CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One day during her senior year of high school, Krissy Oliver-Mays had to step out of her AP Literature and Composition class to call Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles.
Upon returning, “everybody’s looking at you, and you’re like, ‘Sorry, you know, it’s the mayor,’” Oliver-Mays said.
It was November 2019, and Oliver-Mays was helping Extinction Rebellion Youth Charlotte, of which she is co-coordinator, prepare for a climate strike with renowned teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. They had learned Thunberg was coming two days before the event was set to happen and were hurrying to get ready.
Despite the rush, the event was a success, drawing 1,200 people. And months later Oliver-Mays, 19, is bringing her organizing experience to a new cause: the push for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Like many young people in Charlotte, she is participating in the protests that have swept the city and the nation. These young activists bring to the table past experience, sometimes years of it, from other movements—as well as the hope that this, at last, can be the time things change.
Oliver-Mays got involved in climate activism after seeing a photograph of a starving polar bear. The photograph spurred her to research climate change, and she said she was “horrified” by what she found.
Then she got to work.
She learned of Extinction Rebellion, a national climate advocacy organization, on social media, and she and a friend started a local youth chapter. She began participating in weekly climate strikes — which have continued on Zoom during the pandemic.
Soon she was balancing activism with schoolwork, a job as a nanny, varsity cheerleading and involvement in the student government. It was a difficult balancing act, but one she said was “a hundred percent” worth it.
“I would not change a thing,” she said. “I think one of the most satisfying things is just to see the impact that you’ve made on people.”
The current movement motivated Oliver-Mays to speak up about racial justice. She said that in the past, she sometimes felt that she couldn’t say “Black Lives Matter,” that it was “something super political.”
“It’s definitely sparked something in me that makes me feel powerful and motivated,” she said.
Extinction Rebellion has been active in several Charlotte-area protests. As part of the Charlotte Youth Climate Collective, a group of climate organizations, they helped plan a June 10 candlelight vigil with help from Kidz Fed Up and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP.
‘I KNEW THAT I COULD DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT’
Claire Tandoh, the 17-year-old founder of Kidz Fed Up, traced the roots of her interest in activism to her childhood, when her mother introduced her to NPR and Keith Olbermann. And as a Black person in America, she couldn’t escape societal problems, she said.
She got involved in High School Democrats of America and Teen Democrats, and became a precinct leader for the Democratic Party. Earlier this year, she started Kidz Fed Up, through which she planned to help young people of color get organized by planning community events such as food drives.
But soon before she finished her senior year at Providence High School, Floyd’s death kicked off protests across the country. She felt that she had a role to play in Charlotte.
“I felt like the protests that were going on didn’t showcase what’s actually happening outside of the media, and so I knew that I could do something different,” she said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
As Kidz Fed Up, Tandoh organized a June 2 protest in partnership with the NAACP. She also worked with the NAACP on a June 8 rally and helped with the June 10 vigil, among other events.
For NAACP branch President Corine Mack, working with youth-led groups has been an opportunity to impart more than four decades of civil rights experience to a younger generation of activists.
“They have the passion, and they’re innovative, and every movement that was ever successful had a youth component, many times led by youth,” Mack said.
Tandoh said she’s grateful for the partnership.
“Corine is just one of those people that … really has been guiding me in the right directions and, you know, giving me tips on how to be a better organizer and, you know, how to be a better activist and honestly just how to be a better person in general,” she said.
‘NO CLIMATE JUSTICE WITHOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE’
Like Tandoh, David Rosen, the 25-year-old hub coordinator for Charlotte’s Sunrise Movement hub, has years of experience with activism. He went to his first protest — a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Durham — in 2014, as a student at Duke University.
That day, a friend handed him a poster that said “We can’t breathe,” and he took it back to his dorm. There, a friend asked him why, as a white person, he had gone to the event.
“A mixture of that conversation and hanging that poster on my wall kicked (me) into gear for years,” Rosen said.
After college, Rosen worked with climate refugees in the West Bank through a fellowship program. He became involved in the Sunrise Movement because they were the first climate group that he said understood the need for systemic change to achieve climate justice.
Sunrise has held banner drops around the city during the protests, and they helped plan the June 10 vigil. They’ve also worked with the NAACP, which Mack said partners with the Sunrise Movement on a national level as well as locally.
Rosen sees racial justice as fundamentally tied to the cause of climate activism. He said achieving a Green New Deal, a set of progressive environmental and economic policies, will require a “people’s alignment” that spans race and class.
Oliver-Mays thinks the same way. “We are a climate movement, but the climate movement is very intersectional. So our intention is to always make sure that we get justice for everyone, because there is no climate justice without social justice,” she said.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Tandoh’s plans for Kidz Fed Up go beyond protesting. She wants it to be a “resource hub” to help people get organized in their own communities. To that end, she’s made pamphlets and plans to make videos in the future.
Kidz Fed Up is just her for now, with her friends helping out. She said it could expand to include more people, but she doesn’t want a leadership hierarchy or multiple chapters, which she said would pull group members away from their original mission.
And the name doesn’t only apply to her, she said.
“The thing is, if you’re following me, if you’re staying in touch on how to do things, you literally are a kid that’s fed up,” she said.
The young people organizing in Charlotte described a mix of emotions about the future. Tandoh said “everything will continue to be up in the air” until there’s real policy change to protect Charlotte citizens from police violence.
Rosen said it’s important to be hopeful.
“When I talk with a lot of the other groups, what sparked them was similar to me. When I started out it was Black Lives Matter. When most of them started out, it was March For Our Lives,” he said, referring to protests against gun violence following the 2018 Parkland shooting. “But these are these moments of the whirlwind, moments of massive change, where, while everything feels like hell, everything also feels possible.”
In some ways, Oliver-Mays said, she’s anxious about the future because nobody can predict what it will hold. She said it’s “disheartening” to see the repeated cycle of the deaths of Black people and the protests that follow.
“But I do have hope for the future,” she said. “But I think more than that, it’s taking that hope, it’s taking that rage, it’s taking that uncertainty and fueling it into action, and making sure that you are doing your part to create the future that you want. And I feel like our generation is really doing that.”