Activist Olivia Levine at Gowen Park in Sanford on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In her classrooms, Olivia Levine learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and saw photos of sit-ins at lunch counters.

At the microphone in front of hundreds of protesters last summer, she learned that peaceful didn’t have to mean passive.

“I’ve noticed that not responding is not always the way, and sometimes you have to make some noise,” Levine, 17, of Sanford, said.

Nationally and in Maine, young people of color were at the forefront of demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd last year. In the months since, many have continued to push local leaders to keep the promises they made over the summer to root out systemic racism. They have met with both success and red tape, support and reluctance.

They are the latest generation in a historic fight for racial equity. But they have found that a watered-down curriculum about their predecessors and once-a-year lessons about Martin Luther King Jr. did not prepare them to sustain a movement.

“The schools I’ve been through, he got celebrated and the teachers would put up a video,” Tatiana Jonk, 18, of Gorham, said. “They don’t explain why. They don’t go into the details of what he struggled with. That doesn’t help you understand how he made the change. As I got older, I took matters into my own hands and asked more questions.”

Activists Olivia Levine and Josh Wood at Gowen Park in Sanford on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

***

When Levine and Josh Wood organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Sanford in June, 400 peaceful participants showed up. So did a small group of armed observers, including a couple of white men who openly carried guns, and a host of vitriolic commentators on Facebook.

When they organized a coat drive with Black Lives Matter Maine a few months later, they raised enough money to give a couple hundred jackets to local families. They did not hear the same animosity or threats they had seen over the summer on social media.

“We talk about race, and we make them uncomfortable,” said Levine, who is Black. “When we did the coat drive, I think it’s awesome that they responded well, but I wish they would respond the same way to our main message.”

Activist Josh Wood at Gowen Park in Sanford on Friday.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Levine and Wood said they felt hopeful after Sanford leaders met a few times with their group of young organizers this summer. They focused on the city’s police department, presenting a petition to remove school resource officers and pushing to divest military-grade equipment from the federal government. But they were disappointed when the police chief and other officials did not pursue those ideas.

Then Chief Tom Connolly shared a message on Facebook and on the city’s website in November asking residents to sign up for a citizen-police council. He wrote that the eventual goal of the group was to sponsor a community event to discuss implicit bias “and attract hundreds of new people to the conversation.” The ad did not mention any review of police policies or proposed changes.

“Council members will learn to identify their biases and make conscious efforts to eliminate those biases,” he wrote.

Neither the city’s website nor the department’s Facebook page has shared any new information about the council since that first ad, and Connolly said he was disappointed because he only heard from four residents who were interested. He decided not to convene the group, but he said he would try again this spring. In the meantime, he said he has participated in what he said was insightful training about implicit bias and systemic racism, and he has directed his officers to do the same.

“We’re trying the best we can to expose people to the idea of implicit bias and to get people to training. … I think this is a good start for us,” Connolly said.

Activist Josh Wood at Gowen Park in Sanford on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

If he does form a council, Connolly said he didn’t think the local organizers should be part of its first meetings, but he does want to invite them to join later to share their experiences as people of color in Sanford.

“I could be wrong about this, but my approach to this is, I don’t want confrontation,” Connolly said.

Levine and Wood said the chief didn’t reach out to them when he was looking for members of the council.

“It seems like it was for show,” Levine said. “Making that post for the council and releasing statements and going to these meetings and not actually doing the work.”

But the two friends, both seniors in high school, have not soured on activism. They are preparing to lead a webinar for other young activists through the Maine Environmental Education Association. Wood, who identifies as mixed race, has been working on other campaigns related to climate change. His first experiences with activism were in middle school, and he has learned that the work is constant, even when it is behind the scenes.

“When movements get big, you get such a high on them,” Wood, 16, said. “It starts crashing down when people get performative. … I’ve seen people fall off, and I’ve seen organizations fall off.”

***

When the number of people at recurring Black Lives Matter marches in Gorham started to dwindle this summer, Kyle Ouillette said he and other organizers first changed the time to draw a bigger crowd. Then they decided to change their method.

“A lot of people thought, they’re just riding the wave, a trend,” Ouillette, 19, said. “They’re just doing it because everyone else is doing it. We wanted to do something more than shout. We wanted to effect real change within our community.”

They formed Gorham Anti-Racism Development, or GARD. In August, they hosted a community event on one of the school fields, where people could listen to speakers and learn about anti-racism. That same month, they rallied around a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter before the Gorham Town Council. Ouillette, who was born in Guatemala and is Latino, said he was frustrated when what seemed to him like a minimal gesture divided the council enough to push off a vote.

Kyle Ouillette of Gorham stands outside the Gorham Municipal Center on Friday. Ouillette, a freshman at Springfild College, has continued the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement by working with the group Gorham Anti-Racism Development. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“The way I looked at it was, you told us not to march, you told us not to protest, you try to tell us what to protest, you try to tell us to do it the ‘right’ way,” he said. “Then we do it the ‘right’ way, we do everything by the book, and it still didn’t go anywhere. It was frustrating.”

Ultimately, the council passed the resolution, although one member did not support it and submitted an alternative version that did not mention Black Lives Matter. Ouillette said he wasn’t sure the measure would have passed if dozens of Gorham residents hadn’t contacted their elected officials in support. Later, young activists also helped write and pass a new anti-racism policy at the school committee.

Heather Perry, the superintendent of Gorham schools, said students have been the driving force of that policy and the work that has followed. She remembered meeting with a small group in the spring to talk about their experiences and ideas, and she described a host of new initiatives, like a series of training sessions for employees, a survey about student experiences, audits of curriculum and hiring practices.

“We were like, oh my goodness, we can do better, and we need to do better,” Perry said. “You get in that room and you hear those students, and you can’t help but want to do better. I can say that from a personal perspective and also as the leader of a school system.”

Jonk is an organizer with GARD and a member of the district’s new committee to implement the anti-racism policy. She is originally from Columbia and is Latina, and she attended schools in other states before she transferred to Gorham High School in her sophomore year. In her experience, she said she has found adults who are willing to mentor and support young people in their activism.

Kyle Ouillette of Gorham stands outside the Gorham Municipal Center on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“One thing that my mom says all the time is that it’s better to work with someone rather than against someone,” Jonk said. “So I think that any adult working with us and listening to us, we as a group of more than one generation are creating peace and change.”

Last week, even as he prepared to start his second semester at Springfield College in Massachusetts, Ouillette led the first Zoom class in a GARD series about anti-racism. Ouillette said the group is writing bylaws and going through the process of becoming an official nonprofit. He and other organizers are taking that step in hopes that GARD can be a lasting presence in the town.

“We’re still around, and we’re not going anywhere,” Ouillette said. “We didn’t fizzle out.”

***

Young activists were central figures in the civil rights movement.

The “Little Rock Nine” were Black students who faced a white mob and the National Guard when they tried to enter an Arkansas high school in 1957, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was illegal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately intervened for them to attend their classes, although they were harassed and threatened by their white peers.

Four Black teenagers staged the first sit-in at a North Carolina lunch counter in 1960. Their protest was quickly modeled in other college towns and inspired a student activist group that was integral to the civil rights movement.

In 1963, more than 1,000 students skipped school in Birmingham, Alabama, to march in the downtown, and many were arrested. When hundreds marched again the following day, the white police commissioner ordered officers to use force against them. Later known as the Children’s Crusade, the images of children and teenagers being blasted with hoses and clubbed by officers shocked the world and moved President John F. Kennedy to express support for federal civil rights legislation.

But today’s activists said their formal education about their predecessors has been lacking, and they have sought out more information from articles and podcasts. Wood said he learned outside of school about the women who impacted the civil rights movement, like Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the important events in the history of LGBTQ people of color, like the Stonewall riots of 1969.

“My education was just, Martin Luther King Jr. helped fix segregation,” Wood said.

Levine agreed and said she wishes she learned more about historic forms of activism and studied other key figures, such as Malcolm X.

Activist Olivia Levine at Gowen Park in Sanford on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It reaffirms the idea that Black people can’t be angry,” Levine said. “They taught us that peaceful protests are the way, and anger is not how you respond to this. But when you look at things over the summer, there are reasons to be angry.”

A major focus for young activists has been to make the school curriculum more inclusive. Perry, the Gorham superintendent, agreed that schools should not just spend a few extra classes talking about King and the civil rights movement.

“Schools have already had a tendency to treat Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day, a single day,” Perry said. “They move on. What I’m hearing from these conversations is that’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is to embed, in everyday conversations, civic engagement.”

Ouillette said his experiences in activism over the last year have taught him in a deeper way about the courage and tenacity King and other leaders needed in the 1960s.

“I think a lot of people forget that this happened a few decades ago, not 150 years ago,” Ouillette said. “There’s people still living today that remember this happening. It’s not like it’s ancient history.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.