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Left to right: Kennedy Green, Emma Rose Smith, Mikayla Smith, Jade Fuller, and Nya Collins. Photo Credit: Kristine Potter/The New York Times/Redux
Making Our Voices Heard

How a group of teens organized one of the largest anti-racism protests in the history of their city

By Mackenzie Carro, with reporting by Scholastic Kid Reporter Aanya Kabra
From the November 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to read an article about teens who organized a Black Lives Matter protest and an infographic about teen activism; to synthesize information from the two texts to write an essay about how change happens.

Lexile: 1020L
Other Skills: cause and effect, interpreting text, author’s purpose, central idea, supporting a claim, synthesis
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about how protests can lead to change.

Making Our Voices Heard

How a group of teens organized one of the largest anti-racism protests in the history of their city

June 4, 2020, was a hot and humid day in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the kind of day when all you want to do is blast the AC and plop down on the couch. But despite the scorching heat, Nashville’s streets were teeming with people. Starting at 4 p.m., a large crowd began marching through the city. People held up signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace” and “I Can’t Breathe.” They chanted, held hands, and at times, lay down on the hot concrete in silence.

Leading this march were six teens between the ages of 14 and 16: Nya Collins, Jade Fuller, Kennedy Green, Emma Rose Smith, Mikayla Smith, and Zee Thomas. They had organized the protest and were thrilled that so many people had shown up. At one point, they looked back and marveled: They guessed that there were about 1,000 people marching with them.

Actually, there were 10,000.

Scholastic Kids Press Corps

On the Scene

Scholastic Kids Press Corps is a group of youth reporters ages 10-14, from across the country and around the world. At left, Gavin Naar reports on a protest in New Jersey. At right, Bryce Jones interviews a young protester in Georgia.

Taking a Stand

On May 27, about a week before the march, Zee Thomas posted a tweet: “If my mom says yes, I’m leading a Nashville protest.” Like millions of Americans, Zee had been moved to protest after the death of George Floyd.

On May 25, Floyd, a Black man, was killed when a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, restrained him. After handcuffing Floyd and pinning him to the ground, the officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes. Floyd couldn’t breathe. Bystanders shouted for the officer to stop, but he did not. Witnesses recorded the killing, and footage quickly spread across social media. (The officer is now facing murder charges.)

People were horrified, frustrated, and angry. Many saw what happened to Floyd not only as a horrific act, but as a symptom of a deep problem: racism. According to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans are three times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police.

After Floyd’s death, protests, marches, and vigils broke out across the U.S. When Zee saw footage of these demonstrations, she knew she had to take a stand in her city. And she wasn’t alone. Two other Nashville teens, Jade Fuller and Emma Rose Smith, responded to Zee’s tweet, telling her they wanted to help. Jade and Emma then brought in two more friends who wanted to participate: Nya Collins and Mikayla Smith. (The girls met Kennedy Green at the protest and asked her to join them in leading the march.)

After they had all been introduced over group chat and FaceTime, they got to work. First, they created an Instagram account called Teens 4 Equality to get the word out about their march. Then they reached out to local organizations for help. Donations, advice, and support soon came pouring in. In just a few days, the girls had gathered the supplies they needed: signs, snacks, water, and face masks.

A little before 4 p.m. on the day of the protest, only about 15 people had arrived. Little did the teens know that thousands more were on their way.

Thousands of Protests

The Teens 4 Equality protest was one of more than 4,700 demonstrations held around the country after Floyd was killed. There were marches across highways and bridges, sit-ins in front of government buildings, candlelight vigils in parks, and many moments of silence. These protests were all part of a human rights movement that has been growing in America since 2013. It’s called Black Lives Matter.

Though it has many goals, a large focus of Black Lives Matter has been to call attention to racism in our criminal justice system. (The criminal justice system includes police, lawyers, courts and judges, and prisons.) Studies show that for the same crimes, a Black person is more likely to be arrested, be found guilty, and receive a longer prison sentence than a white person.1 Studies have also found that Black people are more likely to be subjected to the use of force by police.2

Because of this racism and the work Black Lives Matter has done to call attention to it, the news of George Floyd’s death hit especially hard. An estimated 26 million Americans poured into the streets to protest. From the smallest towns to the biggest cities, people of all races and backgrounds came together to demand change. Some had been speaking out for years. Others had never protested anything before in their lives. And many of those protesting were kids and teens.

At a demonstration in Woodstock, Georgia, Scholastic Kid Reporter Bryce Jones, 15, asked Tanasia Barnette, 11, why she was there. “We’re trying to show that Black lives matter,” Tanasia said.

At a protest in West Orange, New Jersey, Scholastic Kid Reporter Gavin Naar, 13, said it felt good to see so many young people come out. “I felt like we were doing good by supporting the Black rights movement together,” he said. “It felt good to use my voice to shine a light on how Black people are suffering.”

What is Systemic Racism?

The problem of racism in America is not limited to our criminal justice system. It is embedded in many parts of our society.

Racism is prejudice toward, oppression of, or discrimination against a person or group based on their race, skin color, or ethnicity. Some racism is blatant, like when a person uses a racist term or tells a racist joke. We know that this behavior is unacceptable and deeply wrong.

There is also another kind of racism in our society—and it’s extremely harmful. It’s called systemic racism. And this is what Teens 4 Equality and many other recent Black Lives Matter protesters have been speaking out against. 

Systemic racism is when a system—such as the criminal justice system, the employment system, or the healthcare system—treats white people better than it treats Black people or other people of color. As a result, people of color are put at risk or at a disadvantage.

The criminal justice system treating Black people more harshly than white people is an example of systemic racism. A company promoting fewer Black people than white people to high-level, high-paying jobs—or paying Black people less than white people for doing the exact same jobs—is another example. Doctors giving better care to white people than Black people is another example.

Unfortunately, all of those examples are real—those things are happening right now in the U.S. Many Americans passionately want to see that change—and it can change, if people work together.

People are Listening

The recent protests have had a powerful effect on America. They’ve helped shine a light on systemic racism—and people are listening.

According to a June 2020 Monmouth poll, 76 percent of Americans say racial discrimination is a “big problem.” That number is up 25 percent from 2015. Conversations about equality are happening among friends and classmates and family members around the dinner table.

Encouraging steps have already been taken. Some cities have started changing the way they police. Political leaders are discussing how to make changes to education, health care, criminal justice, and other systems so that all Americans are treated with dignity—and have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

A Deeper Look

The Black Lives Matter movement has also prompted many Americans to take a deeper look at our culture. Communities are questioning their monuments, statues, and flags. They are asking themselves, What do these symbols stand for? What do they say about us? Do we like what they say? And if not, can we change them?

In Mississippi, for instance, the Confederate battle symbol is being removed from the state flag. This symbol was used by the Confederacy, which fought in the Civil War to keep slavery. Today, Confederate symbols are associated with oppression and violence against Black people.

Meanwhile, businesses are rethinking their brands—and in particular, the characters they use to sell their products.

Take Aunt Jemima, the famous pancake syrup brand. The character of Aunt Jemima was created in the 1890s based on an image associated with slavery: a Black woman cooking for her enslavers. Last June, Quaker Oats, the food company that makes the syrup, announced that it was changing the name and packaging. The food company Mars announced that it would be changing “Uncle Ben’s” rice for similar reasons.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Rethinking Symbols

The companies that produce Aunt Jemima pancake products and Uncle Ben’s rice both announced they would change their products’ name and packaging.

Every Voice Counts

The June 4 protest in Nashville became one of the largest in the city’s history, and the teens who organized it were thrilled by the turnout. “I’m happy that a lot of people are realizing that there’s a problem with the system,” says Kennedy.

After the protest, the group posted a photo of the march and captioned it “Change is coming. We see it, we feel it, we know it.”

The teens are dedicated to continuing their work. They held a second protest on July 4 and intend to organize more. When they are older, a few plan to attend law school and run for office. But they know that they don’t have to wait until then to work to make the world a better place.

“Don’t let people be like, ‘You’re too young to make a difference.’ It doesn’t matter how old you are, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, what creed you are, what race you are,” says Emma. “You can make a difference . . . every voice counts.”

“Be loud,” says Kennedy. “Your opinion matters.”

1. United States Sentencing Commission, 2017

2. Nature Research Journal, May 2020; National Academy of Sciences, August 2019

How to Be a Changemaker   

You’re passionate about making the world a better place—but where do you start? Here are 8 ideas.

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.

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Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)

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Brown Girl Dreaming
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Raise Your Voice: 12 Protests That Shaped America 
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Ghost Boys
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Midnight Without a Moon
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