Young voices seek change: Diverse crowds call for more progress in civil rights

Jalyn Powell, a young leader for change, displays her homemade sign in Milford on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

MIDDLETOWN — They’re young and pushing for systemic change, respectful of past civil rights leaders while seeking far more progress.
Many 20-somethings and teens say it’s their time in history to tackle head-on what ails society in 2020.

As civil unrest has erupted since the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, young African Americans continue to demand change. Diverse crowds — drawing hundreds at times — have publicly gathered to call for sweeping changes now.

Standing before supporters decrying police brutality, systemic racism and more in downtown Middletown, Jelani Bryant, 19, took center stage with multiple young activists calling for relentless action beyond the latest organized protest last Sunday.

Also stepping up was recent Middletown High School graduate Najair Smith, who had led a protest march that drew hundreds earlier in the week.

Mr. Bryant — Delaware State University’s freshman class president last school year — described his generation’s “hunger for change” as a reason to believe significant reforms may finally be coming.

He cautioned, however, that the push must continue after the protests conclude and media coverage lessens.

“I believe (past) civil rights leaders were setting the stage for what we are seeing now,” Mr. Bryant said. “When they talked about their change, I believe they didn’t really think the change they knew would come during their lifetimes.

“I believe they inspired the brains that will be the ones to pick up their torch and carry it to the finish line.”

According to Mr. Bryant, “What people are seeing now is the resurgence of our leaders. Yes, they look a little younger, but their wisdom from what they have seen exceeds their age.”

Jalyn Powell, 23, of Milford, said, “This is the most engagement I have seen from my generation.

“There are organizers who don’t have an ounce of political experience on the grassroots level. There are public speakers who have never voiced their opinion to a crowd before. There is a hunger for change and a commitment to justice at a higher level than I have ever witnessed.

“We found our voice, and we are using it to make a difference. It’s a new sound. A sound that won’t let up. A sound that won’t be muffled. The younger generation has no anticipation of turning our volume down any time soon.”

In Milford, Ms. Powell has organized a peaceful demonstration for today “in light of the tragic deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.”

Participants will gather in the Milford Plaza parking lot at 209 NE Front St. at 3:45 p.m. and then march toward the downtown area at 4. Signs and symbols promoting justice, equity and change are encouraged in what’s planned to be a silent protest.

“The silence is to show that in America as black men and women we don’t necessarily have a voice or leadership roles in many discussions, but we will always find a way to get our message across to all,” Ms. Powell said.

The issues are many, Mr. Bryant said, adding that “police brutality, educational disparities, mass incarceration, a broken justice system, lack of affordable housing in the black community and racism in career fields that require people to be impartial (doctors, judges)” are fueling the unrest.

Young demonstrators walk in the area of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and U.S. 13 in Dover on June 2. Delaware State News/Craig Anderson

“I do not believe justice for George Floyd is a significant step,” Mr. Bryant said.

“I believe that pressure has put people in a position where they feel they must do something. I believe that changes in the future will tell if we are making progress.

“Mandating (that) the police wear body cameras, legislation that ends qualified immunity, funding community review boards and amending the 13th Amendment to abolish modern slavery” are some of Mr. Bryant’s suggestions.

Where this current unrest ultimately moves society is undetermined, he said.

“I believe only time will tell if we (the younger generation) are being listened to.

“I can promise you that we are just getting started, this isn’t going anywhere. My people haven’t had justice or peace for over 400 years, so I don’t care how many feathers we have to ruffle in order to ensure issues in the future are handled with decency and respect for my people. We want our justice system to be just for all.”

Ms. Powell founded OUTLOUD LLC, taking a holistic approach to increasing the empowerment, engagement and advocacy capacity of millennials.

“My goal is to give millennials alternative routes to voice concerns that don’t necessarily have to be aggressive, but still makes sure their message gets heard through pushing for more strategic ways to achieve change,” she said.

Her generation’s access to social media as an enlightening tool will only increase the movement, Ms. Powell added.

“The greatest advantage that we have is accessible knowledge,” said the Delaware State University graduate who earned a master’s degree in art and a law degree with a concentration in human rights from Regent University.

“We literally have a search engine in the palm of our hands, and books are everywhere. The biggest disadvantage would be not taking advantage of the opportunity to educate ourselves. We are the future generation. We must step up so history does not repeat itself.

“We must learn about the systematic oppressions. We must be present, innovative and transformative in this time.”

Increasing awareness of police brutality while working to better the black community’s relationship with law enforcement is part of the Cale Cares Initiatives created by Myles Cale, the son of a retired New Castle County police officer.

Mr. Cale spoke at last Sunday’s demonstration in Middletown, calling Mr. Floyd’s death a “horrible event that was very eye-opening … . I think it gave awareness to what we really mean when we say Black Lives Matter. We mean continuing (the) fight against the violence and systemic racism towards the blacks.”

“We want to see change happen, and we won’t stop until we see it. All I want is to be treated equally. I want to be able to walk down the street without feeling unsafe, feeling nervous. … I want to feel safe when dealing with the law enforcement despite the color of my skin. I want to be seen as another human.”

During meetings among his Seton Hall University basketball teammates — 14 African Americans and one European white person, he said — Mr. Cale has been touched by some of the pain they expressed regarding world events.

“We could all relate to each other’s feelings, and we understood that to this day, we are seen differently,” Mr. Cale said.

Delaware State University rising sophomore Jelani Bryant, left, is among the protest march leaders in Middletown last Sunday. To his left is Najair Smith, who organized a demonstration in Middletown three days earlier. Delaware State News/Craig Anderson

Delaware State University President Dr. Tony Allen said, “Activism in public life is in the student DNA at Delaware State University, and it’s a characteristic we do our best to encourage.

“In 1962, our students held a sit-in at the Hollywood Diner in Wilmington to protest segregation. Our Dreamers have gone to Washington to lobby Congress and participate in rallies that support immigration reform that give them a path to citizenship,” he said.

“Every year, dozens of our students work as interns for legislators and government organizations, and students like Jelani Bryant have been responsible, emerging leaders in the protest movement against systemic racism. To us, teaching our students to care enough about their society is the hallmark of a diverse, contemporary university.”

Creating a culture where youths express themselves is a key component of IMPACT Delaware Inc., whose mission is to “encourage youth to trust adults, educate youth to learn individual assets and empower youth to use resilience skills in pursuing their dreams.”

IMPACT Delaware chairwoman Dr. Brittany Hazzard, a Cape Henlopen School District social worker said: “It is disheartening to know what has brought us here. We appreciate all the support because we do understand that equality is important.

“But as I look out and I see the signs that say, ‘Black Lives Matter, Enough is Enough,’ we do a disservice if we don’t start supporting our youth and having tough conversations, challenging conversations, conversations that allow them to be open about what is on their minds and about how to share their feelings.”

Staff writer Glenn Rolfe contributed to this article.