The Physical and Psychological Toll of Activism

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Tatjana Rebelle is a 2018 Wayfinder Fellow from Indianapolis, who uses various art mediums as forms of activism and is especially focused on elevating the voices of young people.


One could say this administration has shaped me as an activist. It was when now Vice President, Mike Pence was Governor that I became vocal about social justice. Showing up regularly at the Statehouse to do what I could to speak out against legislators blatant attacks on the LGTBQIA+ community. It was when 45 was elected to the Presidency that I made a decision to shift my life’s focus. I turned to the nonprofit sector and became fully committed to being an advocate for social justice. These past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege to speak at several rallies, vigils and panels. One in particular has changed me in more ways than I ever imagined.

Earlier this year I was asked to speak at the March for Our Lives Rally. A young woman from one of the local high schools had heard me perform (I’m also a poet) and speak at a panel a few weeks prior. I was ecstatic because this rally was being put on by the youth to talk about the gun violence that plagues their everyday lives. I was also able to speak in the building where it all began for me, the Indiana Statehouse. When I was writing my speech I made a point to write specifically for the youth that were present. I was fully aware of what the politicians were going to say, and I wanted to speak directly to the youth and be honest. I made a point to speak about state violence perpetrated by the police, not just mass shooters. I spoke about black lives, trans lives and Palestinian lives mattering. I left that stage being heckled by a few adults, but I knew the youth understood that they were not in this alone. I was inspired. I was ready to take on the world. I was reminded of why I decided to get into this work. I was full.

Days later, it came to my attention that a white supremacist vlogger got ahold of a clip of my speech. A clip that was filmed by a family friend and only shared on our Facebook pages. A clip used in a video released on YouTube with a picture of me and the term "Anti-White" next to it. He then used the clip of my speech to go on a 10 minute diatribe about why "blacks are inherently prone to violence", used skewed FBI statistics to "prove" white privilege is not real, amongst other hateful racist commentary. The video (with over 80,000 views and 2000+ comments) referenced my personal blog as well, where people began leaving hateful comments attacking me. Needless to say I was (and mildly am still) in shock.

I had to come to terms with how open we are, because someone had to send this hateful person this clip, causing me to reformat how I use social media. On top of that I found it difficult to be in public. I became terrified that someone had seen the video, believed what was being said about me and would lash out. I worried for my children and my mother. I became worried that I’d lose my job do to backlash. I shut down and only found refuge in my home, behind closed doors and drawn blinds.

As I was going through this and trying to keep up appearances, I was supposed to speak for the 50 year commemoration of Dr. King's assassination. The day of my speech, I pulled up to my house with my children in tow, to find a police officer parked in front of it. Mind you at the time I lived in a all white neighborhood, that never had police presence. Now, I am aware it could be a coincidence but will be honest in saying, I don't believe in coincidences. He remained there for 30 minutes before he pulled off. I still to this day have no idea why he was there and will probably never know. What I do know is I was terrified because it was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t even safe in my own house. I cancelled my speech as I couldn't let go of what I was going through and the reason I was asked to speak that day. I do not consider myself anywhere near the level of Dr. King but am not blind to the world we live in either.  

The reality of being an activist and the dangers that come with it became very real for me and I had to take a step back to consider how far I was/am willing to go, especially while being a single mother. This became even more evident, when I learned that the (white) nonprofit I work for has no protocol for protecting it's employees and did not take the video, nor my fear of police intimidation seriously. I realized that I had no game plan for myself or my family, for protection. I have changed how I navigate the world, especially as more articles come out about activists losing their lives or their loved ones. I feel grateful that my reality check came in the form of a defamation video and nothing worse.

Despite all that has happened, I’ve learned that silence is what they want. Those that benefit from our fractured system, want us to be quiet and complacent. I refuse to sit back and let this go by without exposing it for what it is. I am currently working on a chapbook and art installation, to be released on December 7th, using the video and the comments, to show people what it's really like to be a queer PoC activist on the front lines. I hope that everyone that reads this will take the time to truly think about how far they are willing to go out on a limb to stand up for what is right.

Not everyone is made to be on the frontlines. Not all of us have the privilege to be vocal or the safety to be seen. Yet, we can’t just sit idly by in silence either. We must all take a stand even if it’s behind others. Know that it’s okay to take a step back to reevalute what your role is going to be.


#ThisIsActivism

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Activism in this country is not new. It’s not situated or mandated for one race of people and yet, it typically liberates one group of people - the disenfranchised who are marginalized into situations and systems that are set-up to fail them, even though those same systems are disguised as helping hands. 

The past few years have ignited a new wave of activists who are on the front lines every day fighting for what’s right in their communities. The Wayfinder Foundation is launching a new campaign, #ThisIsActivism where stories of out-of-the box, attention grabbing actions will be shared and celebrated. 

This is the first edition of #ThisIsActivism:

A 15-year old Black teen is killed in DC and the community is mobilizing, by Tanzi West Barbour

Activist Ronald Moten did what he knows best when he heard about yet another young Black teen killed in the Ward 8 section of the city. He began to organize his community to fight back against the violence. “I been at this for a long time DC. Y’all know me. You know how I respond. I don’t sleep. How can anyone sleep when our Black babies are still dying every day in this city?” said Moten.

Jaylyn Wheeler was a freshman at Ballou High School. He was killed in an alley two blocks from his school. And although his death is still being investigated, Moten and his crew aren’t waiting for the official word. 

Moten went on Facebook sharing this video:

After more than 9,000 views, nearly 400 shares and 300 comments including one from a mother who said her son tried to save Jaylyn’s life. “He died in my son’s arms,” she said in response to Moten’s video. 

Since then a Mayoral Candidate Youth Forum was held on Saturday, May 19th. The current Mayor did not attend and a Stop the Violence vigil is being planned for Friday, May 25th led by Moten and mothers of young victims of violence.

What’s more is natives to the nation’s capital have come together in response to an article in Washingtonian magazine entitled “I’m not a Tourist: Native Washingtonians” that featured only white people in its pictorial display of native Washingtonians. Longtime DC activist, Tony Lewis, was not happy. So he quickly pulled together his own photo shoot inviting all people who were born and went to school in Washington, DC. More than 200 people met at Union Market, a new gentrified area of Northeast DC for a redo of the poor display of diversity photo shoot for the magazine. People bought t-shirts and used #Native to voice their outrage.

“We’re still here!” shouted Lewis. “You aren’t rid of us yet!” 

This is Activism.

Mariachi anyone? By Justin C. Cohen

Activism doesn’t always have to be in the form of a rally or protest. The point of activism is being heard and fighting back. When attorney Aaron Scholssberg went on a racist rant in Midtown Manhattan in New York demanding Spanish-speaking employees speak English, little did he know that he was activating an enormous response that sent a mariachi band to his home along with hundreds of protesters.

“The message that we’re sending to him is not just to him. It’s to every single person in America - every single racist. If they think they can openly attack our communities, man, there’s going to be a response,” said organizer Carlos Jesus Calzadilla.

This is Activism.

Activism through Education by Angela Jones Hackley

Derrick Parker is 2018 Valedictorian of Morehouse College. As the first child of six to attend college, Derrick said he knew his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he worked hard in high school so they didn’t have to. In return, he received was awarded a Gates Millenium Scholarship to fully cover his tuition at Morehouse. 

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During his graduation speech, this 4.0 students revealed that he received offers from 19 different law schools. He’s decided to attend Harvard. And while all of that may be true, the message I heard from Derrick while waiting to cheer on my Godson who I saw walk down the aisle to his seat with tears streaming down his face, was “I have chosen education as my path to activism.”

He gave his fellow Morehouse brethren a call-to-action that went something like “It is up to us to change the world. We are what our parents have been waiting for.” he told the other 389 graduating young men. I realized at that moment we were sitting among some of the greatest minds of our time. Most of whom looked just like my Godson - young, gifted, educated, and Black. 

I work in a sector where activism typically shows up in a couple of ways - a rally, a blog, a day at the state capitol, or a petition. However, on this day, I bore witness to activism through education. And for that, I am grateful.

This is Activism.

Justice for Saheed Vassell by Justin C. Cohen

Last Thursday, the family of Saheed Vassell and a group of local activists demanded answers from the New York Police Department. Just a month earlier, on April 4, Saheed - an unarmed black man - was shot to death by plainclothes police officers in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. The family came to make four demands of the police:

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1) Release the names of the officers involved
2) Make those officers' disciplinary records public
3) Release unedited video footage of the incidence
4) Explain the presence of the "SRG" at the scene

The SRG is a unit of un-uniformed police officers who are not assigned to a precinct. Though the SRG was created to "combat terrorism," often the division is a "placement of last resort" for officers with violent tendencies and disciplinary problems.

After the NYPD repeatedly failed to provide answers to simple questions about the investigation, the meeting closed, and activists in attendance descended on NYPD leadership to demand follow-through on their basic requests for transparency and accountability. You can see them here in this video.

Join us in highlighting the work of grassroots activists around the country by using the #ThisIsActivism to elevate stories of their work.