It was as if an electric shock ripped through the city and the nation on the day Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana this summer.
Among those galvanized were three Baton Rouge high school students. The night of Sterling’s death they put out a call on social media under the hashtags #thewavebrla (the Wave Baton Rouge) and #justiceforaltonsterling. They announced a peaceful protest scheduled in five days time.
Myra Richardson, 17; Raheejah Flowers, 15; and Jeanette Jackson, 15, spearheaded the Wave March for Justice, a protest that brought thousands into the street in front of the Louisiana capitol on July 10.
“We’re very proud of the work our students have done,” said Lucas Spielfogel, executive director of Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, a nonprofit that provides college support services to low-income youth and promotes their personal, academic and leadership development. The three young women were fellows at the youth coalition.
Youth organizations that promote civic engagement — like the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition (BRYC) — are now seeing young people take those very lessons into the Black Lives Matter movement.
Such organizations encourage young people to be fully involved members of society and take part in shaping their world. And those like BRYC focus on providing the same resources to low-income young people as their more affluent peers.
“It’s a natural extension [of the organization’s work] for students to have discussions around issues and want to take action,” Spielfogel said. They’re demonstrating power and agency, he said. The role of the organization is to provide support and tools, he said.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has really shined a light on injustice in the form of police brutality and spurred a national conversation,” Spielfogel said. Everyone has been impacted, he added.
“The movement has … made more apparent a very big problem in our nation,” he said.
Advocating for themselves
Girls Inc. of Alameda County, California, has an advocacy program for girls in grades nine through 12 called Advocating for Change Together (ACT).
It focuses on issues in the community that need to be changed or improved, said Julayne Virgil, chief executive officer of Girls Inc. of Alameda County. One focus has been teen dating violence.
Girls identify issues, conduct research, consult with experts and identify a project to undertake, Virgil said.
“It’s one way we encourage civic engagement,” she said.
The organization is an affiliate of the national Girls. Inc. organization and has programs in 20 schools and community sites in the underserved communities of San Francisco’s East Bay. It offers academic achievement programs and a counseling service, Pathways Counseling Center.
It focuses on literacy, math and science, health and fitness, pregnancy prevention, leadership, and advocacy. Ninety-five percent of participants in Girls Inc. of Alameda County are girls of color.
The Black Lives Matter movement “is very relevant to the girls we work with,” Virgil said.
“We are responsible for providing a safe space for our girls but also for advocating for them,” she said.
“Many things that happen in the world that impact our girls and we think about those,” she said.
Young women began the movement
The founders of the Black Lives Matter movement are an inspiration to the girls at Girls Inc. of Alameda County. The organization’s Facebook page showed photos of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers and Opal Tometi, the three young women who began Black Lives Matter as a social media movement in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a Florida subdivision.
“Let’s learn from them as this movement continues to gain momentum!” the Facebook post read.
The call for action by Garza, Cullers and Tometi led to a grassroots movement of demonstrations across the nation in response to black men being killed by police. The goal is to build connections between black people and their allies to fight racism, according to the website BlackLivesMatter.com.
Forty-three percent of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a Pew Research Center poll published in June. Twenty-two percent oppose it. Nearly one-third don’t know anything about it, according to the poll.
Support for the movement is lower among white people. A Monmouth University poll taken July 14-16 showed 83 percent of African-American voters think the movement has brought attention to the racial disparities that exist in the United States, while only 53 percent of white voters do.
However, more voters consider racial discrimination a problem than they did two years ago, when Monmouth conducted a similar poll.
OST’s role in eliminating racism
One large national organization, the YWCA, has a central goal of eliminating racism and empowering women. It sponsors the Stand Against Racism campaign each year, drawing about 160,000 people nationwide, according to the organization. Events are held to teach about racism, encourage action and bring together people working for racial justice.
A program EMPOwERgirlz at the National Capital Area YWCA provides mentoring, education and leadership opportunities for young women.
Society sends the message that black lives do not matter, Karen Singer, president and CEO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore in Evanston, Illinois, wrote in a blog last year.
She wrote about how:
- Students of color are disciplined more severely than white students are, for the same behaviors, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
- Black borrowers are more likely to get turned down for conventional mortgage that white borrowers with the same credit score, according to the Urban Institute.
- Black men get prison sentences nearly 20 percent longer than white men convicted of similar crimes, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2013.
- Black drivers are nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be asked during a routine traffic stop for “consent” to have their car searched, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
- African Americans use drugs less frequently than white Americans, but black people are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as white people, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Some Americans think the Black Lives Matter movement has worsened race relations.
Fifty-five percent of white voters think the movement has made racial problems worse, according to the Monmouth poll taken in mid-July.
Spielfogel, of the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, said the Black Lives Matter movement is a peaceful movement and should not be confused “with every other effort fighting against anti-black police violence,” he said.
“Our young people of color are in harm’s way every day, just because of how they look and how society has been conditioned to perceive and receive them,” he said.
One of the young women who spearheaded the July 10 demonstration in Baton Rouge lives around the corner from where Alton Sterling was killed by a police officer, Spielfogel said.
“Our students live in these communities. Simply by being black, their daily lives are more fraught with risk than the march they led ever could have been.”