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Originally published Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 8:01 PM

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Young pair practice essence of citizenship

Two people turn angst to activism, continuing the tradition of students organizing for social change.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Sometimes for your own mental and emotional well-being, you have to say something, write something, do something.

Chelsea Adams was having trouble getting to sleep. Michael Brown had been shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., a few days before, and social media kept events there as much in front of her as if she were there instead of in Seattle.

We all live in a swirl of negative events brought to us by news media or social media that put us in places far from the real space we occupy: Liberia, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ferguson.

Adams kept thinking about police firing rubber bullets at protesters, about military weapons pointed at American civilians. “I was frustrated,” she said. “I was angry. I was hurt.”

She called her friend, Bobby Alexander. Without having to ask what she was talking about, he said OK, let’s do something.

They took the feelings swirling in their heads and put them into action before those feelings either faded or turned to despair.

Adams was set on organizing a public rally, but after consulting mentors, she, Alexander and some friends decided to invite people concerned about social justice to begin meeting to give people a chance to get their feelings out, to share ideas and to make connections that could result in positive actions to address issues here at home.

I attended the second meeting and left wanting to know more about them, so we talked again last Thursday.

She’s a Cleveland High School graduate, he’s an O’Dea alum. They met two years ago when he came to the University of Washington to begin work on the master's degree in public administration he earned this year. She was president of the Black Student Union. They began working together and continued when he succeeded her in that position.

Adams and Alexander both say they want to carry their work for social justice into their careers, but they take very different approaches.

Alexander is applying for a job as a police officer. And in the meantime, he’s working at the Urban League because he wants to carry the perspective he’s getting there into his police work.

His father had a long career with the Seattle Police Department. “My father worked in South Seattle and coached track at the Rainier Beach Community Center,” Alexander said, adding he wants to be the kind of officer his father was, one who knows the community and is involved.

Adams was a pre-law student when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in 2013 in the death of Trayvon Martin. “One of my advisers looked me in the face and said, ‘Justice was served.’ ” She lost faith in the justice system, decided to change paths, become a teacher and prepare children to succeed despite barriers.

She’s a teaching resident at Madrona K-8 in Seattle and working toward her master’s in teaching.

I hope they’ll keep collaborating when he’s wearing a badge and she’s in a classroom, because solutions to complex problems often require more than one approach, and a lot of cooperation.

They didn’t waste time on their current project. They created an organization called S.P.E.A.K. U.P., and held their first gathering Aug. 20 at the Douglass-Truth Branch Library in Seattle’s Central Area. About 75 people came, many of them college students. They decided to hold the next meeting further south to get more of the young black people who might be most likely to have encounters with the police.

The audience last Wednesday evening at South Shore K-8 looked mostly black, middle-class, young and female. Adams and Alexander are analyzing the first two meetings and trying to improve both format and diversity as they go.

For that gathering, the two friends mined their social connections and brought together a panel to talk about Ferguson and the larger issues of inequality and injustice.

There were two ministers, a police captain, a judge, social activists.

One young man angrily accused all of them of being part of the system that imprisons and kills black men. He stormed off, but the young people running the meeting were unfazed.

They said the meeting was about letting people have their say. If some people don’t know how to convey what they are feeling in a constructive way, it was the duty of others in the room to translate for the people who make policy.

Panelists such as King County Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough emphasized the importance of voting. Leslie Braxton, the senior pastor at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Renton, noted the low voting rate of black residents of Ferguson, and said police policies and practices will change when police leaders are afraid for their jobs because they know mayors and city councils are being held accountable by voters and will be afraid to stand behind police when they violate citizens’ rights.

Maybe some new push for civic participation will come out of these meetings, and we’ll have a group of young people who take their citizenship seriously to thank.

Adams and Alexander both give credit to Emile Pitre for shaping their activism. Pitre, a vice president in the UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, graduated from the UW in 1969. He helped found the Black Student Union, which moved the university to increase campus diversity. Adams said he told them, “never back down from what you believe in.”

Adams and Alexander look up to people from earlier generations who fought for justice, and they want to continue that tradition. Adams said, We’re trying to reinspire our community to speak up (speakupnownw@gmail.com).

Taking action doesn’t just make them feel better. It gives people hope and it should make the whole community feel better, too.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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