A new generation has heard Memphis’ cry for progress and set its sights on political action. Influenced by the police-involved killing of Tyre Nichols, socioeconomic disparities and calls to climate action, this generation is learning to lead and organize on local and national platforms. Here are two students from Rhodes College who are taking their places in movement-making.
Katie Miller, 21, Kingston, Jamaica
Miller is studying international relations, political science and Spanish. She is co-chair of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope’s training team, which supports leaders, and hosts local trainings in organizing and power analysis, among other things.
Why Memphis: The history of Memphis’ music, culture, and influential civil rights history, which she considers to be contemporary because of Memphis’ influence on modern-day social justice movements.
On getting involved: “After my first year [at Rhodes], a representative of MICAH came to talk to students about economic equity. I became interested in MICAH’s work and decided to reach out and join since I had no connections at the time in Memphis. I got involved with the re-entry task force and this correlated with my college studies on mass incarceration and prison education. This sparked the passion for community advocacy for me. I got plugged into the MICAH community and began my on-campus advocacy for housing and workers rights.”
On Gen-Z movement making: “I may be biased, but I feel that we are more open-minded. Social media has propelled our learning and amplified our voices on issues such as excessive force in policing, climate change, affordable housing and more. Our generation has pioneered the use of social media to galvanize the country on these issues.”
On the effect of Tyre Nichols’ death: “Police violence was present in my country, as well. Everywhere police are abusing their power, and it is frustrating and hurtful to continue to see it. It makes me question my freedom and safety, even leaving my room. I see the college experience of white students that party at late hours, and I know that our experience as college students is not like that. Tyre Nichols did not deserve what happened to him.”
On self-care: “Advocacy is a part of my mental health; it is an outlet for me to express my feelings about the issues that affect me and others. Another outlet for me is practicing yoga in my dorm room. Overall, I feel solace in the community that I have found in MICAH and Decarcerate Memphis. I won’t lie, I am a bit of a procrastinator when it comes to my schoolwork, but I always get it done.”
On tips for other students: “I would suggest engaging the community like I have with MICAH where I can organize with my peers for the betterment of the community but also forming relationships and having fun. #BlackJoy is important to me, too! We decompress by cooking, dancing, and exploring one another’s interests. I suggest finding community at your college, as well. Do not be afraid to reach out on social media or attend engagement events.”
Finding a way: Miller enjoys portrait photography but could not afford the equipment, so she co-founded the photography club at Rhodes so the school could provide the materials; working with peers, she co-founded a student-led intercollegiate youth action summit, N.O.I.S.E — Network of Organizers Igniting Student Empowerment.
Trinity Williams, 19, New Orleans
Williams is studying health equity and Africana studies. She’s a community organizer with MICAH, where she works with the race and equity task force. She is also a Stand for Children fellow, where she learns the basic and best ways to organize.
On getting involved: “My mom is a United Methodist pastor, so I felt that I had to step up in some positions in my life. I lost a cousin to police brutality; we were both 17 when she passed away. We had both just gotten accepted to college when she lost her life due to police violence. In the wake of Tyre Nichols, the topic of police brutality hits close to home. I have gotten involved with MICAH, Stand for Children, BLM Memphis and Decarcerate Memphis.”
On organizing in Memphis: “It’s been a blessing to be able to continue the work. Memphis is a home away from home for me. I felt the gravity of learning the details behind Dr. King’s assassination, such as his work for sanitation workers’ rights in Memphis. I am learning the rich history of Memphis, such as the Memphis massacre and Ida B. Wells, and I feel as if the work we are doing is a continuation of the efforts of those that came before us.”
On the city’s history: “The youth community has inspired me, not only present-day but historical youth movements as well, such as SNCC, have inspired me. I really admired how college students were able to amplify their voices. We actually just founded a student led movement at Rhodes called N.O.I.S.E. We aim to amplify the voices around us and the voices of those closest to the experience. One person that I look up to from Memphis that has done just that is Wells, whose writing and reporting exposed lynchings and government attacks on Black lives.”
On Gen-Z movement making: “I believe that we have the history documented of so many generations before us to look at as an example. For instance, Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols, the president of MICAH Memphis. Dr. Ros was one generation after the people that pioneered the Civil Rights Movement, so she learned a lot from those that came before her, as well. I want to be like the older generations one day, seeing how I can affect the masses myself and passing the torch to people that come after me.”
On self-care: “It’s a lot to juggle, honestly. I want to dedicate my time to community organizing, but my academic studies also directly correlate to what I advocate. I declared Africana studies to learn my history and health equity to study how I can affect health disparities in America. I wanted to use my academics to expose myself to what I advocate and learn how to navigate social and economic injustice. I am working on my time management, however. I decompress with a good series to binge, which is ‘Scandal’ right now.”
On tips for other students: “I asked a coworker this earlier this week and they told me that if you want a quick fix, take on advocacy by yourself. But if you want to make a sustainable difference, you have to lean on others. You have to learn to build yourself while building others and lean on your community, because you’ll burn yourself out trying to do it alone. Never be afraid to ask for help because you do have people in your corner to help you grow in the best way possible.”
On fair and just policing: “I would say that we should reframe the way in which we view the culture of policing and reviewing the system. I feel like the culture of slave patrols is still prevalent in American policing. …We need to understand where police are needed and where another crisis may require a trained, certified or licensed professional. That would require divesting funding and redistributing wealth to certain areas in the city, such as art and educational programs.
Making a way: The United Methodist Church sends the youngest pastor farthest from home, so from ages 9-14, Williams grew up traveling three hours to church and three hours back every weekend. Her mother is now a pastor of two churches in Clinton, Louisiana.
Jazmyne Wright is a junior at the University of Memphis studying to be a novelist.