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Column: The making of activists? How two Santa Monica women came to stand up for Black lives

Protesters stand near Santa Monica Pier in June, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
Protesters stand near Santa Monica Pier in June, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Leilah Franklin and Chandler Kennedy don’t call themselves “activists.” In fact, the longtime friends from Santa Monica seem completely uneasy with the word.

There are rules for white allies, after all — and chief among them is to not steal the spotlight from Black people fighting the good fight against racial injustice. It’s a good rule. And yet, as I watch protesters from every imaginable background descend on the streets of American cities each week, I can’t help but wonder if the rule is, or even should be, as hard and fast as it once was.

Who gets to claim the label of activist and who doesn’t?

Is it just for the venerated few, such as the late John Lewis, who risked his life for voting rights in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and spoke at the first March on Washington before joining Congress? Or also for people like “Naked Athena,” the mysterious white woman who, asmy colleague Richard Read wrote, suddenly appeared amid a cloud of tear gas and scared off federal agents by performing ballet poses on the streets of Portland over the weekend?

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It’s a question that brings me back to Franklin and Kennedy.

Their story begins in early June. The nation had just erupted in what would become weeks of protests, sparked by a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd. In Santa Monica, tear gas had filled the streets after a group of opportunistic thieves used the cover of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest to vandalize more than 150 businesses, setting some on fire.

That’s when Kennedy, a photographer and casting director, and Franklin, a film producer and manager of a startup, had a pivotal conversation.

“She was just like, ‘What’s going on in our district?’” Franklin recalled. And by “district,” she means the majority white and affluent Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, from which they both graduated in 2011. “We were completely undereducated in terms of conversations about prejudice and race.”

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Franklin and Kennedy recalled how, as teenagers, the majority of what they learned about Black history began with slavery and ended with the civil rights movement. And they remembered, with horror, the many micro-aggressions they witnessed, such as the “Rasta-themed” pep rally where white students wore wigs of dreadlocks and another one where they wore sombreros and mustaches.

Now 27-year-old women, Franklin and Kennedy wanted to do something — anything — to help break the cycle of racism. They decided to push the school district to adopt a curriculum developed by Black Lives Matter, which includes lessons about structural racism, antiracism, the intersectionality of Black and queer identities, and Black history that goes beyond the 1960s.

An online petition went out. Black alumni and students stepped up to share testimonials about racism they experienced. Teachers, counselors and administrators joined the effort, too. Together, they got the teachers union on board.

Then, last Thursday, came victory.

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The treatment of Alex Marshall-Brown by St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in North Hollywood is indicative of a larger problem with racism.

The school board approved most of what the group wanted, including a plan to promote the curriculum and designate the first week of every February as Black Lives Matter School Week of Action. Also, the board made more aspirational — and arguably meaningful — promises to recruit, hire and retain more Black educators and expand restorative justice practices by training all employees districtwide.

It’s a major step toward righting wrongs that the Committee for Racial Justice, made up of parents, students and community members, has highlighted for years.

“There was a group of alumni that approached us about this resolution, and we happily accepted it,” Supt. Ben Drati said at the meeting over Zoom. “And on Aug. 25, there is going to be a deeper conversation we’re going to have in terms of how we are addressing racism, through curriculum and everything that we’re trying to do. I’m proud of the work that our folks have really engaged in, although we have a lot of work to do. “

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It’s notable that this sort of campaign had to be waged at all in the notoriously lefty Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

After all, it was Santa Monica High School, with its diversity and cultural sensitivity, that supposedly drove Stephen Miller to President Trump’s side to draft a series of heartless immigration policies. Or so the story goes anyway.

“These challenges were some of the toughest I faced in life,” Miller told The Times in 2017. “When we think of nonconformity, we tend to imagine kids in the ’60s rebelling against ‘the system.’ This was my system. My establishment was a dogmatic educational system that often uniformly expressed a single point of view.”

By now, most Americans know of Miller’s racism and, specifically, his hatred of Latinos. Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center added the White House senior policy advisor to its list of anti-immigrant extremists — and rightfully so.

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Although many have cast Miller as an outlier during his years at Samohi, current and former students tell similar tales of hate. There was the noose incident at Malibu High School earlier this year. And at Samohi, Kayla Lewis-Koury and Nayeli Barbosa, both 17 and protest organizers in their own right, told me of white students who regularly made jokes about lynchings and used slurs such as “monkey” and “blackie.”

“I’ve had people ask me if my parents are gardeners,” said Barbosa, whose heritage is Mexican and Brazilian. “I’ve had people tell me like, oh, I have to be on the lookout for ICE.”

Although such racism exists in many school districts across the country, it is perhaps most imperative for affluent ones like Santa Monica-Malibu Unified to adopt an antiracist curriculum. For it’s the alumni of these schools who are most likely to be running the country in the decades to come.

It’s one reason why Lewis-Koury and Barbosa worked with alumni to get the district to adopt the Black Lives Matter curriculum.

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“Stephen Miller went to three schools in the district that I went to,” Franklin said.

Kennedy interjected: “I mean, he’s the closest person to the president.”

What would’ve happened if a guy like Miller had gone to a school district that had lessons on systemic racism, starting in elementary school and extending all the way through high school?

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“Maybe there would have been a Stephen Miller,” said Jeremy Divinity, who went to John Adams Middle School and remembered Miller because he graduated with his sister, Tiffini. “But I feel like there would have been more parents outspoken about it, not just Black and Latino parents. They would have realized and been more involved in a denouncement of it.”

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As coronavirus cases surge again and the national conversation shifts from racial injustice to seemingly more pressing matters, such as whether to reopen schools and how to make people wear face masks, I’m worried, like a lot of people, about how to maintain the momentum for systemic change to improve Black lives.

The answer perhaps is to broaden the popular definition of an “activist.”

Most people think of an activist solely as a person who organizes protests, willingly sucking in tear gas to take a stand for racial injustice. This is true, but it’s also a very narrow definition that diminishes the real work of Black Lives Matter, and many, many others. For example, the groundwork for the current movement to defund police departments didn’t appear out of thin air. It took months’ and even years’ worth of work behind the scenes.

This is what it will take to dismantle the many systems that prop up racism in this country. And, as we transition from protests to public policy, hopefully with a large and motivated coalition, this is what the ongoing fight for justice will look like in the days and months ahead.

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It’s a movement that will continue to be led by Black people, yes. But it also must include people like Franklin and Kennedy, who can use their privilege to amplify Black voices and quietly tap into government power structures to help create change. That, too, is activism.


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