Black Lives Matter

Young women take charge to fight for change
By Sara Dingmann

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Yezi Gugsa is tired of hearing people say that kids these days don’t know what they are talking about.

“It’s just not the truth anymore,” Gugsa says. “The truth is we’ve done extensive research, and we’ve done our best to educate ourselves. In most cases, we’ve done more research than a lot of adults have.”

Gugsa was working with fellow Mayo High School students Jaida Crowson, Rachel Zhang and Kesarin Mehta to have Rochester Public Schools introduce a new equity policy, but they hit a wall and were looking for a new way to incite change. It was after attending a Black Lives Matter protest on May 30 that they realized their new project.

“We decided that we could put something together to help improve what we saw at this protest,” Zhang says. “So we organized a protest in five days.”

They planned out every detail: time for sign-making, the march to Mayo Park, speakers and 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in memory of George Floyd. Nearly 2,000 people showed up to their protest on June 6, an unexpectedly large turnout. “If I’m being honest, I felt like 500 people were going to show up,” Zhang says.

“The amount of people was probably because of the momentum of how unsettled our country was during that time,” Gugsa says. “And I think people were just fed up.”

Janelle Malone, who helped organize protests on May 30 and June 13 along with Manal Abbadi Whitfield and Meg Babylon, saw momentum building at the first rally. She had no plans of leading a march, but the youth took over and marched from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park to City Hall. Malone wasn’t frustrated by the turn of events, but was instead inspired by how they took charge.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that type of energy in the community,” Malone says. “It made me look at Rochester a little bit differently.” However, Gugsa, Crowson and Zhang have always seen teens taking action and have done so themselves as early as middle school. 

Crowson’s fight against racial inequity began in middle school, when she was punished for standing up for a friend who was being told to go back to Somalia—a country the friend wasn’t even from. Crowson and her mother spoke with school officials about the incident, but unfortunately, her experience wasn’t isolated.

“I had so many other students telling me similar stories—‘I got suspended for yelling at somebody for using slurs’ or something like that—basically standing up for themselves and their community,” Crowson says. “And seeing how many kids that were going through the same experience as me, I thought OK, I really care about this. We need to continue talking about this.”

Crowson, who will be a senior at Mayo High School this fall, is now the president of the school’s Diversity Council.

Gugsa had similar experiences in middle school, which has also led her to continue working to educate her peers and school administrators. Among other leadership positions, for the past three years, she has been the class leader for the student school board at Mayo High School, where she will be a senior this fall. “It’s put me directly in our community to see the things that we need and the people who aren’t being represented, whether that’s in school or in the community in general,” Gugsa says.

As if this team were lacking political experience, Zhang, who graduated from Mayo last spring and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, has worked for both the Aleta Borrud state senate campaign and Dan Feehan congressional campaign.

Even with all their experience in politics and community issues, these young women still see elected officials pushing them aside.

“They undermine us because we’re young,” Crowson says. “And, you know, as much as I want to believe they have faith in us, sometimes it feels like they don’t.”

“And they might think that we’re not able to vote but I can vote in the fall and I am taking all these things into consideration when I cast my ballot,” Gugsa says.

But where elected officials have fallen short, they have seen the community step up. Organizations helped the trio research, and community members volunteered and donated to the protest. 

“Even after the protest people kept donating huge amounts of money,” Zhang says. “And so, we decided, ‘Yeah, let’s keep this up, we can do more.’”

To continue their work for the community, they developed the Rochester Community Initiative platform. Their goals include more racial and socioeconomic equity and education in Rochester.

“Just create lasting change—that’s a cliche, but we’re just tired of nothing really happening. And since we realized we have the avenue to create lasting change, this is kind of our outlet for doing so,” Zhang says.

Even though Zhang is leaving for college soon, she and her friends are still invested in the community. “Our future may not be in Rochester, but I think that is what is so great about what we are doing—we aren’t doing it for us,” Gugsa says. “We are doing it for the people who come after us.” 

While these young women are passionate about creating change, advocacy has become a heavier burden for young people. 

“We’re still kids; this shouldn’t be something that we have to do. But unfortunately it’s reality in our community and in this country,” Gugsa says. “You don’t really have the choice not to do anything at this point. Those kids who were at the protests were younger than us. It’s inspiring, but it also breaks my heart.”

“I don’t really have time to wait, especially when we’re in a climate crisis, people are getting shot, I have to live in fear whether or not I’m going to get shot in school,” Zhang says. “I’m not just going to sit idly by while these things happen because I don’t have the privilege of doing that. And neither does anyone in our generation, really.”

They did take a week off to prevent burnout, but they knew they had momentum to build off of and a great sense of personal pride in the accomplishment for having such a successful protest. 

“I also remember the moment afterward, when everyone else had left. We were still at Mayo Park looking at the wall chalked up with all the names of people lost,” Gugsa says. “Emotions flooded over me as we were just sitting there and looking at that. That was amazing.”

“I think that was one of the most valuable moments in my life,” Crowson says. “I never would have thought that I could sit there and make people as passionate as I am because I didn’t think that I was allowed to or that I had the platform.”

One thing they want to make sure young adults know is that their voices matter and that they can make a difference.

“I just want people to know it is your place. If you’re affected by it, or even if you aren’t affected by it,” Zhang says, “you still need to fight for this cause, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do it.”