Audience at Black Lives Matter Performance in Mason Park Photo by Tracy Quattrocki

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Organized by four Evanston Township High School students, the Black Lives Matter Youth Fundraiser and Performance on June 8 was an evening filled with song, dance, improv, slam poetry, and prose, as youthful voices joined the ongoing protests in Evanston over racial inequity and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Standing before a crowd of several hundred in Mason Park, organizer Carmiya Bady kicked off the evening’s performances with a challenge. She asked people in positions of power, when confronting issues of race, to think, “How can I do better?’ and then you do better.” She observed that leadership takes humility and the ability to “apologize and self-reflect. So, I challenge you all to do that, wherever you work and wherever you lead.”

Izzy Basso, Nikki LeVee, Mika Parisien and Carmiya organized the evening’s dual purposes – as performance and fundraiser. As of June 10, the event had raised over $9,000, which the students said they intend to donate to the legal funds of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd – all African Americans, three of whom recently died at the hands of police – as well as to struggling Evanston black-owned business. The money will be directed toward local businesses,Carmiya said, “because they’ve given so much to the community,” particularly during the last several months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After an improv skit by Secret Grandpa Comedy Group, student Kayla Henning read a “Land Acknowledgement,” adapted from ETHS’ SOAR students, narrating the history of Evanston. The acknowledgement asks for recognition that all of us stand “on stolen land … and land purchases accumulated by genocide.” She urged the community to be conscious of “our role in colonialism.”

Nia Williams, who leads Evanston Fight for Black Lives, read her original poetry. In “Homies,” she writes about “hoping for a home in humans that ain’t there no more.” Evoking the Flint, Mich., water crisis in “Flint Still Ain’t Got Water,” she says, “I’ll remember when the water betrayed us and look up at the rain and thank the gods.”

Olivia Nicholson delivered a passionate address, “A message to Evanston,” in which she gave impressions of the community after spending a year away at college. She observed that Evanstonians are “just built different” because “we are loud, we are generous, we are passionate, kind people.”  But this does not excuse the fact, she argued, that “we are supporters of institutional racism, that our homes are haunted by redlining, that our nationally ranked education is plagued by the achievement gap and affected by the absence of Foster School.” 

“Not being racist is not being anti-racist,” she said.

Olivia urged the crowd to do the important work needed to address human rights concerns, to research past injustices and social pressure on the black community, provide safe spaces, validate the work of others and “educate the people around you.

“Ally is a verb,” she concluded.

Sisters Maia and Kaela Hadaway performed Kyla Jenée Lacey’s poem “White Privilege,” which asks the question, “What is white privilege?” In part, the answer is “the only five decades of legal acknowledgement expected to correct four hundred years of white transgression … it is crack versus cocaine … blacks receiving almost twenty percent longer sentences for the same exact offenses as whites.”

Kayla Henning then performed her own prose, asking the community “to reflect on how your image of black folks influences how you hear what’s coming out of their mouth. 

“I’ve been hearing a lot of people say ‘Use your black voice’ … but forget that, we’ve been speaking to you all along,” she remarked, pointing to hip hop music as an example. “But you aren’t hearing our pain.” 

Lasting almost two hours, the Black Lives Matter youth event was both familiar and strange, given the pandemic. As the sun set behind Mason Park, the crowd appeared engaged and relaxed, caught up in the performances. Yet the clusters of onlookers stayed mostly a safe distance apart, their faces concealed by masks.

Throughout the evening, ETHS’ YAMO dance punctuated the performances with three lively dance numbers. The night ended with a moving tribute of hope, as many in the audience knelt on one knee, illuminated their cell phone lights, and sang along with Carmiya’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

“When Carmiya had everyone singing all together, while we were kneeling,” observed ETHS student Teague Sieja, “I’ve never felt that close to my community.”

The organizers vow to keep the momentum going and hope to plan future events.