Standing in solidarity with “Mother Emanuel” Families in Charleston, South Carolina one year later

By Raul Vasquez

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As I rode in the back of a taxi on a warm Sunday morning in June through the historic streets of Charleston, South Carolina, it seemed at first glance like a perfectly normal day. Couples leisurely pushed strollers. Vendors set up booths at an outdoor market. Picturesque horse-drawn carriages rolled along by the light traffic.

I asked the driver to drop me at Marion Square, in the heart of the city and a few hundred feet from the African Methodist Emanuel Episcopal Church.

Over the last few years, Americans have seen groups of civilians massacred on a scale that can only be described as shocking. To cite them, we only need mention their city: Orlando… San Bernardino… Roseburg… Dallas…

And Charleston.

Just after 8 p.m. on June 17, 2015, a young man joined a Bible study group at the AME Church. After an hour of sitting with churchgoers, who’d welcomed him, he shot and killed nine of them.

The next day, when he was being interrogated by the FBI, he said his goal was to start a race war in the United States.

A few weeks after the shooting, the granddaughters of one of the victims, the Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., were invited to Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute to share their story, and to describe the birth of their campaign, “Hate Won’t Win,” which was a direct response to the killings. This June, the sisters — Ava and Alana Simmons — invited Public Allies to be a part of their March for Unity in Charleston on the first anniversary of the tragedy.

“The purpose of this event,” wrote Alana in the invitation, “is to have people from all walks of life stand in love against the hateful acts that took the lives of nine wonderful souls.”

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When I emerged from the taxi on the morning of Saturday, June 18, I cut through the seeming normality of Charleston to join hundreds of people who’d assembled in front of the AME Church. Most of those in attendance had personally known some or all of the nine people who were killed here exactly a year earlier.

For some of them, being here on the first anniversary brought back fresh the pain and anguish.

As I was waiting for the service to start, I began a conversation with a woman who told me that one of her family members was among the killed, and that this was the first time she had participated in any memorial service for the victims.

“It’s been just too painful,” she said. “That night I was going to be at the prayer service, but at the last minute I couldn’t make it…”

We stood for a short prayer service in front of the AME Church, and afterward everyone began to march to another plaza a few blocks away, where a large tent had been set up. Those who couldn’t fit inside stood nearby to listen to speakers such as Ava Simmons and Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The message of the day — not just in words, but actions — was love. A love for community. A love by and for the people who have been carrying the weight of their loss. And as the service carried on, I stood there in the hard shade of a midday Charleston summer day, and I could feel the power of their love.

Through all the pain, in spite of such a hurtful, hateful attack on their community, the people of Charleston and especially the members of then AME Church congregation had found the courage to come together to love one another, to show forgiveness, and to recommit to the bonds that make them a community.

There were many tears that day, but there were many more embraces, and warm smiles. Healing itself seemed to hang in the air.

After the service, I walked back to the AME Church. When I reached  the base of the building that held a flower-filled memorial for the victims, I saw a young woman clutching a single red rose while she sang and wailed at the top of her voice.

She stayed in that spot on the sidewalk for several minutes. A couple with two children were walking past the AME Church and saw her. They walked closer to her and stood by her side. The mother of the family gently laid her hand on the back of the young woman’s neck for a few moments.

Soon after, I saw the same young woman walking away from the AME Church, looking completely exhausted. The family’s mother now had her arm around the young woman’s shoulder, and together they all walked away from the church.

“This is the first time I cried since it happened,” I could overhear the young woman saying as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I haven’t been able to cry until today.”

Arizona Ally and LGBTQ activist Sam Castro helps create safe spaces at high school after tragedy

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A few months into Sam Castro’s time as an AmeriCorps Public Ally in Phoenix, Arizona, tragedy struck a nearby high school. Two young women who had been romantically involved died in a double-shooting. The event shook the campus, and unfortunately attracted attention from anti-gay activists who chose to protest outside the school while students and faculty were still in mourning. Sam had been serving her apprenticeship with the organization one•n•ten, a support organization for LGBTQ youth, which was invited by school officials to help create a Gay Straight Alliance club on campus, to enable students to feel safe expressing themselves.

For Sam, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in family and human development, this was the kind of work she was passionate about. As a young woman, she had to face her own challenges in coming out as queer. In this Q and A, Sam talks about her leadership journey as an advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people.

Q. Tell us about yourself growing up.

A. I moved several times growing up, so most of my life it was hard to find confidence and stability within myself. I was raised in a traditional, Catholic and Filipino household, and I was very quiet and reserved. Moving to California helped me step out of my shell and truly find myself and my voice. I was class Secretary for Student Government, as well as editor for both the school newspaper and daily video news.

I’m sure my parents would say that I was rebellious growing up because of how strictly they tried to raise me and because of the obstacles I went through with coming out. I was an adventurous teenager who wasn’t afraid of taking risks, and with my parents being immigrants from the Philippines, they were conflicted about how I should present myself because they were not accustomed to American culture. Most of the dreams I had at that age involved helping others and traveling around the world.

Q. What was it like coming out to your friends and family?

A. I definitely felt a lot of pressure and anxiety in terms of coming out. When I was younger, I suffered through a lot of internal homophobia before I accepted the fact that I was queer. I always had attraction to masculine genders but it was when I was in middle school that I realized I was attracted to feminine genders just as much, if not more. I would consistently lie about the women I dated, as well. While my friends were accepting of this part of me, my parents believed it was a phase of confusion, and that I was being influenced by others. I believe coming out is an everyday process for people who don’t follow the heteronormative structures of society. The pressure of validating or explaining my sexuality is something that I will always have to overcome.

Q. There was a tragedy that happened at a high school you worked at while you were serving your AmeriCorps apprenticeship. Can you tell us what happened?

A. It was unfortunate that two young students in Phoenix faced difficulties in their lives regarding their personal identities. I can’t go into much detail, out of respect for the two young women and their families, but the situation resulted in their deaths. There was a lot of negative publicity and anti-gay protestors showed up at the ladies’ school following that day. It made for a very solemn and unwelcoming vibe for those at the school still mourning.

Q. What role did you play at the school after the tragedy?

A. After the tragedy, I had the chance to visit and speak to the students and the Gay-Straight Alliance sponsors about their feelings towards the situation. I introduced the class to one·n·ten’s safe-space guidelines, which is a list of rules we abide by that guard and encourage each person’s self-respect, and the respect of others. I also explained the services that my placement offers, and the many ways they can benefit from the resources we provide. Additionally, I offered advice and team building strategies on how to maintain solid connections among the GSA members. It was my goal to give them tools to help form their new GSA, and empower them to embrace their uniqueness.

Q. You seem to be a strong role model, not just for people of the LGBTQ community, but really anyone.

A.It is an honor to hear that I have been a strong role model for some, although I definitely have not always been this way. I had a lot of suicidal tendencies when I was younger, and suffered a lot from depression, substance abuse, and self-harm. I used to feel very inadequate, and sometimes I still can, but I’ve learned that the things I was ashamed of about myself are actually things I should be proud of. Really, my resilience to move past those dark moments is what helps me find my self-confidence.

Q. What is one thing that society needs to change for our LGBTQ community, and how do you see yourself playing a role in it?

A. A huge thing that society needs to change is the stigma that is directed towards individuals in the queer community. It is the discrimination and alienation of LGBTQ individuals that instill the fear of coming out in young people. Every day, I see youth like myself getting kicked out or running away due to their identities. Our well-being as adults is highly influenced by the way we are brought up in our youth, and if our kids are facing barriers to housing, education, resources and health services at such a young age, it makes it harder to achieve self-confidence and overall success.  I see myself playing a role in this change by educating others on the importance of inclusivity and acceptance. With gay marriage being legalized, as well as a lack of education on LGBT matters, a large portion of people don’t realize that there are still discriminatory laws in place, or that there is a lack of laws protecting against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Subsequently, people aren’t aware of the amount of exploitation and violence that the queer community faces. I am aiming to bring these issues to the face of society and hopefully lead people to be the change the LGBTQ community needs.

Q. What do you think are the best ways to bring these issues to light?

A. Education is important to get messages across; I want to pursue my work in the social sector and continue advocating for the LGBTQ community whether it be through outreach, working for policy changes, program coordination within organizations, counseling LGBTQ youth, facilitating educational workshops on LGBTQ matters, and more. I see myself playing a role in being the change that society needs by continually being the voice to educate those who are unsupportive of the community, or simply unaware of LGBTQ issues and risk factors that our youth may be facing. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, it is important to use inclusive language and behaviors, and to know how to provide LGBTQ youth with safe spaces within the school, workplace, and home. Through my work, my goal is to continue helping my LGBT brothers and sisters in their journeys, as well as educating our allies on how to effectively support our community and the development of queer youth.

Q. What is your next step, and your future goal?  Will it involve more experience like this, in either a nonprofit or in LGBTQ support?

A. I definitely see myself remaining within the nonprofit sector, but anything within social services is my aim. There are many underserved and oppressed communities I would love to offer support to, such as those who suffer from homelessness, mental health issues, substance abuse, and more. But, within serving those populations, I know I will never stop focusing on my LGBTQ community.

Chicago Alum James Marvin Taylor receives CNCS’ Harkin Award

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James Taylor remembers his mother as the kind of person who was always driven to be of service to others — someone who would help out everyone she possibly could, all the time.

“The whole community knew who our family was,” says James, a recent graduate of Public Allies Chicago’s AmeriCorps program who Sept. 22 was awarded the Tom Harkin Excellence in AmeriCorps Award by the Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS). “If it was within her means to help someone in the family or the community, she’d do it.”

When James’ mother lost her ability to care for herself and her family because of her struggle with multiple sclerosis, James — still a child — stepped up.

“My mother had done everything for us, but it got to a point where I was the one taking care of her,” he says. “It went from me being her kid, to her being like my child. That’s what I took on.”

James’ mother died when he was 18 years old, and after a difficult period of mourning, he says he has chosen to carry on her mission to serve others.

“I feel like I carry on her spirit.”

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Besides embodying this desire and willingness to serve others, James exhibits another trait very clearly, according to those who have gotten to work with him: Perseverance.

“His attitude speaks for itself,” says Kimberly Mercer, a manager at Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS’) Office of Diverse Learner Supports + Services. “He’s always persevering. He overcame incredible personal struggle just to come to work every day, which wasn’t obvious to his coworkers. He’s a remarkable person.”

When James was an Ally, he served his 10-month apprenticeship working for CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services. Kimberly was his supervisor. When his apprenticeship ended, she hired James as a full-time employee. It’s easy to understand why.

The department James worked in at CPS has a caseload of about 1,600 students — many who are special education students needing assistance to stay on track to graduate and transition to higher education or the workforce.

“I saw a lot of students falling through the cracks,” said James, remembering his first weeks as an Ally placed at CPS. “We had a lot of files that hadn’t been dealt with, that were sitting there for days, longer. I couldn’t understand how it happened.”

Seeing those stagnant files reminded him of his own harrowing experience at a university in Virginia, where he describes being given the runaround for a few semesters until, frustrated, he dropped out.

“I didn’t want to let that happen to anyone else,” he says.

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James says he carries the spirit of service his mother, Mary Vivian Taylor, modeled for him.

James took the initiative. Led by a belief that “there has to be a better way,” James got to work developing a new system that CPS could use to keep track of students who were referred to the Rehabilitation Services department. After some trial and error, he had it up and running.

The department embraced James’ innovation, which allowed staff to easily track whether a student was moving forward in getting services or needed attention. James also made it a priority to analyze the data regularly himself and advocate on behalf of students who weren’t moving forward in the system.

“James went above and beyond the call of duty,” says Kimberly. “When we had the opportunity to hire him for a full-time position after his 10-month period of service, it was a no-brainer.”

Through this whole period, James still faced his own personal struggles that few knew about.

When he graduated from high school, James attempted to enlist in the military, but it was then that a physical examination revealed that he, like his mother, had multiple sclerosis.

When James dropped out of university, he made his way to Chicago to work as a computer service technician through Job Corps. But after that year was over, he had a hard time finding a new job. Soon, he didn’t have enough money to pay rent and was homeless.

James arrived at the Breakthrough Urban Ministries shelter for the homeless. There, he enrolled in the Peace Corner Youth Center’s career development program, and was referred to Public Allies. James applied, was accepted, and was matched to complete his service with Chicago Public Schools.

Even though CPS hired him full-time after his 10-month apprenticeship, James encountered a major setback after only a few months into the job. Because of severe budget cuts to education in the state of Illinois, nearly half of the CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services was laid off. James, one of the recent hires, was among the seven employees who were let go.

Nonetheless, Kimberly says her department continues to use the system he created to ensure that student files don’t fall through the cracks. “It was difficult to absorb the body of work he was doing,” she says. “We miss him a ton.”

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James Ricardo Taylor III embraces his son moments before James walks up to accept the CNCS Harkin Award in Washington, DC on Sept. 22.

James has been unemployed since January, and was surprised when he learned he would be traveling to Washington, DC this month to accept CNCS’ Harkin Award.

“I’m still shocked about it,” James says. “I’m a person that’s not used to winning. I’ve always been about helping other people, giving them my all. But it’s truly a blessing, and a wake-up call that there’s more work to be done.

“This whole thing is a journey,” says James, still taken aback by the recognition and the attention he’s starting to receive. “A huge step-by-step journey.”

Brittany Packnett: Fight injustice, choose solidarity

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Brittany Packnett delivered a powerful keynote address at Public Allies’ August 2016 National Leadership Institute, where she was presented with the Living Our Values award for her dedication to equity, social justice, and education.

“Listen intently to those who have most been affected by social injustice, and there is no way that you will not be forever changed,” said Brittany, Executive Director of Teach for America–St. Louis, a member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and an organizer of Black Lives Matter.

Her keynote, delivered to hundreds of Public Allies leaders, staff, alumni, and Board Members gathered in Pittsburgh for the annual conference, followed Brittany’s own personal journey to hold on to hope in the face of so much injustice and inequity.

“I think of what a middle schooler in Ferguson said to me with no words at all,” said Brittany, recalling the Missouri city’s uprising after the death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer. “The first time I was tear gassed, I was standing next to this 8th grader. Running, I lost track of him. When I cleared my eyes and caught my breath and could finally function without pained sinuses or burning lungs, I went to look for him.”

When Brittany spotted him, she saw that he had wiped his eyes, picked up his cardboard sign, and walked right back out into the middle of the street.

“With his feet, he said ‘courage,’” she declared. “With his courage, he gives hope. With his hope, my feet follow his back into the street, back into the fight — feet firmly planted forever in the struggle for freedom, both his and mine.

“I won’t ever know his name. But he is my constant reminder that we always have and we always will be the ones we have been waiting for — and there is no age, no zip code, no race, no language or circumstance that will ever change that.”

Challenging everyone present to fight injustice and to stand with those most affected by it, Brittany’s final request to our network was a clarion call to each of us to live out Public Allies’ values:

“I’m asking us to move beyond charity and toward solidarity. I’m asking you to be good allies, but to be even better accomplices.”