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Teenagers Of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

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Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Kia Adams, left, and Bilizzi Pacheco, lead a rally on the Brattleboro Common.

In many Vermont schools, students of color have formed social justice groups to bring attention to the challenges of being a black or brown person in a mostly white state.

But with school happening remotely due to COVID-19, students have to rely on social media alone to help them process all that’s going on in the country right now concerning race relations.

And the many rallies that have been organized across the state are giving students a chance to come out and have their voices heard.At a recent rally in Brattleboro, Kia Adams, 16, was standing on a platform in the middle of the Brattleboro Common with a megaphone in her hand.

Hundreds of people held signs and cheered, as Adams got them ready to march through town, to call for an end to police violence and the oppression of black Americans.

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“What I want everybody to do is to stand in solidarity,” Adams yelled across the crowd. “If you have black friends, stand in solidarity with them. If you have black family, stand in solidarity for them, because it’s what we need the most.”

Adams helped organize this rally with the social justice group AWARE, an organization she works with at Brattleboro Union High School.

“We are a bunch of people of color just trying to make a change,” she said. “You know, we’re trying to raise awareness.”

"Being with my fellow students in this group makes me feel safer at my school. And makes me feel like there is hope for the possibility of a future that's safe for us." - Makaila Dorcely, Springfield High School student

The group has been pretty active around southern Vermont, and this rally was to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after a police officer was seen on video with his knee on Floyd's neck. It is not the first public event they’ve organized. AWARE also helped raise Black Lives Matter flags at the high school and middle school in Brattleboro.

Adams said when she’s in a room with people who share her history and who understand the challenges of living in one of the whitest states in the country, it motivates her to get out and tell her story.

“You get to see people of color, like all the kids of color [from the school] in a room, at one time,” she said. “It’s just all of us in one room and we’re talking about issues that bother us. And it’s a good place to just vent and get stuff out. And it’s really nice to be able to connect with a bunch of people of color. Because they have the same issues that we do, we can talk about it.”

“It’s the best time in school when we are all together,” said Bilizzi Pacheco, 16, who is also a member of AWARE. “It’s the time when we can actually be who we really are, together.”

The outrage over Floyd’s death has led to countless protests across the country, and it’s the kind of event that Pacheco says she’d be talking about with her classmates.

More from VPR: 'Waking Up Is A Process': Pride, A Pandemic And The Role Of Protests

But with school out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said it’s been tough being cut off from her friends.

“Our group can’t have our weekly meetings to discuss things,” Pacheco said. “We organize field trips to different schools to speak. We organize events around here when we meet. And now we can’t do those things, because of COVID-19, obviously. It’s been a challenge since I miss seeing their faces; they miss seeing my face. We talk online, but it’s not the same.”

The group was able to organize this rally which drew hundreds of teenagers, and adults, from throughout the region.

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Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Iyla Cousins, 17, came to Brattleboro from where she lives in Keene, N.H. to attend a teenager-organized rally.

Iyla Cousins,17, came over from Keene, N.H., to raise her voice in protest.

Cousins started a minority empowerment club at Keene High School, after concluding that not enough time was being spent talking about the experiences and contributions made by black Americans during Black History Month.

The group now gives her fellow students of color a chance to talk freely about their experiences.

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“We meet once a week. And we pretty much talk about micro-aggressions, things we deal with throughout the day,” Cousins said. “It’s just kind of a safe place for everyone, to be with people of your color, different cultures. So if it’s us saying we all feel ignored, it’s not just me saying I feel ignored, and my culture feels ignored, my history. It’s all of us.”

Cousins also said that being out of school during the pandemic has made it tougher to be a minority in a mostly white community with so much turmoil going on in our country.

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Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Hundreds of people attended a rally in Brattleboro that was organized by a group of teenagers from Brattleboro Union High School.

“Well honestly, in the past few days there’s been a lot of kids from our school, all white kids, period, posting really hurtful, awful things,” Cousins said. “People are just saying a lot more online now that they wouldn’t be saying at school if they knew they’d be having all the ramifications following. And it’s been hard.”

Makaila Dorcely, 17, from Springfield, Vt., said her high school group has been meeting remotely once a week to try to make sense of all of this.

Dorcely is angry and fed up with how black people are treated in America.

It’s gone on for way too long she said, and her generation will not stand by and allow it to continue.

“Being with my fellow students in this group makes me feel safer at my school,” she said. “And [it] makes me feel like there's hope for the possibility of a future that’s safe for us.”

More from VPR: How Do We Build A More Welcoming Vermont?

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