Young Black Nebraskans Are Leading the Movement for Anti-Racist Social Change

July 21, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

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After weeks of daily Black Lives Matter protests in Omaha, Lincoln, and throughout the state, activists are continuing their work in a less visible way. Young Black Nebraskans are pushing the momentum forward to continue the fight against racism in the Midwest.

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, a small crowd is gathered on the steps of the Nebraska capitol building in Lincoln. Like every other weekend for the past month, people are here holding signs that say "Justice for George Floyd" and "I Can’t Breathe."

Kiara Williams, a 19-year-old studying human development and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is telling the crowd about Change Now, the organization she started a few weeks ago.

"We think it’s great when we march and when we protest and when we host rallies," Williams told the crowd. "But we’re really public policy and solution focused."

Change Now

Mission: "Change Now is a solution focused movement to ensure that equal rights for Black individuals are in constant pursuit. We are dedicated to empowering our local community, as well as supporting the national movement for justice and equality. Change Now spreads awareness and is committed to shifting current law and public policy to support and reflect equal rights."

Facebook: Change Now LNK

For her, creating change is an immediate goal.

Change Now participated in a public comment campaign that pushed Lincoln Police to evaluate its use of force policies. The department is considering whether to ban chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene when a colleague uses excessive force.

Change Now co-leader Christelle Tshibengabo, a recent UNL graduate, wants to abolish police, and divert their budget to programs including drug rehabilitation and mental health services.

"I think when people say abolish the police it’s because we're watching, live as a nation, the police literally not servicing the people that it's meant to service," Tshibengabo said. "But I don't think that that would gain traction here, if we're being realistic."

Still, Tshibengabo says, it’s important to keep talking about the purpose and tactics of police. Her group proposes regular meetings between officers and people in the neighborhoods they patrol.

I Ask, I Act at a Juneteenth rally in Lincoln. (Becca Costello, NET News)

I Ask, I Act at a Juneteenth rally in Lincoln. From left to right: Riek Bol (16), Azcia' Fleming (18), Jza Nevha McWilliams-Gray (17), Zahria Johnson (16), Mehret Habtu (15), and Mar'Lakuittia Overstreet (NAACP Youth Council Sponsor). (Photo courtesy: I Ask, I Act)

Racial profiling doesn’t stop with police, though. Riek Bol, a junior at Lincoln High School, deals with it all the time.

"Recently my siblings and I went to Walmart and they only had self-checkout stations," Bol said. "One of the employees would just keep glancing over my shoulder to see if I was scanning every item. But I noticed she wasn’t doing it to every single customer. I obviously knew what was happening there but I didn’t say anything."

Bol belonged to the local youth council of the NAACP – a century-old civil rights organization — before police killed George Floyd.

He’s also involved in a new organization called I Ask, I Act, which challenges Nebraskans to ask themselves important questions.

"How am I educating myself and others? What do I need to know? Who do I need to ask to answer my questions?"

Aneesa Parker, a North East High School senior, also belongs to I Ask, I Act.

"I feel like people are kind of scared or nervous to speak out about things. Speaking is out is what we really need to do right now," Parker said. "Even if it just helps one person, at least you helped that one person."

She says her older relatives are beginning to understand why she’s acting now.

"Both of my parents are seeing, like, things are actually changing," Parker said. "I think they're kind of slowly getting into the idea of like, okay, we're doing something."

I Ask, I Act.

Mission: "I ASK. I ACT. seeks to help educate our emerging leaders and active members of the community on next steps when making systemic change permanent."

I Ask, I Act helps people learn about voting, figure out who represents them, and communicate with those elected officials.

Miki Montgomery wrapped up the Change Now rally outside the state capitol.

"What I want to see for Kiara is the same turnouts here that we have at the marches — because these right here are educational events," said Montgomvery, a lecturer in the UNL College of Education and advisor for I Ask, I Act and Change Now. "I’m learning from her. I’m 47 years old and I’m sitting here like, oh yeah? I didn’t know that about voters rights."

Williams says her challenge now is to build on the momentum behind what people have learned.

"My generation and younger generations are going to be taking these positions in politics and dismantling the system from inside," Williams said. "So I think it's really important that there is people brave enough, like us to want to go into these fields where we know that we're going to face adversity."

What they’ve learned, she says, will help sustain them for the long haul.

Editor's Note: This story is part of our "Best of 2020" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in July 2020.