GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Aly Bates has never considered herself to be much of an activist. She was always an outspoken kid, she said, standing up to injustices on the playground. However, that was it.
Then George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes in May 2020. That was a turning point for herself and other youth, she said. So, Bates marched through downtown Grand Rapids with thousands of other people protesting police brutality.
“When I think of last summer, I kind of think of all the unity that people had together. We had a lot of people showing up to events, up to 3,000 people,” Bates said. “It was very moving to see this many people come together for one common cause especially on the local level and especially seeing the younger generation like myself being the focal point of the movement, being the voices of the movement.”
Floyd’s death sparked national and global protest. According to the Pew Research Center, Generation Z — or people born after 1996 — were at the helm of many of them.
“My passion, I feel like it’s always been there. I feel like that’s the same thing with a lot of us Gen Z-ers, this younger generation. I feel like that passion’s always been there,” Bates said during a Zoom interview last week. “Enough is enough. It’s time for me to put down whatever I’m working on right now and focus on what’s truly important, which is this movement.”
Soon after, Bates founded Justice For Black Lives and organized other demonstrations and events surrounding social and racial justice causes, including the death of Breonna Taylor. The GR native was shot and killed by Louisville Police in her home in March 2020. Bates and JBL held rallies in her honor, and helped to get a stretch of Monroe Center dedicated in her memory.
Bates said their goal as an organization is to make changes such as these and to combat systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and other injustices.
Several other organizations in West Michigan, like UpLift Kalamazoo, have the same goal and sometimes held rallies on a weekly basis.
Hey Gen Z, what do u want people to know about your generation?@Alytheeactivist of @JFBLorg , @sunrisemvmt GR & @marshallkilgore explain 🗣— Lauren Edwards (@LaurenEdwardsTV) March 8, 2021
Catch the story on 📺 & 👩🏽💻 on @FOX17 tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. Tonight at 7p is our hour-long special 'The Hidden Bias of Good People' pic.twitter.com/QMkp9ilCbG
“When I think of the summer I think of passion, I think of sweating and knowing that COVID was out there and masking up and staying six feet, but you know that’s what bullhorns are for and that is worth throwing your voices for because our lives were on the line either way,” said community advocate Marshall Kilgore during a Zoom interview last week. “We couldn’t stay home completely.”
Kilgore, who is the director of advocacy at OutFront Kalamazoo and a senior at Western Michigan University, participated in several marches and protests in and around the Kalamazoo area with his bullhorn in hand. In July 2020, he and dozens of other people painted over messages of hate chalked on the streets in Schoolcraft.
Kilgore said he’s proud of his peers for leading the charge in the fight for justice and inclusivity.
“This generation is one that has pushed inclusion, has pushed using folks’ correct pronouns. How easy is that? Things that 20 years ago would’ve seemed literally crazy to some folks that are 20-years older than me, are now the norm,” Kilgore said. “Our generation is reshaping our country, reshaping this nation, challenging norms and holding our leaders accountable.”
Kilgore added that living through the Sept. 11 attacks, and dozens of mass shootings and climate change, influenced many in his generation to protest.
“We hear so much about recycling or personal reduction and that just never felt big enough. And, it never felt like it was enough,” said 15-year-old Terra Workman, who’s a part of the Sunrise Movement GR. “So, when I saw [climate strikes] happened, it felt so much more powerful, so much more inspiring, and just being out there with people that are like-minded and people that really want to be part of the change like you is just so exciting.”
The Sunrise Movement is a national youth-led organization dedicated to fighting for climate justice, she said. Workman helps run the local chapter and organizing events like climate strikes. She said they weren’t as active as they’d like to have been in 2020 due to the pandemic.
However, they supported the Black Lives Matter movement and other causes, believing that justice is attainable, she said.
“A lot of times we’re told that we’re naive or we’re told that we’re too young to really be doing something. But, I think that there’s something about being a young person facing the climate crisis that a lot of older generations may not understand, when you don’t have that urgency and that feeling that it’s your own future that you’re fighting for,” Workman said. “We can come across as like being naive or idealistic but it’s because we can feel that urgency and we know that this is the change that we need for our futures.”
She said a lot of Gen Z-ers are passionate about seeing change happen because they’re not just fighting for themselves, but for future generations.
“That’s one of the main reasons why I got into doing what I do now because I don’t want to be here 50, 40 years later and still having to deal with the same stuff and have to worry about my grandkids or my kids and things like that,” Bates said. “I want to leave the world a better place than what it was when I came into it.”
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