George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police led people all over the world, including here in Central Pennsylvania, to take to the streets in protest. Kyra Gines, a Penn State sophomore, joined a diverse group of high school students to organize a 12-hour protest in downtown State College. Kyra’s activism began at State College Area High School, spurred by the 2016 election. She participated in protests around issues including gun control and led the school’s Diversity and Activism Club. She graduated early and spent her freshman year at Spelman College, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). Now back in State College, she is focused on educating and unifying her local community. Kyra’s interview is one of a series where we’ll hear from leading voices of local protests about the why behind their work.
Cheraine Stanford: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU I'm Cheraine Stanford. George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police led people all over the world, including here in Central Pennsylvania, to take to the streets in protest, Kyra Gines an 18-year-old Penn State sophomore joined a diverse group of high school students to organize a 12-hour protest in downtown State College. Kyra's activism began at State College High spurred by the 2016 election. She participated in protests around issues like gun control, and would go on to lead the school's Diversity and Activism Club. She graduated early and spent her freshman year at Spelman College, one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities or HBCU. Now back in State College, she's focused on educating and unifying her local community.Kyra's interview is one of a series where we'll hear from leading voices of local protests about the why behind their work. Kyra, why don't you start by telling me how long you've lived in the area and just what your experience has been like in Central Pennsylvania.
Kyra Gines: So we've been here since 2008. And I think it's been, it's been a mixed experience, I do always like to note that I went to a charter school through elementary and middle school, instead of being in the main school system, which is where I think a lot of the iffier experiences can start for people of color in this community. So because I went to this charter school that required Chinese and Spanish and was just diverse overall, while I wasn't necessarily like in tune with my blackness, there wasn't an otherness because we were a diverse classroom. So I really like to think that my experiences as a person of color, and State College really began when I hit the high school. So I think, you know, in the high school, I started to have my first experiences of microaggressions the braids one day, fro the next day, 'Can I touch your hair?, Is that your real hair?' Teachers, like adults, just touching my hair without permission. And then just being asked insensitive questions in class and you know, everybody looking at you during the topic of slavery, just the little experiences like that, I think happened in school. And then I put myself kind of further on the burner when I established myself as an activist at the high school because it meant that I was now initiating the uncomfortable conversations and, you know, putting other people on the spot and challenging people to think about their frame of reference. And then I would say, in the community, it's just a very, very white community. I think community members just don't really know how to deal with diversity, particularly when it comes to black people. So it's just a lot of people kind of looking at you, you definitely are used, I'm used to being the only black person in the room, the only black person here, the only black person there. I remember, one of my most jarring experiences was just not even five minutes away from home, my younger siblings and I went into this random craft store and the who I assume was the store owner and then like one of her female employees, were following the three of us around this tiny store that you could already see all of you know, like, we weren't ever tucked away, but they were following us around. And that was jarring so, I was like, Okay, well, I'm a teenager at this point. And they age us up as it is, that's another common experience around here in State College, if you're a person of color, assume that they are seeing you, minimally a couple years older than you actually are. And then they're going to treat you as such. So I think that feeds into the universal feeling of feeling like you have to grow up faster as a person of color. But I had kind of forgotten that because I hadn't been out in space with my younger siblings in a minute. So they are at that point, like seven and what 9, 10 and they're being followed, like they're about to steal out of the store. And then I realized it wasn't an isolated experience, either. Like, you know, when Macy's was still a thing I had gone in there look for a belt with my dad, we got followed around Macy's, it's just a lot of experience that I think don't, don't even really occur to me until I experience them because if I thought again, if I thought about them all the time, I would be stressed all the time, which is kind of how I felt when I graduated high school, which I did in three years because I could not do. I couldn't do another year. So I went to an HBCU got my refresh and then came back. But it's been a lot of the same since I've been back. So that's definitely been my experience in central PA.
Cheraine Stanford: Can you tell me about the protest that you helped organize? What was the overall goal of the protest and why was it important?
Kyra Gines : Yes, so we organized the protest in response to To the murder of George George Floyd because his murder created a moment in the country that we wanted to be a part of that we wanted to organize within. And overall, we just we saw this instance of on camera. Nobody jumped in just boldface police brutality and a disregard for a black body. And so in response to that, in response to these protests, in response to what I like to call the beginning of the revolution, that has not died down at all, since we organized this protest, to say that we were going to be a part of this movement, and that it wasn't going to be a moment, as it has been so many times before. So that is why we organized. That is why we felt it was pressing, even during the pandemic, just to get together to come together, and to be a part of this nationwide movement that we were seeing in real time.
Cheraine Stanford: And when you say we can you talk about because it was high school students, it was young people, can you talk about who was helping organize?
Kyra Gines : Yeah, so we call ourselves the shawties for change. So it was so I was the only college student. So the rest of them were State High girls who got together, it was a mix of, I believe, sophomores, juniors, maybe rising seniors, and they just they had come together already had a group chat, because that's how we organize these days on an Instagram group chat is how we get our lives together. So and, you know, we had this group chat, we had a couple Google documents, and we just we got together and we knew that we knew that there would be some challenges just given our demographic, there's just a lot to be shut down this patriarchal, ageist, society. So we were diverse too, I always have to say that, you know, we had a lot of representation. Just in general, you know, we had a couple black girls, you know, Asian, Southeast Asian, Jewish, we just, we had a little bit everybody in there just come together and to represent and I think that made it even more powerful to say this is a diverse group but we're willing to come together for this one cause and then be able to turn around and say, should something else happen, we would all be able to come together and put our weight behind anybody else's cause that they brought to the table, that's the nature of our group is that we could all exist as individual activists, but we acknowledge the value of a group, particularly when we are all under 18, we need to figure a lot of things out. And it really did come down to which adults do you know, that can help us because I know these adults that could help us. So that's how we got the 320 Coaliton on board, we got the NAACP on board with our event, which was super helpful. Parents just helping to carry you know, the supplies we were able to buy with the funding. So yeah, the shawties for change, that's our group. And I was really proud of us, honestly, I think it was just, it was important to be able to see our group at the front of this, you know, like, regardless of who was in the crowd to look up and see these young women, doing their best putting this thing together, doing it successfully, professionally, and impactfully, I think meant a lot to me. And I can only hope that it also meant a lot for the community to look up and see us as well. And whether that meant inspiring people of a similar demographic, or inspiring people in different demographics, you know, if it's a, if they can do it I can do it, you know, however that was received, I think it was important.
Cheraine Stanford: So there may be a lot of people in our audience who have never attended a protest, can you just sort of describe what the protest that you helped organize was like
Kyra Gines : We kind of turned it into an event that centered black voice, because a lot of the times when you have this majority white town, you get white organizers and white speakers. And you know, it's for the right cause but it just ignores, it ignores the fact that we have a thriving black community here who are ready to speak and who have been speaking for years and years and years. And so I made it clear, I was like, I want to center black voices and I'll even put myself in charge of it, which is what I did. So, I was in charge of finding the local speakers. Some of whom were in high school. Some of them were 320 Coalition members. So you know, that is what I focused on, because I really wanted to give voice to the black community around here so that it didn't become a Black Lives Matter mirror event, if that makes sense. Like I think about the March for Our Lives State College was something that we were echoing it was more of a reactionary type thing, but there had not really been an instance of somebody shooting up the school here. So you know, it wasn't that close to home, but when it came to doing a Black Lives Matter protest, we have a thriving black community here who is actively under attack. So I really want to include that. And I was really fortunate that the Osagie family came Mr. and Mrs. Osagie decided to speak, which was amazing and we were thrilled to have them. But I really wanted to hit home that this is happening here. These problems are here, and we want to talk about it here. So that was the first part. The second part, we decided that we wanted it to be long, because it's easy to be one and done with protests, you go, you're out there for two hours, you chant a bit, you march a bit, it's over. That's not to take away power from those events, but because we were at this point where ours was, I believe, the second or third Sunday in a row. So we had gotten to the point where it became a pattern, which I try to avoid, because once you make something a pattern, you turn it into an event, and then it's something that you can attend or not attend, or it's okay, if I miss this one, I'll go to the next one, you know, it becomes normalized in a way that I just don't think was very effective for the town, So was like, okay, if we're not going to be the only one, then ours needs to mean something different than what has already been talked about. So that we can continue to integrate new meanings and voices into this conversation that we're opening up. So we decided it was going to be long. And then I had the crazy idea. I was like, 'What if it was just 12 hours? You know, what if we just went 12 to 12?" And we blocked off streets. That was our next big thing is that we wanted to be in the way people would have to pay attention to us because we were blocking an intersection. At one point, we were down by the municipality building and then at the other point we were down by the gates just blocking off that intersection. So we did that we did chalk because we wanted to leave a mark for when we were gone. We had a play- all black music we had for the whole time, I think we took we took a break when we had speakers go and when we were making announcements, we would kind of pause it give people a break. So that was the bulk of it. And I think it was really successful. Another one of our heavy hitting points is when we did, we did a tribute to George Floyd. We had moments of silence for as long as the officer's knee was on his neck. That is how long we we paused. And then afterwards, we had about an hour of just quiet reflection where the music wasn't playing. But we invited the attendees that were still present because this point this was many, many hours in. So crowds kind of came and left, which is how we set it up. Because again, when you only have two hours it's like you can either make it or you can't. But when it's 12 hours, people could come and go. So we encouraged the people that were still there to just have thoughtful conversations with each other before we finished up with the music. But overall, you know, I think our goal was to center black voices was to be present, was to send this message of we're, we're not letting this go. Like, you know, we are aware of the racial injustice both in this country and in town. And we're showing you that we are willing to plop ourselves down for as long as we need to, to send this message. What were the issues you were protesting? And why did those issues feel urgent enough that you would protest during a pandemic? So I think the main issue was, of course, the police brutality aspect that we have been seeing a lot more televised. So what I wanted to capitalize upon was not necessarily specifically what happened. Because I mean, as a person of color, I'm like, I see this all the time. You know, I've been seeing black bodies disregarded my whole life. So this was it wasn't new for me. It wasn't a new moment for me. Graphic as it was, there's, you know, anytime something happens, there's about 20 other names that experienced the same thing that we could bring up. I think it just goes to show like when issues are this deep. It's you got to do you got to do it no matter what you know, it's the pandemic certainly is pressing, which is why we told people we're going to be outside, we're going to secure a lot of space, social distance as you can, please. We told people to show up with masks. We invested. We got, we did fundraising, we had a lot of donations. We invested a lot of that in hand sanitizers, individual water bottles for people to be able to take, wipes, individually wrapped snacks, we put a lot of that funding into making sure that it would be as safe as possible. But I would say for me personally, one of the main reasons I think it's so important to talk about racial justice during this pandemic is because the pandemic, the racial injustice hasn't stopped just because the pandemic started. No issue has been put on pause by the pandemic, it's just been exacerbated. You know, you think wealth inequality, environmental injustices. Anything that had been going on that had been disproportionately affecting the black community is it's hitting harder, you know, we know COVID is hitting African Americans that much harder. So it's that much more important to say hey, black lives. matter, because we have always been at the forefront of whatever whatever is attacking, we are always there receiving the brunt of it. So I think it's because of that, that we had to be out there in mass to say, we matter we mattered before we matter now, you can't put us on pause, you know, there's there was a lot more to consider, but it was worth it to still get out there and spread the message that black lives matter, black bodies matter, the black community here and nationally matter, and we're going to continue to advocate for them regardless of our circumstances, because there's no other choice.
Cheraine Stanford: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford, our guest is Kyra Gines, a local activist and Penn State sophomore, working to educate and unify her local community. What do you want people to know that you feel like you don't hear being said enough, either around the protests or just racial injustice or what's happening in this country?
Kyra Gines: I think and I'll put this towards the white people, you know, there are things that white people need to do, within themselves and amongst each other, that black activists cannot continue to put their lives on the line to do and put their time and put their emotional effort and put their exhaustion on the line to do so. I think you know, they just need white allies need to step up and they need to stop asking for permission to absolve their guilt, because it's not going to happen, because sitting with their guilt means they're going in the right direction. I think I have quickly lost patience over the last few months for people whose only goal is to not feel guilty about it. And I've only been engaging people who are like, 'Okay, I'm bad. I'm bad at this, you know, and these are the steps I have taken. But this is where I hit a wall. This is where I got confused. This is what I need a bit of help with. You don't have to spend the emotional energy but like, Could you recommend a book? Could you point me in the right direction? Do you know anybody who would be willing to have this conversation?' Like that's what I like to engage with is people who can acknowledge where they are, and they want to get better. Or they're at a place where I'm like, okay, like some people have read more books than I have-some of the white people around here. And you know, they've really done that research more than I've had the time for you and I have lived experience. But they've done the literature, they've done the teaching, they've done the conversations. Those are the people that I love, those are the people that I organize with. So it's not an issue of I can't do it because I'm white, or I shouldn't do it because I'm white, it's what are you doing? What is your impact? And how are you changing the moment, you know, you got to be as far in it as I am or else neither of us are going to get anywhere. So that's what I need people to understand.
Cheraine Stanford: Why does it feel important to you to be an activist to be protesting these issues?
Kyra Gines: For me, this is this is my survival, I wouldn't even call this thriving. Because for me thriving is when I don't have to do this work anymore. That's that's what I would consider thriving. For me, I will not make it if I am not actively fighting against the systems that are oppressing me and my people. And I realized this is what I like high school was really what showed that to me. Because when I sit and when I was silent, and when I was not speaking my truth. I mean, my mental health just plummeted, you know, I when you're attacked and not responding, and I think it's different, I want to emphasize that it is different for everybody. Because I think you know, my brand of activism is not necessarily for everybody you know, we could share the same beliefs but for some people their survival is if I engage and this aggression is turned towards me, that's going to be it for me and I think that's completely valid. For me if I sit here and watch this happen if I'm passive in this, I'm not going to make it because that's not even surviving for me. You know, I cannot live if I am not living for something better if I'm not going for that equity and justice then I'm not living my life to the fullest and it's not worth it for me.
Cheraine Stanford: Do you rest?
Kyra Gines: Oh all the time-self care. Self Care is so important. There have certainly been times you know when when you're in the thick of organizing it is hard if you want to just take a day and nap. So it is hard to do and you're in the thick of it. But after a protest, after a conversation, after I do something that's particularly just physically and emotionally draining, I nap I talk to friends, and this has been the blessing that my HBCU gave me is amazing close and personal, beautiful black girls that I can just talk to and who I know are not going to call me on my blackness are not going to call me on my womanhood are not going to call me on my age, you know are not going to call me on being tired dealing with all of this. I feel like I can talk to them and they understand like, my support group is my everything. That's my family, my friends, even locally, like there are teachers at State High I consider part of my support group in how they supported me in how they saw I was balancing essentially what became two jobs because it's the student and the activist, like I need to get my grade. You know, it's not worth anything to be a student activist if you've got straight C's, you know. So I just take the time I drink a lot of tea, I do a lot of reflection, did counseling at some point I need to get back into counseling, because that helps me work on self worth and just building up my own power in how I'm projecting and making sure that I'm getting back as much as I'm putting out. And I recommend that for everybody, you know, I've been telling the high schoolers who are a couple grades below me who are kind of getting into this or emerging into this, I tell them, you're not going to be able to do without a support group, you're not going to be able to do it with some form of mental health support, whether that's counseling, you know, if you can afford it, whether that's somebody who's just real close to you, who can help you unpack whatever's going on, you know, whether that's bingeing a show, reading a book, whatever makes you feel good, making sure you're building in time for that, if you can't do that, you're not going to be a successful activist, because you're going to burn out before anything effective gets done. And I think my I think my most radical form of self care was realizing that I am my most important asset when it comes to this. So if I'm not taking care of my most important asset, nothing's getting done. So, I rest a lot.
Cheraine Stanford: You know, it's interesting to me that Black Lives Matter has become a political statement. So what does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
Kyra Gines: For me it I mean, I read it as it is, I mean, but I also I think there's, for me, there's the unspoken, all black lives matter all the time. So that means LGBT brothers and sisters, that means socio economically challenged brothers and sisters, that means brothers and sisters who are going through their own internalized hatred and internalized oppression, it means trying to get them out of that, too. I'm trying to get to the point where in this country, we see equity and justice for black people. That's the goal. I just I want to see every, like every black person as a full human being deserving of rights at any time, this is all black people. And the reason that we have to make the statement is because that is not being reflected in this country. Doing my local work, I want to get to the point where I can like a black family from anywhere else could say, 'Hey, Kyra, what's it like to live in State College as a black person? Is it somewhere I should go to raise my family? Is it somewhere, I'm going to be valued and supported? Is it somewhere that I can go and feel like I'm a part of that community, and feel like I'm contributing and feel like I will have just as good a quality of life as the white people there?' Someday, I want to be able to tell that black family, yes. But I can't do that today. And that's the problem. But that's reflected in the country. You know, if somebody from out of the country were to say, 'Hey, Kyra, what's it like to be black in America?' You know, my honest answer could not be, 'It's great, you know, you're going to be valued, you're going to feel like you're a full citizen, you're going to feel like you have all your rights, you're going to feel like you're valued.' That's not the answer at the moment. So for me, saying black lives matter is we deserve all of the above when are you going to give it to us? How are we going to have to continue to fight to make this happen? So that's what it means to me. And I don't think that's political. You know, because we get oppressed by both parties. You know, that's not, it doesn't come down to that. It comes down to truly like, morally, as a person, can you look at me as a black person and tell me that my life matters just as much as yours? And if that answer is no, we're not having a political disagreement, we're talking about fundamental moral who you are as a person. And at that point, you can't use your politics to defend you thinking that I am somehow subhuman. Like, that's a different conversation that goes beyond how you identify. So it definitely confuses me when people try to make black -like the very statement Black Lives Matter political, but it just goes to show. That's how you know, we don't when it's debatable.
Cheraine Stanford: So why did you choose to speak at the protest? You know, what did you want people to hear or take or understand?
Kyra Gines: My speech addressed the people of color that were present. And so I just went through and I said, 'Listen, I see you, I hear you, I value you. Look around at the other black people here, we see each other, we value each other. We are a community here, we do exist and survive and thrive here. And I acknowledge that it is okay to be tired, and it's hard to show up. And it's hard to be black in America. And I see that and I acknowledge that'. Because I think you know, not enough of us get told that. So that was my first reassurance. The second part was also just addressing the intersectional piece like 'Now listen, when we say that we are radically supporting our community, that means everybody in our community so no homophobia, xenophobia, no ableism, none of that, you know, because we're all black so we need to all be black and all support each other. So that was the content of my speech, because I think it as much as we have these events for the black community, it's not often that we address the black community. So that's what I wanted to do. So it wasn't super long. It was just something in the beginning that I wanted to do and then I spent the rest of the time just like making sure the thing didn't fall apart. But I did enjoy having that moment and I feel like my message got across. I kind of got emotional like talking about it, I got emotional writing it, just thinking about like, man, is crazy that we have to reassure each other like this.
Cheraine Stanford : Tell me what it meant to you to, to be a part of this. And as you say, not a moment, a movement, what it's meant for you and what your hopes are for the future?
Kyra Gines: So for me, it meant it doing as I have always done, it meant a continuation of what I had established here as a local activist. I think I want to say that I'm famous at this point, because I just want that for me. As a semi famous local activist, who has been, who has put myself in the spotlight, since you know, I mentioned my beginnings in high school, like as much as I think, I sit here some days, and I'm like, man, if I could be in any other community, if I could be anywhere with just a few more people of color, just a bit more emphasis on diversity, with just a bit more conversation about these issues. As much as I have those moments. This is my community. And I love it. It's tough love a lot of the time, but I do love my community. And because I love my community, I want to see better for it. Because I want to see better for it. I don't want to put that on somebody else. I can't sit back and say okay, well, if somebody else does something, I'll just show up to theirs and that's me wanting better for my community. My place of comfort is standing on a stage somewhere, organizing something wherever it is being involved in the organization of something. And so for me, this was my opportunity to do that to come together with this brilliant group, and make something powerful. So it that's what it meant for me to just have another chance to be a leader and to speak my truth, and to realize this vision that we had. And I think that's something I'm going to be thinking about forever. Because it meant something every protest means something to me every however it's received. However it goes you know, however many people show up, it meant something for me to be able to contribute personally and with this group. So that's, that's what it meant to me. You know, whatever it means to be a part of this community, I want black people to fully have that and for that to be acknowledged and valued.
Cheraine Stanford: Well, Kyra, thank you so much for talking with me.
Kyra Gines: No problem. Thank you for having me.
Cheraine Stanford: Kyra Gines is an activist an 18-year-old Penn State sophomore, who joined a diverse group of high school girls to organize a 12 hour protest in downtown State College. We'll hear another voice from the local protests, 320 coalition member Tierra Williams on the next Take Note. You can hear this and other Take Note interviews at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford WPSU.