Umutoni Sebunyenzi, 16, said she didn’t notice much racial strife in her community in St. Louis, Mo., until Aug. 9, 2014.
That’s the day a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, during a reported convenience store robbery in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.
Racial tensions erupted in protests and riots involving vandalism, looting, arson and gunfire for weeks.
“After Ferguson, people started looking more at color instead of who people are,” said Umutoni, an African-American high school junior.
And after Ferguson, Umutoni started embracing her activist voice.
“That was the spark,” she said. “I started noticing things were different in my school and my community, and I wanted to change that.”
Having discovered that she loves to talk about race relations and find solutions for unity, Umutoni has become a youth leader in her hometown and works on several initiatives.
To develop her budding skills, Umutoni is attending a Colorado College summer course, “Do #AllLivesMatter?: Historical and Contemporary Protest in the U.S.”
This is the first time CC Professor Heidi Lewis, director and associate professor of feminist and gender studies, has offered the class.
“I wanted to give young people an opportunity to study its foundations and historical context,” she said, and some have participated in recent protests, such as the Women’s March and March for Our Lives.
Lewis designed the 2½-week course for high school students, who can attend summer programs at CC.
While it may appear from media coverage that demonstrations and protests have increased recently, the contemporary social justice movement isn’t new, she said.
“This is a culture that has existed since this country was colonized and settlers were resisting Britain,” Lewis said. “People are resisting a lot of things that aren’t always picked up by the media.”
In addition to racial division, students in her class are studying, discussing and debating fair housing, prison reform, anti-fascism, police violence, LGBTQ rights and other societal issues.
They’re learning how oppression often leads to protests, what social movements look and feel like, what constitutes a successful initiative and the different forms of activism.
And they’re examining the #BlackLivesMatter movement that began after the 2012 Florida shooting of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin and the subsequent #AllLivesMatter response.
“Instead of focusing on what #BlackLivesMatter was intended to communicate, certain people — not all white — decided to focus on what about all the other people,” Lewis said. “That’s antithetical; if they wanted to say Just Black Lives Matter, they would have.”
That development is just one example of the debates that ensue from causes and consequences of protests over social, cultural and political markers.
As might be imagined, the classroom conversation gets lively.
Umutoni said she’s noticed many of the topics constitute modern-day slavery.
“I never really realized how history is repeating itself,” she said. “I’ve found so many connections to the past. People of color are being told what they can do and how to react. LGBTQ people are being told to be quiet and do what you’re told.”
Students are using the book “When We Fight, We Win,” by activist and teacher Greg Jobin-Leeds. He co-founded the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation for Public Education, which advocates for fully resourced, high-quality pre-K-12 public education.
“We’re emphasizing the collective nature of social justice,” Lewis said.
Examples range from the 2015 prison hunger strike, which resulted in legislators ending solitary confinement, to college professors in New York chaining themselves to a building in calling for hiring more black faculty, to the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Social activism often isn’t nice, quiet and peaceful, Lewis said. As evidenced by the discord in Ferguson, actions can get violent.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in prison and murdered,” she said. “This class is trying to take the romance (of social justice) away.”
Umutoni plans to put the knowledge she’s gaining to good use, as she sets about doing her part to effect change for the better.
“A lot of times people will see the way I speak as being too black or my hair as being too ghetto,” she said. “They put me in a box and think I should stay in that box. I don’t want to fit those stereotypes anymore. I don’t want to be in this box because those stereotypes don’t really say who I am.
“Discrimination is pretty big. I don’t want it to change who I want to become.
“I wish these discussions we’re having here were widespread, where students have a safe place to talk problems through.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.