this space is not racially diverse, but you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to educate myself about Black history, and I’m going to take the steps to be able to teach my class, whether or not there are Black students in the class,’ ” she said. “They need to be aware of what this world looks like outside of the school.”

Social media can be another outlet for learning. It can help youth explore diverse perspectives and expand their world view.

“Get out of our comfort zone to learn … what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said.

Makiah is helping her community fight for racial justice by engaging them in the political process. To her, knowledge of and participation in the political system are ways for communities to force reforms.

At 17, the recent high school graduate is getting her feet wet as one of the youngest field organizers for Rashida Tlaib’s reelection campaign to represent Michigan in Congress. She spends her days canvassing for Tlaib, going door to door encouraging residents to vote in the upcoming local and presidential elections.

‘We’ve got to start with our kindergarteners’

Regina Murphy is a 15-year-old Black girl who dreads the stares she has learned to expect when she visits cousins in a majority white Detroit suburb. She thinks of it as ignorance: People don’t know anything about Black Americans and their history, so they don’t know how to relate.

That’s why Murphy, a sophomore at Davis Aerospace Technical Academy, thinks fighting racism in America starts at school.

“Coming together is more than just moving back to the city and building a downtown,” she said. “We’ve got to start with our kindergarteners. I think that the lack of history of America is what the white supremacists want. They raise their kids to believe that U.S. history is just U.S. history, and leave out the part that Black people built the entire thing up.”

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