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By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

These young activists have a vision of racial justice and equity. Here’s how they’re working to make it reality.

Kai Brown took a deep breath and clutched their abdomen.

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“Things I’m sure of — Black boys look blue in the moonlight. Lips ashy, neck wrung, gasping,” Brown read aloud, reciting a poem they wrote on the violence of police brutality.

“Blue hands touch them like God. Pray them into caskets, call bullets a baptism.”

With each word Brown read, their voice grew more powerful while a crowd in front of the Des Moines Police Department grew quieter. It was May 29, 2020. George Floyd had been murdered by a Minneapolis police officer four days prior. The nation was in uproar.

Brown, 18, a senior at Roosevelt High School, is among a new generation of Black activists working for change in their schools and communities. For Brown, that means showing up. It means embracing the intersections of art and activism and mentoring future leaders to do the same.

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It also means holding those in power accountable.

“We are holding DMPS accountable, in everything we do,” Brown told the Des Moines Register.

Brown and other students were leaders and activists within Des Moines Public Schools before Floyd’s murder, but when Superintendent Tom Ahart pledged in June of 2020 that his district would become “actively anti-racist,” student leaders say they knew they had leverage to create policy changes.

And they did.

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For Black History Month, the Des Moines Register listened to four Black student leaders and activists about the work they’ve already done, their visions for the future, and why they continue to fight.

Roaa Kordeir

Fighting inequality from Sudan to Des Moines

The first protest Roaa Kordeir organized was during the summer of 2019.

In December 2018, the Sudanese revolution began. Thousands took to the streets in Sudan to protest that country’s deteriorating economy and high cost of living under then-president Omar al-Bashir.

“I was always looking at Sudanese news, checking in with my parents and relatives. Seeing the impact in my parents … everything on Sudanese social media — it was horrendous,” said Kordeir, 18, a senior at Roosevelt High School who is among the Sudanese diaspora.

“This issue is important to us, we wanted to inform people — as a Sudanese person, I have my own duty, especially living in the United States. ” Kordeir said.

She continued the momentum of the revolution from Sudan to Des Moines with a protest at the Iowa State Capitol that summer. Over a hundred people attended, she said.

After that, Kordeir began advocating for herself. She’d discuss topics like colorism and microaggressions during debate competitions.

“That really built the foundation of relearning my history, relearning who I am,” Kordeir said.

The work allowed her to grow into the activist she is today, she said. When Floyd was murdered, she took to the streets and organized a protest in downtown Des Moines.

She became a member of the DMPS Racial Equity and Justice Team and has met with district administrators about equitable curriculums.

“The way our system is built, it’s not setting us up for life,” Kordeir said.

“The reason why I fight, why I do the work that I do, is because I’ve seen the impact (of inequity and racism) on myself and the people around me. The conditions that we’re living in are not OK.”

And, Kordeir said, she’ll continue to fight for future generations “so they don’t have to do extra work to fly.”

Lyric Sellers

Seeking policy changes

Last year, Lyric Sellers and Endí Montalvo-Martinez, students at East High School, proposed that the district removed school resource officers from schools and undertake a districtwide examination of whether the officers contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate criminalization of Black and brown students. They also proposed changes to the curriculum to include Black history and ethnic studies and the removal of East’s Scarlet mascot.

Since then, SROs were removed, ending a 22-year, $1.5 million agreement between Des Moines schools and the city’s police department. Diverse and multi-ethnic curriculums were implemented. A student-run DMPS Racial Equity and Justice Team was formed. And a retreat was held last summer to teach students within Des Moines schools how to organize and build sustainable movements.

“We’ll always be invested in our community,” Sellers told the Register. “That won’t ever stop.”

Sellers, 17, said her work reflects what students are calling for. That included the removal of SROs, which she learned about from holding community conversations, sending out a survey online and collecting data from the Iowa Department of Human Rights, she said.

“My work is centered around student liberation and student voice,” Sellers said.

“I want (future generations) to feel empowered and liberated, to be able to say what’s on their minds.”

As part of Sellers’ work with the DMPS Racial Equity and Justice Team — which she formed alongside East High School alum Montalvo-Martinez — she’s organized protests.

In April 2021, Sellers helped organize a student walkout at East against House File 813, which expands Iowa’s ability to create charter schools, and House File 802, which limits what can be taught during classroom curriculums and diversity trainings. Both bills were signed into law last year.

In January, Sellers was awarded the ACLU of Iowa’s Robert Mannheim Youth Advocacy Award for her student activism and leadership, along with Montalvo-Martinez.

“I’ve always felt a passion for social justice — and once I allowed myself to step into my gift … It’s been the most enlightening and powerful experience ever,” she said.

“I want to show future generations that we can be a part of making things better,” Sellers said. “I want them to feel empowered and liberated, to be able to say what’s on their minds.”

And that means investing in community, and challenging existing systems, she said.

“I’m made for it — I owe it to my people,” she said.

Kai Brown

Bringing poetry and education to other students

Brown has been in the fight for a long time, they told the Register.

“Ever since I’ve been young, I’ve felt a fire. I’m protective of who I am. I’m protective of my identity,” Brown said.

“Being around white folks all the time, being around people who don’t look like me, I quickly learned everyone knew that I was different before I knew I was different.”

Like Sellers, Brown staged a walkout against gun violence when they were in middle school. And once Brown started high school at Roosevelt, they became more vocal.

“DMPS has this attitude, like, ‘Of course, we’re not racist.’ But there are a lot of policies that harm Black and brown folks,” said Brown, who is also a member of the DMPS Racial Equity and Justice Team. “And there are students who don’t fight them, who don’t have the capacity to. But I do, so I fight.”

Brown is a student activist, a Say poet and a mentor. With Say, an urban arts, activism, and leadership organization within DMPS, Brown teaches elementary school students the power of art and activism.

“Poetry helps them process what’s going on in their words, the greater world, and their dream worlds,” Brown said. And “it shows them what it means to live freely.”

And Brown is also a member of DMPS’ Community of Racial Equity, a student-run organization that fosters leadership and educational advancement for students of color.

Brown hopes that Des Moines will become a racially conscious community rooted in justice and equity, and that classrooms can become a safer place for Black and brown students.

“In our community, there’s something to protect; we need to remember that,” Brown said.

Na’Ila Clarkson

Feeding the hungry and warming those without homes

Every Saturday morning, Na’Ila Clarkson joins other volunteers within Des Moines mutual aid groups at Edna Griffin Park to continue a tradition that began with the Des Moines Black Panthers in the late 1960s: providing free breakfast and groceries.

And every Sunday morning, Clarkson, 17, a senior at Roosevelt High School, joins mutual aid groups in delivering propane tanks across Des Moines to camps for people without homes. Wednesday afternoons she also delivers propane tanks with Edna Griffin Mutual Aid.

She said she first began volunteering so she could learn firsthand the state of houselessness in Des Moines.

“If you’re not engaging in it, then you really don’t understand it. I wanted to understand how Des Moines treats its people,” Clarkson said.

“People forget that they’re people,” she continued. “Like, there’s this man named Tyler. We sit there and talk for hours. He’s the sweetest guy. ”

Clarkson’s work also includes raising money for rent relief and bail funds. She’s worked to support indigenous communities through the Great Plains Action Society and teaches reading after school to young students of color through Sisters 4 Success.

When Clarkson was younger, she said she was more behind the scenes in her activism.

As she grew older, she became more involved in combatting stigmas around mental health and houselessness and advocating for racial justice. She said, like many other student activists, she took to the streets after George Floyd was murdered.

Clarkson said she’s motivated by “the belief that people like me, and the people who come after me, won’t have to sit on burdens that they didn’t ask for. They don’t have to change who they are for the sake of other people.”

About the reporter

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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