After the Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice erupted when George Floyd was murdered last year, teachers, children and youth in SE Portland’s Sunnyside neighborhood began holding their own events. Their “kid-centered” demonstrations and marches were weekly last summer, and they’ve held events in 2021, with plans for less frequent but larger events to come. Tiffany Koyama-Lane is one of the organizers who live in the neighborhood and she teaches third grade at Sunnyside Environmental School. Sara just graduated from eighth grade there. We are not using her last name by request. We talk with Sara and Koyama-Lane about the kid-centered activism they’ve been doing since last June and their hopes for the future.
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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. In the year since the murder of George Floyd, cities across the country have seen hundreds of demonstrations for police reform and racial justice. The vast majority of them have been peaceful. But occasionally, these demonstrations have devolved into heated rhetoric and even property destruction. Not so with a long-running series of marches and demonstrations in Portland’s Sunnyside Neighborhood. Teachers and young people in that area have been holding regular Black Lives Matter events for a year now, and they say they’re promoting kids-centered activism. We’re going to talk to a girl who has been taking part. Her name is Sara, we’re not using her last name. She just finished eighth grade at Sunnyside Environmental School. Sara, welcome to the show.
Sara: Thank you so much for having me.
Norcross: And Tiffany Koyama-Lane teaches third grade there and has been helping to organize the demonstrations. Tiffany, it’s good to have you as well.
Tiffany Koyama-Lane: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Norcross: Tiffany. We’ll start with you. How did these demonstrations get started?
Koyama-Lane: The marches came out of a conversation I had with my own two children who were then two and four years old. We talked about George Floyd’s murder in a developmentally appropriate way. And after talking about that murder, my oldest kiddo, my four-year-old, really wanted to go out and march. So we gathered a bunch of neighbors and we started marching and it kept going daily. Then the marches kind of took on its own shape and continued pretty strongly throughout the summer, and ended up sometimes even having thousands of people show up.
Norcross: So this happened throughout the year. In fact, what did those demonstrations look like in your neighborhood?
Koyama-Lane: They first started with kids leading chants and just going around starting in front of my house, going a couple blocks and just saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ We want to start a new pattern. I had explained to my kiddos [so] that they’re familiar with what patterns are. We talked about how George Floyd’s murder was part of an unfair pattern of police being unkind to Black people and it ending in a man losing his life. Really centering it around George Floyd’s murder. As they kept continuing and it kept growing, it became really clear that it needed to be Black-led and that Black voices were centered and heard. Eventually, Destiny Houston, a queer Black woman, has taken on the leadership reins. There’s a group of about four other women in the community and we helped support logistics. They evolved into something more like a teach-in at times. We would invite different BIPOC speakers to come in and speak... musicians, artists, vendors. And groups just started showing up. A volunteer security team started showing up, and they helped block the streets. People on motorcycles and bicycles just helping to make sure we’re safe. People started showing up with water bottles and passing out those to people that needed them and snacks. It is, it was so beautiful... such a beautiful thing.
Norcross: You said that these were teachable opportunities. Teach-ins. You used that term. Why did you feel it was necessary to shift these demonstrations into more of an educational stance and involve the young voices?
Koyama-Lane: It wasn’t even necessarily me making this decision. It really, organically, just grew and started happening. That was more Destiny deciding that she wanted to invite different Black leaders in the community to come and make sure that their voices were heard. These marches are really about amplifying children’s voices and amplifying specifically Black voices. So we have Children get up and speak, just like Sara, and we also have had other Black community members. It’s important to us that it’s a path for kids to antiracism. It helps them make sense of the world, of all the stuff that’s going on. [It] helps give them a way to understand and also be part of antiracism. We make sure that it’s a sensory experience. So we always get kids to sing, dance, move, chant. There’s always an opportunity for children to come up and lead chants. It’s important that it’s not just a moment to put up a sign and say Black Lives Matter, but to actually learn, and for this to be something that pushes us to grow and continue to learn from.
Norcross: And how are the kids responding to those events when they participate?
Koyama-Lane: They love them. They’ll get up and move. I even saw a 20-month-old kiddo who was dancing and even led a couple like ‘Black lives Matter’ chants and they love it. It’s really special.
Norcross: And it sounds fun, but you are at the end of it dealing with some heavy, painful topics. Do you feel like you need to soften the edges of the hard truths that you’re dealing with out there because kids are involved?
Koyama Lane: You know, not really. We can bring things down to a developmentally appropriate way. For example, talking about patterns and unfair patterns and making a new pattern and wanting something different for our world. But my students know, my third-grade students, and my own children, know that George Floyd was murdered. There’s no tiptoeing around that or softening that and they’re ready to hear these things. They’re ready to have these conversations. There are a lot of great books out there that help start those conversations. When I first talked to my own children, we read ‘Something Happened in Our Town,’ which is a book that really sets up the conversation to talk about police brutality. We’re not using, necessarily, words like police brutality with two and four-year-olds, but kiddos can understand these topics and they’re soaking it up. They’re hearing about it. They hear the news on. They know [and] can sense and feel what’s going on. I think it helps them feel safe and secure to have something that they can do and to be able to understand it at their level.
Norcross: How is what is happening out in the neighborhood an extension of what you’re doing in the classroom?
Koyama-Lane: It all seems interconnected and also seems connected with other community organizing that I’m doing. It seems connected to my own identity work that I’m doing. I live in and teach in the same neighborhood, and so I do really feel part of this community. Even before George Floyd’s murder, I was doing intentional identity work with my students and talking about these real topics… teaching truthful history. It all intersects because you can’t check your identity at the door as a student [or] as a teacher. It all comes into the classroom, no matter what. You can either choose to ignore it or choose to give kids tools to understand what’s happening.
Norcross: Sara, I want to bring you into this conversation. You’ve been going to protests throughout the city, and you spoke at some of them. Can you tell me what was going through your mind in those early days when you were marching or speaking?
Sara: In the early days, it was very low-key. I was mostly just participating in the background of larger marches. But I was able to push my way to the front at one very large march when they offered for volunteers to come speak. At the moment, what I was thinking was, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to share my voice. And I continue to do that. Really, that experience empowered me to keep going out and marching and trying to influence others to go out.
Norcross: What did you say?
Sara: I gave a small speech about how everyone out there protesting alongside me were considered my people in my head. I said thank you for coming out and just marching along for what’s right. It was a very small speech, but it was powerful enough for me as a person.
Koyama Lane: I remember your mom told me that she was still at the back of the crowd and she heard your voice and she was like, is that my kid?
Norcross: Got to keep an eye on this one. Sara, what do you do to encourage other kids who are your age to do? What you did and get out there and speak about?
Sara: I just try to tell them to put themselves out there. What I try to do is inform people because that’s the vital key... information. If you’re not informed then you’re not going to go out and protest or make change in whatever form that is. It can be small things... just talking about what’s going on instead of looking the other way, and going out marching, or just telling people about what’s happening instead of just hiding.
Norcross: Have you encountered anyone who thinks you shouldn’t do that or thinks your message should be different or anything like that?
Sara: Oh yeah, plenty of times. There were times where I would just stand out on a busy sidewalk and just hold a sign for Black Lives Matter, a plain Black Lives Matter sign, and I would get plenty of people with disgusted looks or just come up to me and say ‘No, that’s not right. All lives matter.’ And instead of sparking up a fight, I would just say that aren’t Black lives part of all lives? Why is this upsetting you? What is wrong with the sign? That tended to anger them. They just walk away ‚but it comes down to power.I feel like maybe they just feel threatened and they don’t like seeing differences. So we just gotta keep moving past that. There have been other incidents like this, such as when we were marching we came upon a “blue lives matter” march. They were aggressive and tried to engage us in a fight. But we decided just to keep being stronger and walk past them because it’s not worth it in the end. What we’re doing is peaceful and right. But there’s always going to be people who don’t agree with you and you just have to look the other way. You have to just keep doing what you think is right.
Norcross: Do you ever get scared when you’re out there?
Sara: Yeah, I do. When I see armed people who don’t have good values and who don’t [or] won’t do the right thing. I don’t feel safe sometimes. And that’s why we’re out here. That’s why we’re trying to make change. People who look like me shouldn’t feel that way.
Norcross: Tiffany, when you hear about Sara’s experience when she’s out there, what goes through your mind?
Koyama-Lane: A lot of different feelings and thoughts. I feel really proud of Sara. I’ve known Sara since she was a kindergartener. Actually, our paths first crossed because she was in my kindergarten class many years ago. Just seeing her bloom and grow into such a strong leader, and I know she has so much more ahead of her, I feel really, really proud of her. I’m glad that her voice is being amplified.
Norcross: Your protests that you helped organize were weekly last year until September and you’ve had a few since then. What is the plan going forward, and what will the activism look like from here on?
Koyama-Lane: We’re trying to think about creative ways to engage the community, keeping in mind that the landscape is changing. This summer is different from last summer. People are actually traveling, going on trips, which we didn’t imagine last summer. Some peoples’ work schedules are different. So, we’re just trying to keep in mind that we want to meet the needs of the community and meet the community where they’re at and also still be pushing for racial justice. We’re thinking that we’re going to be creative and open and think about one big event in July and one big one in August. I know for sure we’re going to do August 29th. Maybe even think about changing it up a little bit. Maybe it’s a march, maybe it’s not. Maybe it includes some resistance dance. I know that a group has done that before. There’s a group that reached out to us that’s interested in teaching some kids self-defense classes. Just being creative and constantly thinking about ways to change and grow and engage the community.
Norcross: How has the experience of working with these kids out in the streets affected how you teach about racism and racial justice in the classroom?
Koyama Lane: Oh, that’s a great question. I think it’s given me more confidence to personally just go out there and just show up, and then also encourage kids when they want to make change... to help them realize that it’s not something that has to be abstract or that’s in the past. Reading about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, that helping students see how this is the civil rights movement right now. Whether it’s abolition of slavery, civil rights in the sixties, Black Lives Matter now, it really is all connected into something that we can be part of and being able to encourage and support students who are really ready to use their voices and make real change. It just feels like history becomes more real. It’s something more that we’re living rather than something we are talking about as the past.
Norcross: Sara, you just graduated from Sunnyside Environmental School, didn’t you?
Sara: Yes, I did.
Norcross: Well, congratulations. What are your plans for continuing racial justice work as you head off to high school this fall?
Sara: I’m hoping to maybe create some affinity groups or things like that. I definitely want to keep up my activism. I don’t want to lose that. It’s been such a great experience for me. That’s what I’m planning.
Norcross: What about when you’re done with school? What do you think you might like to do for a living?
Sara: I haven’t really thought that too far in advance, but there was a point where I wanted to get into legislation and try to fix our justice system, but I’m not completely sure right now.
Norcross: Well, I’m sure you’ll be successful in whatever you do. Sara, Tiffany, it’s been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Sara: Thank you.
Norcross: That’s Sara, who has been involved in organizing Sunnyside neighborhood protests and Tiffany Koyama-Lane, who teaches at the Sunnyside Neighborhood Environmental School.