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The past couple of months have been filled with a spark in activism, advocacy and amplification of Black voices across the nation in lieu of current social injustices the Black community has faced. Namely, the younger generations, millennials and Generation Z, have taken a stand. With the generational disconnect between older and younger people, college students have decided to seek organization and take matters into their own hands.
Spelhouse (Spelman College and Morehouse College) alumni Mary-Pat Hector and Jauan T. Durbin were responsible for the rallying of youth activists across the capital of Georgia; who protested racial injustice, police brutality, and systematic oppression; with their organization #HBCUs4BlackLives: Centering Our Youth. The assembly puts young Black men and women at the forefront of the movement, providing them with a platform to transparently vocalize their thoughts on today’s climate.
“A lot of politicians now who are older are not really involved. They’re not in touch with the community, they’re in touch with politics,” Durbin tells REVOLT about one of the causes of miscommunication between young people and older government officials. “We need politicians who are in touch with the community and I believe the 18 to 30-year-olds who are grassroot organizers and advocating for community members are in touch. That’s the direction I believe we need to be going in as a country, as a community.”
Their protest starting in Cleopas R. Johnson Park in Atlanta, GA and ended with a powerful speech on the foot of Atlanta City Hall steps, which garnered attention from political activists, community leaders and hometown artists such as T.I., Lil’ Baby and Ludacris.
REVOLT had the chance to discuss with Morehouse alumni and co-organizer Durbin about voter suppression across Atlanta, the mission of #HBCUs4BlackLives, and probable solutions to bridge generational gaps between older and younger Black people. Check out the conversation below.
How has your experience as an HBCU student shaped your activism?
I haven’t had the normal experience. I was a campus king for three years — Mr. Sophomore, Mr. Spelman College and Mr. HBCU. Being in the roles of Mr. HBCU, having to represent HBCUs, and [speaking] on a variety of social justice issues, [including] climate issues, funding HBCUs and an array of other things that I had to address, it definitely helped shape my activism because I was able to have firsthand experience being on the ground, and hearing and knowing what folks wanted from HBCUs.
Moving into the realm of actually organizing for Black lives and for Black people, it was an easy transition for me because I’m used to listening to understand and not to respond. That’s one thing that my HBCU and my experiences have shown me and I think that’s an important characteristic of an organizer: To always listen to understand what the community needs and what’s around you.
What are some important lessons you learned about activism, African-American history and the Black community while going to an HBCU?
[At] Morehouse College, we literally sit on Atlanta Student Movement. There’s a street called Atlanta Student Movement where students in Black history literally mobilized to fight social injustices. Two weeks ago, I was actually able to have a roundtable discussion with student leaders during the Civil Rights era. It’s one thing to learn it and to read about it, it’s another thing to also have to go through the modern Civil Rights movement in which you’re kind of moving in a way that those students moved, as well. Personally, just being able to literally take what [I] learned in school and see it actually play out on the ground was the biggest lesson I’ve experienced.
In terms of mobilizing and activism, it really comes down to trust — trust in the community, the community trusting you, trusting yourself. Being a leader, you have to understand [that] not everyone is going to want to follow you. Not everyone is going to like the direction in which you lead or they’re not going to agree in the way that you lead. But, what’s important is that your heart and your character [are] in the right place and you genuinely want to see the betterment of our community and of the world. That’s how I lead.
What would you say is the importance of HBCUs in today’s society for young Black people?
HBCUs are literally the epitome of Black excellence personified. You see it in the cafeteria, you see it in the library, you see it walking down the street, you see it in the conversations you have both inside and outside of the classroom. HBCUs are not just an education, it’s an experience. It’s [being] able to meet and join a network of Black and brown bodies that are [rooted] in one goal, which is educating Black folks. Historically Black colleges aiding Black folks. Historically Black colleges and Universities — they were created because we had nowhere else to attend any other school. Cheyney University, which is the first HBCU, was created during slavery [and] there were still people enslaved in this country while we were getting educated. The importance is not just the “now.” It’s also the past because if Cheyney didn’t exist and we didn’t have those educated Black folks and those abolitionists helping us fight for our education, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. While we’re looking [towards] the future and looking forward, we also have to realize that our past is the reason for our present.
Spelman and Morehouse are a great entity, but even the smaller HBCUs connect in an array of ways that allow us to expand our outreach. Not a lot of students want to go to a big school — [North Carolina] A&T, FAMU or those big state schools. Some folks want to go to Alcorn, some folks want to go to Florida Memorial. HBCUs are important because there is [an] HBCU for everyone in virtually every state. It’s really about finding your niche.
What exactly is #HBCUs4BlackLives and its vision?
It actually started with myself, Alivia Duncan, and Kehaulani Low. It was in response to our Spelhouse siblings being assaulted by Atlanta police about four weeks ago. That protest was the next day. That was the first protest that we did and we got over 3,000 people. It was then we were able to see how fast that turnaround was. We put that protest together the morning that it happened. Being able to mobilize that fast let us know there was a need for HBCU students to have a voice in the movement. Moving with Mary-Pat and us doing #HBCUs4BlackLives: Centering The Voice of The Youth, we understood that there really was a necessity to seize the moment and necessary action to give HBCU students and Atlanta youth a voice and a seat at the table.
We put our heads together, Mary-Pat and I, to see how we could bridge both of our resources with celebrities, the city, HBCUs and city officials to really have an event that the youths are centered at, but the adults are also attending. During the rally, we opened space for the youth to get on the microphone and say whatever it is on their heart when it comes to how they feel about the movement, what they wanted to say to council members. We had several council member in attendance, we had several celebrities [such as] Lil’ Baby, Ludacris, T.I. It’s important to ensure that we’re amplifying the voices of the youth and #HBCUs4BlackLives is essentially the vessel for students to be able to vocally and loudly express how they are in support of Black Lives Matter through HBCUs.
How do you plan to continue to use your platform to amplify the voices of Black youth years from now?
By continuing to do what I do. I think it’s important to understand that this movement is not a selfish one meaning that it’s not all about me and it’s all about my platform. It’s all about connecting with other people, and connecting our networks and our platforms to make a bigger platform. I see five to ten years from now, expanding my network with other students and helping them shape their platforms to have much bigger platforms than me to be able to reach more people. I understand that I have a certain reach right now and I may help somebody who is in the west coast, Africa or various different areas in the world, and I can help and assist them in being able to build up their platform to continue to amplify voices.
I don’t want to keep going on a tangent, but I essentially want to help other people reach their full potential because if we continue to 1) pour into the movement ourselves and 2) mobilize other people, we will continue to inspire other people to do what we do. That’s really why I fight so hard because at Morehouse, I literally saw firsthand how the work that I did influenced other people to step up and do what I’ve done.
How has voter suppression, specifically in Georgia, been fueling the fire in protests, especially with the upcoming election cycle?
[In] the AUC (Atlanta University Center), we mobilize tremendously in a way that I’ve never seen before when Stacy Abrams ran for governor. In that alone, I was Mister Spelman at the time, and I was able to see firsthand [that] Morehouse has a specific polling station literally on campus, but the polling station for Spelman and Clark [Atlanta University], which is next door, is a totally different space. Initially, it was sort of like, “Why is Morehouse voting here, but Spelman and Clark have to get in their cars and drive somewhere else?” Some are going to see that and be like, “Okay, I don’t feel like voting” or, “That’s before my class, so I can’t do that” and to me, it didn’t make sense.
When it comes to voting suppression, we can see these things in terms of gerrymandering, in terms of how there are voting booths in low-income areas that suddenly stopped working, or you only have two [people] at one polling station. But, you go to Buckhead and they’re all working, but there’s no line. There’s clear distinct suppression and it fueled the protests because we’re angry. We’re angry because there are elected officials that are continuing to get elected, but are not speaking for the youth, who say that they’re representing their constituents, but they’re not representing us because they don’t want to be in the same room as us.
That’s actually fueled the amount of youths that want to get involved within the political system now. I’ll tell you this early: Georgia is going to see a rise for 18 to 30-year-olds running for office next year. It’s going to happen because right now you have the attention of so many youths because they’re not in school and it’s the summer and they’re seeing everything happen blatantly firsthand. What I did during this last election season, I was paying for people to go to the polls, I paid for Ubers, I was working collaboratively with T.I. and he sent out pizzas to polling stations that had long lines, I Cash Apped youths between $3-$5 if they send me the sticker of them voting.
We are voting and we are trying to vote, but the state is really fighting to ensure that our voices are not being heard and we’re tired of not being heard. The best way that we’re combating that is the rise of 18 to 30-year-olds running for office in Atlanta.
There’s an obvious gap between older and younger generations. What advice do you have about mending the division across generational lines for a greater solution?
In order for mending to happen and generational lines to be connected, the older generation really has to listen. I said that earlier about my leadership skills and how I listen to understand and not to respond. Because of the work I’ve been doing over the last 30 days, I’ve had the opportunity to be able to be in rooms and be on task forces with some of these older elected officials who don’t want to listen to us. They think they have more knowledge and they have more experience, and whatever else they think that still sees us as children. We’re willing to sit at the table and have the discussion to address our concerns. There’s youths that I know that go to the state capital everyday to lobby for certain policies and our representatives don’t even want to hear us. They’ll send a rep out to talk to us.
That doesn’t necessarily fall on the youths at this point because we’ve done what we were supposed to do. We tried to vote, we’ve run our council members, we call in. Specifically in Atlanta; Atlanta got over 1,000 public comments for their budget reform because youths and community members within Atlanta wanted the divestment of police and the reallocation of money to reinvest into the Black community.
There were council members who we’ve talked to... Michael Bond came to #HBCUs4BlackLives. I spoke with him multiple times personally about how we as youths felt about policing in our community, what that means and what it looks like for us — and he still voted against us.
We can only ask so many times and I think right now, we’re getting to a point where we’re demanding respectfully. We’re not blasting, we’re not being disrespectful. We are going to politely demand and if you don’t feed our demands, we’re going to vote you out and we’re going to vote in people who are receptive of our peers and community-oriented.
What are your hopes for Black youths and HBCU students beyond this time of racial unrest?
My hopes for us are to stay connected and stay on one accord. It’s so easy for things to become divisive — for us to become separated and lose track of our goals. I want us to really stay rooted in our community, and our community meaning each other. I want us to stay focused on our goal. There will be a lot of deterring and a lot of deterrents from our goals and our mission, but we have to understand that despite our differences, we have a role — each and every one of us — to play with each other to ensure that we give Black liberation.
Not just Black liberation, liberation for all people. We have to do that together and we have to do that for everyone, not just specifically for Black men, not specifically for Black women, but for Black men, Black women, Black LGBTQIA+ people, Black disabled folks.
What about alumni and older generations such as Generation X and Baby Boomers?
Amplify the voice of the youths. You have to understand that amplifying our voices doesn’t mean that we’re silencing yours. Your voice is already heard, so now it’s your duty to use your voice and your platform to push the message of the youths and [our] leaders. I think it’s time that our government leaders and alumni really just take heed and take time to understand that 18-year-olds are eligible to vote, so why are we trying to stifle their voices? You should want to listen to their views and their perspectives.