Shayla Avery’s junior year at Berkeley High School was upended by the pandemic and the largest civil-rights uprising of the century, but the last thing the 16-year-old wants is for everything to return back to normal.
Avery is among thousands of youth across the country stepping up to protest systemic racism and police brutality, and demand racial equity in every part of society, starting with the institutions closest to home.
Over the past month, Avery, Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer, 17, and 16-year-old Hadassah Zenor-Davis have organized one of the largest Black Lives Matters protests in Berkeley so far, prompted Berkeley Unified School District to commit to lasting change in the way it teaches Black American history, and started work on a plan to sustain the movement into the coming months. Their efforts also facilitated Berkeley High scooping the city of Berkeley in painting Black Lives Matter in giant yellow letters on a city street.
And the three young women are doing this while preparing for futures in a drastically different landscape than past generations.
“When people say ‘go back to normal,’ I’m like, you’re on your own for that one. Because I’m trying to make change.” — Shayla Avery
“When people are saying ‘go back to normal,’ I’m thinking like, I don’t even know what normal is anymore,” Avery said. “We’re changing so much and we’re pushing to change what people think is normalized, that’s what we want. When people say ‘go back to normal,’ I’m like, you’re on your own for that one. Because I’m trying to make change.”
Three days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, BHS senior Ayisha Friedman, who orchestrated a walkout against sexual assault earlier this year, organized for a group of protesters, most of them BHS students, to gather at the Berkeley Police headquarters and then march down I-980 to downtown Oakland.
The following Monday, two Oakland teenagers organized a protest that drew 15,000 people to Oakland Tech High School.
Avery was inspired. She wanted to change what she and other students described as systemic racism at Berkeley High, and demand accountability from its leaders. So she reached out to Schneider-Dwyer, vice president of Berkeley High’s Associated Student Body, who she knew through mutual friends.
The two had never organized a protest before, but, along with Zenor-Davis, they began figuring out their resources. They typed up a list of demands, shared flyers and information on social media and accepted offers for gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to make sure their protesters were safe during the pandemic.
“That’s kind of just how it starts, advocating for the voices and recording down the information somewhere,” said Schneider-Dwyer, who described hours-long phone calls with Avery, listening to her share everything in her heart and on her mind. Schneider-Dwyer speed-typed everything into a document and the group ultimately created a list of demands for BUSD that they formally presented at a protest that went from San Pablo Park to their high school on June 9.
They referenced similar demands made by Berkeley High’s Black Student Union in 2015, after racist threats were left on a computer at the school, and that came in the wake of the student-led Black Lives Matter protests of 2014.
The group’s list included mandatory education on racism and prejudice against Black students for teachers, staff, and students; the hiring of Black teachers to lead these classes with an expanded curriculum to include discussions of redlining in Berkeley, the history of Juneteenth and other topics beyond slavery; immediate punishment for acts of racism; “know your rights” training for all students; comprehensive Black history classes and “Police Brutality and Murder teach-ins from a historical perspective.” The school’s student government set up a partnership with Black-owned businesses, and the demands also included a mural project by artists of color to be created this summer at Florence Schwimley Little Theater. The mural would be an ongoing celebration of Black lives, and a remembrance of those who have been killed by police.
Student activism has a long history at Berkeley High and it has led to many changes over the decades. Fifty-two years ago, in 1968, students went out on strike to demand the creation of a Black Studies department. The school board acceded to the students’ demands and Berkeley High became the first public high school in the nation to create a department where African American history, Swahili, dance and other courses were offered. More recently, Berkeley High was very active in the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, and many BHS students staged a walk-out the day after Donald Trump was elected president.
Two weeks ago, BUSD agreed to the students’ demands, in line with its own Resolution in Support of Black Lives Matter.
It was a victory for Avery, Schneider-Dwyer, Zenor-Davis and the hundreds who marched on June 9, and it motivated them to keep going.
Avery and Schneider-Dwyer have organized another protest for Tuesday. Called Pay Your Dues, this one will start at Ashby BART station and take protesters about three miles to Codornices Park in the Berkeley Hills. The choice of locations is intentional. The creation of Ashby BART station displaced Black families when it was built in the 1960s and set in motion decades of gentrification. The Berkeley Hills are symbolic of the redlining and segregation that prevented Black families from owning homes in the city.
The Pay Your Dues protest is also a response to the students’ frustration over a lack of comprehensive education on the local implications of racist policies, as outlined in their demands to BUSD. Schneider-Dwyer said she briefly learned about redlining in history class but knew little about Berkeley’s own legacy.
“I feel like I’ve been lied to, like everyone’s been lied to. We’re not really taught how connected all of the dots are,” she said. Avery and Zenor-Davis, who are both Black, said their peers have been eager to educate themselves over the past several weeks, but they feel they shouldn’t have to fill their own gaps in the education system.
When the protests first started, Avery even felt like school was actively holding her back from participating in a movement that had a direct impact on her life.
“None of our teachers spoke up about it, they were acting like it was normal, like nothing was going on. The fact that our teachers were still saying, ‘Well you still have to get this in on time, I don’t care.’ That’s not okay,” she said. “It was like I was fighting … to be able to walk down the street and just be normalized … or to turn in the work on time so I could go to college. I shouldn’t have to choose between that.”
The June 9 protest concluded with the painting of a huge Black Lives Matter street mural on Allston Way, in front of the Berkeley High campus. Ironically, at the same time, the protesters were putting the finishing touches to their work, city councilmembers were discussing the city doing the same thing, albeit at a different location. The city’s mural, along with another one that would have read “Ohlone Territory,” has yet to materialize.
Hadassah Zenor-Davis addresses the crowd at a BHS protest on June 9. Video: Pia Navales
The last few months have been exhausting in myriad ways for the young activists, even without factoring in studying for the SATs, managing distance learning and “social bubbles,” and trying to make the most of the last years of high school.
Zenor-Davis said she has been to an organizing meeting or protest almost every single day for the past month, including a 300-strong protest against white supremacy on Saturday at MacArthur BART station, where 18-year-old Nia Wilson was killed by a white man in July 2018. She’s finally taking a short break this week from the physical exertions of activism. She will be working behind the scenes for a while as she figures out the next steps for her life post-high school, and for how she contributes to the movement — which can be intense and demanding.
“I don’t really scare easy, in a sense,” Zenor-Davis said of being on the front lines during a protest, and facing the possibility of getting arrested or hurt. “We’re protesting because people are dying, and it’s not a suicide wish or anything like that. If that were to be what happens next, at least I’m dying for something I believe in. Being who I am as a light-skinned Black woman, I have a sense of privilege, so why not use that for good?”
“Being who I am as a light-skinned Black woman, I have a sense of privilege, so why not use that for good?” —Hadassah Zenor-Davis
Schneider-Dwyer and Avery are also aware of “activist burnout,” and said they’ve picked up extra skills on multitasking, organization and efficiency to manage their lives while they keep up the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement in Berkeley. For Schneider-Dwyer, who Avery described as a “white ally,” this means having active conversations with family and other white peers, supporting others through her resources in student government, listening to Black students and identifying actionable problems.
Schneider-Dwyer emphasized that the word “ally” doesn’t do the work on its own.
“As much as I might be referred to as a ‘white ally,’ I don’t really like to claim a title because it’s just more about the work that I’m doing that has to be ongoing — that will show my allyship,” she said, “I wasn’t heavily involved with activist work like this with Black Lives Matter [before], I just think it’s so important that … I humble myself enough to learn and to listen because as a white student I’m not used to that, I’m used to dismissing a lot of Black voices, or not really fully hearing them out or paying attention.”
Avery has faced moments of fatigue, sadness and discouragement, but she said every aspect of her future relies on the longevity of the movement.
“I don’t want to be next, I don’t want to be the next name. I don’t want my family to be next. I just keep thinking, I have to do it for my family, I have to do it for my people,” she said. “I can’t stop fighting, because it’s gone on for way too long. I have to keep up the motivation for them, and myself, because I am a young Black woman in this country.”
She hopes their actions can inspire other kids to take up the mantle in their own neighborhoods, just like the Oakland protesters inspired her to become an activist. Over the past several weeks, Berkeley has had, and continues to have, protests held for children.
“It’s up to youth, we’re taking that charge. For people younger than me, that means they can do it too,” Avery said. “All it takes is a passionate voice.”