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This summer we continued to adapt to the new normal by running our summer radio institute in a hybrid format. With the American Tobacco Studios as our home base students had the opportunity to work within our newsroom, and from home. Using in-person training, Zoom calls, Instagram, and our curriculum website, we took youth reporters through the process of producing a radio story - from pitching to interviews to script-writing and editing. We worked with 8 high school and college students ages 16-20 from across the Triangle and Triad area.

Keep that same energy: Black student activists in Wake County manage stress, burnout

Demonstrators with the Wake County Black Student Coalition march under the night sky in Raleigh in the summer of 2020
Jane Pierce
/
for WUNC
Demonstrators with the Wake County Black Student Coalition march under the night sky in downtown Raleigh during the summer of 2020.

Like most Americans, Victoria Smith remembers the energetic wave of protests following George Floyd’s death in 2020.

She and Yakob Lemma are two activists from Raleigh, and the founders of the Wake County Black Student Coalition. They were in high school at the time, and they used the electric atmosphere to found the group and hit the ground running.

Armed with megaphones and nearly 200 students, the coalition launched its “Counselors Not Cops'' campaign at a lively Wake County school board meeting in July 2020. Despite passionate speeches and demonstrator turnout, only one of nine board members approved the coalition’s proposal to replace school resource officers with counselors specializing in conflict resolution.

Despite the vote, some of the coalition’s social media efforts have been successful at reaching a wider audience. On July 20, 2020, they launched the #BlackStudentsMatter Twitter campaign, to push for a virtual start to the 2020-2021 school year. It quickly became the No. 2 trending topic in Raleigh.

Although Smith and Lemma never pinpointed the impact of the Twitter campaign, the Wake County school board leaders coincidentally announced a change to completely virtual instruction the next day.

Unfortunately, like many other movements, time began testing the Wake County Black Student Coalition. Event turnout has steadily dropped in the two years since it was founded.

“Now, man, I'm struggling to get, you know, even 100 people up, right,” Lemma said.

Victoria Smith and Yakob Lemma lead protests in downtown Raleigh, NC with the Wake County Black Student Coalition in the summer of 2020.
Swaycha Goli
Victoria Smith and Yakob Lemma lead protests in downtown Raleigh, NC with the Wake County Black Student Coalition in the summer of 2020.
The Crowd at the vigil for Buffalo barely filled Moore Square Park, while the entire Bicentennial Mall was full at the rally against Roe v. Wade.
Chris Williams
The Crowd at the vigil for Buffalo barely filled Moore Square Park, while the entire Bicentennial Mall was full at the rally against Roe v. Wade.

Comparing attendance at a vigil for the victims of the racially motivated Buffalo mass shooting to a rally against the overturning of Roe V. Wade was especially painful for these student leaders. The difference left organizers feeling like they were chipping away at a cement foundation with toothpicks.

Coalition leaders started to question what influences demonstrator turn out, and whether or not people only show up when issues directly impact them.

I started to ask myself the same questions. Are the folks who were vocal in 2020, but are now nowhere to be found, performative? But rather than guessing, I wanted to know, where did all that 2020 support go? Two years after the protests that sparked many of these organizations, why have so many people, whether organizing or just attending, taken a step back?

I started by talking to Gracie Staser. Her work as a former organizer with the Coalition pushed her to take a step back from activism as a whole. She helped me understand some of the experiences and feelings that lead people to become less involved with these movements over time.

Staser started by describing a typical day of organizing with the coalition in 2020. She sat through entire days of Zoom calls and laid awake some nights when the pressure was too much to sleep. She even developed stress hives while planning an event at Appalachian State University.

These struggles helped Staser realize it was time to fully put herself first. She found a therapist who helped her leave organizing behind, and accept that it was best for her mental health. She also began understanding why she felt frustrated, even after taking steps to handle the stress she experienced.

Gracie Staser speaks at the July 2020 school board protest with the Wake County Black Student Coalition.
Swaycha Goli
Gracie Staser speaks at the July 2020 school board protest with the Wake County Black Student Coalition.

“I need a point A (and) point B finish to the story,” Staser said. “And when it comes to activism, that doesn't always happen.”

Staser even changed her major from political science to film studies. Her new path allows her to share important messages while removing herself from the pressure of actively organizing.

Lemma also needed to take a step back. He claims that Raleigh police officers harassed him for months. The way he described it, it sounded like "COINTELPRO," the FBI’s covert operations to infiltrate and dismantle political movements in the late 50s to early 70s. Lemma says they took photos of his tags, blinded him with high beams and squad car lights, and swerved recklessly towards his car. He said being chased by officers in riot gear was his final straw.

“I was just running with the speaker in hand running as fast as I could. And like I literally look back and I just see two cops beating one person in some bushes, right,” Lemma said. “I was shaky. I was so scared. And I decided to just take a month to just cool down.”

Lemma took his break and jumped back in, but he encountered another setback when he was arrested for trespassing at a protest in May 2021. Yes, legal trouble meant winding up in one of the biased systems his group fights against. But the reaction from his family hit him harder than the arrest itself.

“My dad didn't talk to me for the next like three to four days after that. My mom could even look at me. Right? My sister wasn't talking to me either,” he told me.

Lemma was able to fully re-enter organizing this summer after taking last school year to get adjusted as a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman. Despite these challenges, that passion is still there.

"Honestly, I'm just running on angry," Lemma said. "I'm running on sadness, right? I'm running on frustration. But I'm channeling that energy. And there's something good."

Lemma showed that passion in early July this year, at an activism fair in Raleigh’s Moore Square. Funk music, sunshine and people looking to be more politically active filled the park as Lemma and other coalition leaders recruited members from as far as Wilmington. They said the opportunity to branch out was exciting for the organization.

“This is well worth it for us, yeah, big things on the way,” Lemma said. “A lot of signups, a lot of donations, a lot of followers, great energy. Yeah, it makes me feel hopeful.”

Organizations with vibrant and welcoming leaders filled the event. Some people played drums, and others used robotic voices to communicate. It was refreshing to see people be activists while still enjoying themselves and being creative. I began to understand why each leader emphasized the need for movements to keep things fresh with a variety of actions.

“It's a lifelong road to activism, it’s a lifelong fight,” Smith said. “It's not just getting out in the streets at one moment, but it's continuing into integrating this activism into our everyday life.”

There are plenty of places to start for any cause, and you can create your own vehicles of change if you feel others are moving in the wrong direction. It’s important to stand up, but you have to pace yourself. We are all in this fight for the long haul.

Born in Queens, Chris Williams grew up in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. As a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism, Chris hopes to change the narratives surrounding Black culture in American media.
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