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‘Our skin is not a weapon’ – Meet the organizers of Raleigh’s Youth Rally

Between the honks of cars passing by the North Carolina Capitol, a group of black middle and high school students spoke through a megaphone on Monday about how scared they are.

They spoke about how they are scared of being killed by a police officer. They spoke about how scared they are to lose their parents whenever they walk out the door. They pleaded with the world to listen to them.

The students are members of the Empowering Steppers Step Team, and they were speaking to hundreds of protesters at Raleigh’s Youth Rally. 

Meet Erianna Smith, 10 years old, Douglas Elementary 

“It’s not fair to us kids to have to go through this, because not only do we have dreams, but we want our parents to live. Just like Floyd, he had a 3-year-old daughter, and now that Floyd is gone because of police brutality, his daughter cannot spend the rest of her life with him.

Not only black men and black women are getting killed, but it’s also black kids. When will this end? I’m scared the police will take my life even if I just go step out of the school door.”

Meet Ty’Naijah Jeffrey, 12 years old, Riverbend Middle

“I feel like the president forgot that there are children in this world. I feel like … I feel as though we should have a voice, as well as everybody else.

I just feel like that … most black people are losing their lives to situations they have no … nothing to do with, and that they shouldn’t be losing their lives just because the color of their skin, and most of these people who are getting killed have children that they should be able to go home to and spend the rest of the day with.

But they can’t do that, because every time they step out to go jog, or something, there is somebody on their back.

I just feel like that that’s wrong and that our skin is not a weapon.”

Meet Serenity Davis, 15 years old, Knightdale High School 

“I’m very hurt because I wake up every morning not knowing if my dad is alive. I have brothers in these streets and I don’t know if they’re alive or not.

I pray to God everyday that me and my family is protected so we don’t have to walk out the door and get killed for no reason.”

‘A lot of people want to silence the youth.’

Tamika Campbell-Johnson started the Empowering Steppers Step Team five years ago as the only community step team in Raleigh. Campbell-Johnson herself stepped when she was in middle school and wanted to create a safe space for her daughter and her peers to go after school. 

The team’s name is intentional. 

“A lot of people want to silence the youth. And I think they need to be heard too,” she said. “My daughter and I came down here Saturday and yesterday (Sunday), and we’re back today (Monday). So today, it’s her turn.”

The group is involved in addressing community issues, including raising awareness and funds for sickle cell disease, domestic violence, and more.  

For Jeffrey, the magic of the team is working together. The girls fight like sisters and hang out even when not at practice.

“We fight sometimes, but we, at the end of the day, we all come together. We all perform, we all do our competitions, and then today, we enjoy our victory together. And our step team is basically to keep us off the streets,” Jeffrey said. “We just work to keep people off the streets and to try to keep us busy. To not do something bad and then maybe actually doing something so bad that we have to end up in jail or getting shot or anything like that.”

They practice in three locations — two local churches and a community space on South Saunders Street. They are ages 7 to 19.

“We don’t have a building of our own, so they open up their buildings so we can practice,” Campbell-Johnson said.

When asked about her advice for empowering youth, Campbell-Johnson said it’s simple.

“Listen to their own youth in their household. Just listen to them. Don’t always try to shut them up, because they do have a voice. They just want people to hear them and to never shut them up,” she said.

Watch Empowering Steppers Step Group perform here

Ty’Naijah Jeffrey,12, Ja’Kyral Johnson, Dillard, 13 years old, Anaya Bizzell, 12 (left to right). Mary Willson/EducationNC

‘There’s so much against them.’ 2Bs’ Brains & Brothers is helping all boys become superheroes

The second group behind Monday’s Youth Rally is the organization “2Bs’ Brains & Brothers, Too Smart To Be A Statistic,” which has the goal of guiding young boys to become “strong and powerful future leaders.” Geralde Copeland, age 6, and Cameron Faison, age 5, are the “founders” of the group, organized by their moms. The two boys are brothers of girls from the step team — and they often do events together. 

Between leading chants with the megaphone, Geralde’s mom, DaQuanta Copeland, asked him what he wants to be when he grows up. His answer? A superhero.

Geralde Copeland, 6 years old, Washington Elementary

That’s why she launched the organization — to help other black youth to become leaders “against all odds” so they can help save the world one day.

“They’re superheroes in their mind,” Copeland said.

“So we all came up with the idea of forming the organization to mentor and help other kids come out there, be more productive people in the community, and just encouraging and guiding them to be the best version of themselves.”

“There’s so much against them,” said Copeland. “They go into their communities, the community’s against them. They’re killing each other. The police are killing them, the world won’t give them a chance. And now we have this. So everything they face is an obstacle.” 

2B’s is launching a mentorship program for black boys, and they attend events to give young people — including Geralde — a voice. And he’s using it loudly.

Two hours into the Youth Rally, Geralde was dozing off next to his mom on the Capitol steps. Even superheroes have to rest.

“Clarification: 2B’s Brains & Brothers organized the Youth Rally on June 1 at the North Carolina Capitol. The founder of Empowering Steppers Step Team and many of their members joined the rally as participants.” 

Mary Willson

Mary Willson is the director of engagement at EducationNC.