Last summer, Black communities across the country rose up against systemic racism following the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who was killed by police in an incident seen by millions on social media. Floyd’s death spurred thousands to take to the streets of downtown Denver from late May into June to demand justice and change. Over and over, protesters chanted “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” echoing some of the final words recorded as Floyd drew his last breaths.
During and after the protests young leaders in Denver’s Black community reflected on their experiences. They shared how they have used their influence to help their communities flourish, the challenges that lie ahead and their hopes of giving the next generation a clearer path to a life of freedom.
These are the stories of: Ibn Shabazz | Janaye Matthews | Elijah Beauford | Sage Wilson | Idris Shareef | Ashley Shareef | Simone Pier | Quincy Shannon
Shabazz uses his influence as a teacher, coach and youth minister. Last summer he took his daughter, Sanaa, 9, to Civic Center Park to see how positivity can bring all people together.
“It’s unfortunate that I had to bring [my daughter] down there [to the protests] in the beginning, but I think that her understanding of what a peaceful protest looks like in this climate and understanding what is really going on is important because a lot of people don’t really understand why. It was to get her exposed to young people who look like her speaking their truth. It was a big deal for her to be inspired by that. Maybe one day she’ll remember this and she’ll want to lead, to own this piece and to make sure people have their voice heard the right way.
I want it to be dramatically different than from what I experienced. Although [my upbringing] wasn’t like my dad’s or my grandpa, however, her experience should be night and day compared to 2020. As she gets older, she should live in a space where she is felt heard as a young woman, that she feels seen and that she is empowered by people around her. That’s what I would like for her to experience.
As far as the system itself, I think that she is on the right course to understand it from a young age, something I didn’t have. Starting early and having a grasp on it will give her a better chance to have an impact on whomever or herself in what she does should change happen.
These protests specifically have exposed a lot in a good way. People from every creed, race, religion, color have been able to be a part of it and share their stories. They aren’t athletes or popular in their fields or industries or whatever it may be and that’s a big deal. Those are the voices that matter. Sports or entertainers, that stuff is cool, but that’s kinda tied to money. Those people have a little more leeway, if you will, as opposed to the people who wake up, go to their 9 to 5, love their family well, but no one knows and no one hears their voice.
I experienced a bunch of different things growing up that I shouldn’t have at such a young age. It kind of forced me to grow a lot faster than I wanted to. Not having my mother in my life, not living with my dad, my mom [was in prison], my grandmother [who was basically my mom] passing away when I was 9, I was stretched. When you visit your mom through a glass wall, you automatically have a different perspective what life is like at 9 years old. I thought my upbringing was normal. As I got older, I realized the kids I serve today have similar stories, so being a light to kids like that and being able to show them what it’s like to have life at it’s fullest. I am called to it. I cannot let it go. I tell my wife all the time that I feel obligated to do the work I do. I gotta be here.
I have never had an agenda. I just want to do what is right. I think that kids being able see that some spark may happen for somebody and think that, you know what, we should follow that trend and give it a shot. What’s the worst thing that can happen if we all love each other the right way and see what happens? I want to challenge to people to do that.”
Sanaa Shabazz: “I really want people to get along with each other more often because I notice people always fight with each other and never fix it. [They] always have it stuck on their mind.”
Matthews, a CSU student majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering with a minor in ethnic studies, speaks about living as a Black woman in a predominately white male field of study.
“I wear a lot of radical clothes. For me, that’s how I kinda stay true to myself even if I am not speaking the way that I am at these rallies. I am prone to code switch and just kind of fit in, so I am not drawing attention. I automatically stand out. I am in classrooms of 100 students. They are predominately white and predominately male. Sometimes it’s about getting through the days without causing any commotion. Some days it’s truly like this feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. In terms of how I navigate it, especially in college in this STEM setting, there isn’t a lot of conversation about politics or campus environment. We come in, we do our work. That can be both isolating and relieving depending on the situation. One thing I have found by having a pretty public face on campus, my classmates know what I stand for and I will never back down from that. If people are willing to engage in a conversation, those are the people that need to hear it most and I try not to push them away.
It’s like, you know, I find that balance between feeling isolated in my classrooms and just really trying to push that needle and knowing that every day I show up for class and push towards my degree in engineering, I am making a difference and sending that message that I do belong in that place.
I think [these conversations on race] are making a lot of folks uncomfortable who haven’t been engaging in conversations like this before. Even for me before college, it was a lot harder to talk about it just because I didn’t think I had the experiences to be a part of those conversations. As I have taken on my own need to educate myself, my own experiences, and how I show up in the world, it is easy to talk about it. That’s what I really push, if you’re uncomfortable, lean into the conversation. Think about why it makes you uncomfortable, but more importantly, how you show up the way you do and how that impacts the way others show up. In the grand scheme of things, we know that these protests… people always want to see it done one way or another. Frankly, we as a community feel like we have tried everything, whether it is getting into higher education and pursuing academia and using that as a platform. That’s largely criticized and questioned in a lot of spaces. Protests- people tell you how you should be protesting. Everyone likes to go back to the 1960s with Martin Luther King Jr. and say that’s the right way to protest. I like to ask, ‘You do realize he was a criminal? He was a threat. He ultimately died for it, so if that was the right way to protest then we are going to keep doing that.’
Understand that we recognize that what you see now as the right way, back then was the absolute wrong way because every time Black folks spoke up for themselves – and not just Black people, but people of color and the marginalized – every time we spoke up, it was automatically seen as wrong. So as we start to see actually changes out of people raising their voice and spreading awareness, we shouldn’t be focusing on how people protest and send that message, we should be focusing on why and how that is going to impact the changes we need.
As people start to actually get into the journey and this fight with us, it’s how do we make them realize that this isn’t comfortable and this isn’t easy and it’s not short-term. We say that we really want people to commit and we want people to truly realize that every day is a fight. It’s not just what is trending on social media today and it’s not just what’s in the news cycle next week, but the fact that being a 22-year-old now I have been doing this my whole life even if I didn’t realize it.
Microaggressions don’t seem that harmful, but they start to add up. If you’re going through it in middle school, high school, college and the workforces, that’s a lot of microaggressions and they aren’t that small anymore. A lot of times if you just throw systemic racism at someone, they don’t know what to do with that. Moving more towards, ‘Here’s what racism looks like in everyday reality.’ I use racism as an adjective and not a noun. As a noun, it’s so permanent. I say enslaved rather than slave. Slave is so permanent. It’s a state that we know wasn’t permanent for my ancestors. It’s something they overcame. They didn’t allow for their minds to be enslaved. We know it wasn’t a permanent condition. In that same way, I take that same mindset with racism. Racism as itself is a concept as a noun. Racist is an action or an adjective where it’s something that can be changed. It’s a system that can be changed. It’s a racist system or a racist person, but at the end of the day, they are just a person with racist tendencies. Breaking it down, I don’t see it as a permanent state you exist in. I value you enough to believe you can change. It’s going to take time for you to do that work and I can do that for you as an individual, but for now, I will lean into that conversation and point you in the right direction, hopefully.”
Elijah Beauford aka Young Activist
Beauford is an emerging leader, who believes educational reform is needed to address the disparity in the histories being taught in American schools as they pertain to Black, brown and indigenous points of view.
“Basically, growing as young people we need a better understanding of our history. I believe that really researching and reading for yourself who we are as a people you realize that we are more special than just athletes, entertainers, rappers, criminals, thieves. We are something of value and we hold value when we know our rich history outside of the colonization of this European structure we are in now. When we realize that our lives matter to us and know our own history, it’s going to be hard for us not to succeed.
First and foremost, we spend more time with teachers and friends than our actual parents. Being able to change the curriculum in schools to where they are mandatorily forced to teach Black, Hispanic and Native history. I am not saying European history isn’t important, because we have to understand history, period. We have to be literate in the information around us. Understanding our value and that [Europeans] didn’t just come and were friends with indigenous communities and were just given the land. There is too much forgiveness. Same thing with slavery. We didn’t start off in Africa in huts and were savages. We actually had civilized communities. Unfortunately, through colonization and betrayal, we were shipped off to these parts of the land. Even farther back, we were kings and queens. On this side of the land, indigenous communities taught Europeans hygiene. That’s something people don’t understand. Self-value. Machu Picchu 20k feet in the air was an empire. Things like that show our intelligence is skyrocketing, but because of the physical and mental slavery we have experienced in America’s Black and brown neighborhoods, indigenous neighborhoods, we have lost our mind. Until we come back and break those yolks and chains off our necks, it’s going to be hard to hold value within ourselves.
Improving the education system and teaching Black and Brown and Indigenous history with value and the phenomenons, which we can create. Black and brown principals, having Black and brown educators, having Black and brown counselors. We can understand that I gotta go deal with the football coach or soccer coach or the security guard because he’s the only Black or brown person in the school. I want to say, ‘Oh wait, I got a teacher I can go deal with because I got a Black math teacher.’ I want to see myself in those situations. We don’t just gotta think we are going to be in the NBA, a one-in-a-million opportunity. We can actually be successful in education. People don’t understand the value of that. I have never seen a Black or brown math teacher.
You need brothers who understand the struggle like you understand the struggle.”
Wilson, a student-teacher, sees much of the movement in Denver as an opportunity for people to flex on social media, but not when it comes to living the actual message.
“I felt community, I felt people were getting involved. I didn’t want to stay home and not get my hands dirty.
Everything in Denver was all ego. That was really discouraging because I wanted to go out there and scream unity and try to get everyone to realize that we are stronger together despite our standing on other topics. If we are all here to make a difference, that’s all that matters, but that’s not what everyone was there for.
They get to exercise, they get to march around, they get to take cute pictures, they get to be part of history, but they don’t care what happens – they just want something for Instagram. It hurts really bad to know that this is a trend and it’s going to die out. It’s really depressing.
The first [social media] post I made was when Ahmaud Arbery happened. I made a big post about it and lost about 50 followers. I was just like, ‘damn, I didn’t realize I had so many racist people following me.’ Everyone was kinda telling me, ‘Sage, you need to chill. That’s not really your lane. We don’t follow you to hear about your Black problems. We follow you because you’re pretty and whatever.’
I am really trying to figure out a way to word what I am feeling, but it really is like… this is our life.
Everyone needs to know their history. Their real history. That means you have to find it yourself because you’re just going to get the whitewashed version. Most people aren’t going to do that even if you give them the resources. So if you don’t know the truth, you can never set yourself free. That’s for white people, too. White people need to know the history of what they have done, what their ancestors have been part of whether or not it’s good or bad. Black people in Africa did terrible things, too, but we need to know, so we can be better. The truth will set everyone free, but until everyone knows what really happened, until people really acknowledge Tulsa and Black Wall Street… there are so many things that will never be enough. Burning a city down won’t be enough. Getting angry doesn’t even feel good. Getting angry and burning stuff down doesn’t feel as good as sitting and holding a space for peace even if I am getting shot at.”
Shareef, a parent of two (pictured with son Maaz, then 4), grew up in Denver between the two worlds of suburban soccer and his inner-city Black existence. He and his wife, Ashley, hope to raise their kids knowing who they are, not what others perceive them to be based on the color of their skin.
“When all this stuff starts to come up, it’s all very repetitive to me. [I’m] just taking a step back and trying to figure out how to best communicate it to the children has been my number one priority so far. Mainly through education and teaching them to be fearless even though this world seems to have a target on your back, it’s ok to go out there be who you want to be.
For me, a lot of it is family. I have a big family. Nine brothers and sisters. They are all Black and they are all very different, too. While my children are around them, they are seeing different versions of what Blackness may look like. We are taking a step back in that environment without policing them and letting them develop social skills. I feel like I have a very large family and it is important to use them. Bringing them around and being able to keep them around is very positive. We are not all like a monolith. We do not all act the same. We have very different personalities from age to age. Just being able to keep them around family is very important.
On top of that, it’s important to realize how important family is for you. That is one of the things that we really want to instill – to rely on each other. When they are interacting with each other, it is a lot of respect. Really those are the examples that I feel like now with a four and two-year-old that they need – to be around family. As they get older, they will be exposed to more. With that exposure, we will be able to have those more in-depth conversations about the certain situations that happen and how to react.
My mentality is, ‘Yo, Black man, be proud of yourself and go out and do what you do.’ For Romi to be able to take care of her hair and body, she shouldn’t be ashamed of it. You should be able to speak to it without it being questioned. Just like, take care of yourself. This is your hair and it’s beautiful. Same thing with Maazi, ‘I am a Black man, I’m out here sucka free.’
I say just be fearless, attack the world as an open canvas. As an understanding and having that mental fortitude to handle the pressure of those moments when they may feel racism and discrimination. Romi may feel it as a woman – a Black woman. Maazi may feel it as a male – a Black male. I don’t want to put a whole lot of pressure on them to do anything specifically. My whole thing is to be mentally strong and take care of each other.”
Shareef, is a mother of two (pictured with daughter Romi, then 2), who, along with her husband Idris, is raising her kids to know their self-worth and who they are as people at the core.
“Less of a conversation and more of in our daily action, in what we put into the kids and instill in them. In that same mindset, be yourself and understand who you are. I feel like I have been on a journey. Lately, it has been, take a step back and realize who you are, right, and realize what you bring to the world. Don’t be afraid to shine your light and truly be present in who you are. That’s what I hope to give the kids.
I would say they need to recognize difference as a strength whether that is color, career, education. Whatever the difference is, to empathetically have a conversation with that person and walk in their shoes to understand how that has shaped their path and vice versa to be able to appreciate each other. Live within each other.
Accepting difference. Acknowledging difference. Understanding the difference. Accepting the difference.
Understanding difference and the benefits they can have and understanding growth and communication. That’s were it starts. Having a conversation, having equity, being able to communicate ideas and being open to hearing where that person is coming from. Acknowledging that somebody has grown to where they are now. I agree with what Idris said because it is a case-by-case basis. I cannot hold onto all the people, but the ones that are kind, working to be better, working to put good things and good energy into the world.
The 10 good white friends that I have text me, ‘We’re thinking about you. What can we do?’ You can talk to all your other white friends, everyone in your circle. Educate them and help them understand where your mind is, so they can have that same mindset. You guys can have those conversations. Those are people I can’t touch. I expect for you to educate them and help to bring them up. We can all help to raise each other up together.
I may not be at all the protests. I may not be in all the Black organizations, but in my work and the people I touch with my everyday energy and efforts, that’s what I do. For me, it might be different. For Idris, it might be different.”
Simone Pier aka DJ Simone Says
Pier grew up Denver’s Montbello and Park Hill neighborhoods. For years, she has straddled different worlds. As a woman, she is among a small group in a male-dominated DJ scene and as a youth she straddled both inner-city and white suburban worlds by way of her father’s real estate investing.
“My role in terms of the current social climate, I wouldn’t say I have a super active role. I don’t feel like I have earned the right to give myself a title or claim that I have been extremely active. I have tried to be extremely vocal in using my platform to the best of my ability. Most of my contribution has been financial or in direct support of people out there really, really hitting the pavement.
I have donated more money than I ever have in the past just to help people out. People who have been injured at the protest, people who have fallen on hard times during the pandemic. I think my goal this year when I started I said to myself that I was going to be a better supporter of my friends and community. I am fortunate to have some extremely talented, dope creative friends.
I feel like this stage in my life is my reciprocity stage. It’s time for me to pay some of this forward, show love and try to open up avenues for other people whether they be DJ’s, creatives or people in general. It’s one of those years we could use a lot more compassion and love. I have just kind of tried to stay out of the way unless I feel like I am adding something. I am kind of a fiery person, so I have been conscious of not adding any negative. I think the fire is enough fuel as it is.
I have always actively supported the Black community. Now, it has shifted to be a priority versus, ‘Oh, it’s convenient.’ I made that decision prior to March, April, May, June . This is a decision I made for myself at the beginning of the year. It fits with my long-term goals of what I want to accomplish. Being from Park Hill and now living on what used to be considered the east side slash Globeville, I can see the impact that gentrification and development have had on the community. I have felt the impacts of being pushed out.
I would like to get to the point where I have enough of the financial freedom to take back some of this property, some of the opportunity here in Denver. Supporting Black businesses is something I priorities in trying to get to that goal.
Expectations culturally… The one thing that seems to stick out to me that has been different in my experience and the people I grew up around is the support of my parents. I come from two parents who are both entrepreneurs. There was never limited vision. I was never told no, not in a sense of wanting, but never told I couldn’t accomplish something because of the barriers of gender or class. My parents made me very aware that I was Black. I didn’t grow up uninformed or in a bubble. I was fortunate- my father specifically, was a real estate investor. Even though I grew up in Montbello, my dad would buy homes in Highlands Ranch to flip them. That put me in a lot of circumstances different from the average Black kid I grew up with. I became a chameleon. I learned to maneuver in predominately white and Black space. It has translated to all aspects of my life from business to socially. It really is exposure. I don’t want to make it sound so simple because there are a lot of factors that go into it, but I just think exposure. There’s a whole world outside of your neighborhood, city or region.
Black people are just finally getting to the point of just wanting to exist and not subconsciously having to think about their existence. It’s more of a cultural shift than a personal shift. I think I am just a lot more unapologetically Black now. It’s good because I don’t think I ever made an effort to not display my Blackness, but I think subconsciously I think I did. It’s learned behavior, it’s a survival technique for Black people. Especially a Black woman we have the stigma of being aggressive and loud and mad, so I think for a while I always kind of played to that. I spent more time trying to prove I wasn’t that person and now I’m like I really don’t care if that’s how I am perceived.”
Shannon a pastor, has been the victim of police violence, but he still preaches peace and awareness as they pertain to his community and the media’s portrayal of his peoples.
“There was peaceful action on Friday, we were walking, my sister spoke and my daughter prayed. My sister and my daughter were super excited. They were like excited because they saw news cameras as we were leaving. We watched the news that night and they were like, ‘All they are focusing on is a dumpster fire or people throwing stuff at police. They were like, ‘What happened to them talking about all the good stuff that happened?’ I was like, ‘now you’re learning a little about the media – how stories are portrayed. How things you know to be true aren’t necessarily covered in that way.’ It was great for our personal dialogue at home, but it was hard for them to learn.
It made it challenging because there is so much other work that is happening outside of what was happening late at night. Ninety percent of the story is on the negative aspects of it. It made it difficult in the beginning to bring people on board, call them allies or whatever, who would have been able to help move the cause forward because they are worried if they are going to be shot at night or beat at night or that looting happening and their businesses aren’t safe. It was important to work on strategically trying to change the narrative and continuing to put on peaceful, unifying actions to say that there is something else that is happening and regardless if the media is going to cover it from the beginning, within our networks we have people covering it. It was a good lesson that we didn’t have to send media releases to news outlasts to say, ‘come cover what we have going on.’ It was actually the opposite- if they aren’t going to cover what is going on, everyone take a picture on their phone, so others know what is happening. It was amazing because people had the power to spread the narrative of what was really going on. We saw that build and the formal media actually caught up on the backside. ‘Oh no, we want to have those conversations and do those interviews.’ It was nice to have the community say, ‘No, we’re not going to allow the media to highjack what is happening down here.’
If all the stories ever covered are about gangs, drugs and killing and then something negative happens downtown or in Minneapolis or Dallas, Atlanta or Ohio or wherever it may be, then if all I have been conditioned to see within the media is that this group of people, regardless of if I want to admit it or not, if it’s subconscious or unconscious, they’re the group that always does the drinking, the thug related things, the gang-related things, the shootings and then I see one die, then it’s like, ‘Oh, well they were living that type of lifestyle, they were doing that.’ It becomes frustrating. Even with the looting that was happening downtown, there weren’t just Black people going in those stores, but a lot of the way it was covered was as if Black people were opportunistic and doing those things.
When we see [white people], ‘She must have a challenging situation,’ and you know if she is white, we are saying, ‘Oh, it’s a challenging situation.’ If they are Black, it’s, ‘Look at them just taking all of these things and they have no regard for the owner.’ It was interesting to see, even within our own local media. As somebody who was on the ground both day and night, actually, the people who are really getting in the face of the cops, aren’t really looking like me. Not saying it wasn’t all us, but a majority of the people agitating and taking it to the next level weren’t angry Black people as reported, but the majority of people doing some of the larger agitation weren’t of our community. It was frustrating because it was like, ‘Wow, you can actually watch somebody doing something and get none of the blame for doing it.’ That is why we need a Black lives matter movement. It was ironic to see that dichotomy- how does that even happen?”
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