Take Note: Tierra Williams on Fighting for Racial Justice
Tierra Williams is a mother, artist, performer and activist who joined the social justice movements in Central Pennsylvania after moving here from Mississippi. She talks with us about why she uses her voice to speak up against injustices and what she wants her son to know about the importance of fighting for equality.
Cheraine Stanford: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford. Tierra Williams is a mother, artist, and activist who grew up in Mississippi, where she studied speech communication at her alma mater, Jackson State University. Since moving to State College to join family here, she has participated in local poetry and theatre performances. She joined the social justice movement in State College this year, and has since taken on a leadership role in the 3/20 Coalition, an organization named for the date that Osaze Osagie was killed by State College police in 2019. She became known for ensuring that Black people had the opportunity to speak at local protests. Tierra's interview is the second in our series, where we hear from leading voices of local protests about the "why" behind their work. Tierra, you moved here a few years ago from Mississippi, can you share a little bit about what your experience has been like here?
Tierra Williams: Well, I've traveled around the US. And as far as comparisons go, I've lived majority and spent majority of my time in Mississippi. So comparing it to here, it was a big cultural shock for me because of the lack of diversity in this city; things are different here, whether it's just the way people even communicate with each other, just on the street in passing, it's different than in Mississippi, you know? In Mississippi, random people speak to each other all the time, we just-- it's more fluid than it is here. And some people do that here, but it's just a more fluid thing. You know, in Mississippi, it's like a village, everybody raises people's kids; if they see someone's child doing something in public, they stop them. It's a little different here. And, you know, on some deeper levels, the racial nuances are different here, right? So, in Mississippi, I know who's racist, and I actually would prefer that. Here, there's a lot of microaggressions, implicit bias, sneaky things, you know, people over-speaking, and it's actually very hard to identify who is your friend and who is your foe. So, that's the difference that I've seen. But, I've also seen a lot of White people in this area who are more willing to work for the cause and work for the change, versus what I've seen in Mississippi.
Cheraine Stanford: Why did you get involved in the activism here? And how did that come to be?
Tierra Williams: Well, in Mississippi, I was already, always involved in activism. One of the biggest organizations I was in, in Mississippi, other than the NAACP, was Respect Our Black Dollars. And we were [an] organization that promoted spending with Black businesses, owning Black businesses, and shutting down businesses that were in our neighborhood that weren't beneficial to the people who live in that neighborhood. So, I always had like an activist heart, an activist mind, an activist way about myself. Even in high school, I got petitions signed to have African American studies classes implemented. I went to a school that was about 60/40, 60 being White. So, I've always been like that and I didn't know of very many activist-type organizations here. And it wasn't until the situation with George Floyd that I came out and saw all those people out there for the protest, which was just amazing. I really was very shocked at that first protest. And then I realized there were organizations to be a part of and I was like, "Hey, I'm here. I'll do whatever you need me to do." That's how I got involved.
Cheraine Stanford: A lot of people will choose to go to a protest, but they don't necessarily speak or take a leadership role. Why did you decide to do that?
Tierra Williams: You know, I believe in Orishas and I believe in legacies. I've always felt-- my major was speech communications, right, so I'm used to talking, I like talking. But I have, even as a child, have always felt like I was supposed to be some sort of preacher, right, and I know it sounds weird; it's like who-- what girl thinks she's supposed to be a preacher, so to speak. But it wasn't until I got older that I felt like what I was going to be preaching about wasn't what I thought that I was going to be preaching about, right. Whatever road I thought I was going to be taken it wasn't my-- my father, he was a minister his entire life. And his mother is still an evangelist and she travels around the country speaking, right. So it's like, I feel like it's kind of like in my blood, in my lineage. But when it comes to Black issues, and white supremacy, I cannot be quiet. It's something-- it's like a fire that burns in me, and sometimes things come out of my mouth that I really don't even realize and don't necessarily even remember until after the fact and I have to look at it. It's like something always pushes me to speak. And I've always felt like when I speak, people listen. I've always felt like that. And so, knowing that, I also know that what I say can either help somebody or hurt them. So, I try to make sure that my voice is on the right side of history and the right side of justice. But I'm not-- I never will apologize for being honest, for being unapologetically Black, for being a protester, for being an advocate for Black people or Black issues. I'll never apologize for it, but I've always-- I just-- it's almost like something I can't help. But I guess I can't necessarily like help and it's not that I want to be in the limelight or be out there in the forefront. It's just something is in me to say like, "I'm that type person, I gotta say it." It means, "You get into it, girl, we need to talk about this right now. Let's get it out, girl, I don't want to go to sleep without it being, you know, done." And that's kind of how I am. As a child, I let things happen to me, especially when it came to not defending myself, taking up for myself in bullying-arenas, in racist-arenas, and I never said anything. And as an adult now, I don't let anything slide, as they say. Because I can't anymore. Because I see what it does to me. You know, like, I'm from Mississippi, the first time I actually heard the N-word, I was in sixth-grade. My parents didn't use that word. My family really doesn't use that word. Like, I was in sixth grade and my teacher said it, right. And I never told anybody, but I couldn't express it because I didn't even know what to feel, right. Like, I couldn't even do anything about it, right. And that moment still haunts me to this day, because I didn't say anything. So, it's just something I feel like I have to do.
Cheraine Stanford: One of the pictures that struck me, that I saw with you, is a picture with you and your son.
Tierra Williams: Yeah.
Cheraine Stanford: At one of the protests.
Tierra Williams: Mhm.
Cheraine Stanford: So, how old is he? And why did you take him to the protest?
Tierra Williams: Wow. Yeah, that's a-- that's a very controversial one, right? Because just as you've seen pictures, people on Facebook have seen pictures, and they have opposing views on that. My son is-- he actually just turned six. So, at all the protests, he was five. Right now, I'm a mother. It's just me and him. And I have people that could watch him, right, that could just watch him for a protest. But I want my son to know that no matter how the world ends up, like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, whether we're still marching or whether we have completely gotten over this process, so to speak; I want him to know that his mama fought for Black people and fought for Black men, and didn't discard Black men and throw them away and say, "They're not no good," because that's what I'm raising. Like, he means everything to me. And a lot of these parents, I don't know how they do it, because, me, as much of an activist as I am, if something were to happen to him, I'm not going to be as-- I'm not gonna be marching, right. There's going to be a different type of action for me. So, I'm trying to put myself in a position where I can do anything and everything to show him that there's nothing wrong with being Black, there's nothing wrong with being proud to be Black, but when somebody is doing something against you or your people, you have to speak up for it. You have to say something, because if you don't speak up for yourself, then nobody else will. I don't know if he actually understands what's really going on. There's certain conversations, I don't get into it with him because he is five. And certain things I don't want heavy on his heart. But even something as simple as talking to him about Martin Luther King, and then he says, "Oh, I want to meet him," and then I have to tell him, "Well, he died," and then he says, "Why?" And then I say, "Well, people killed him because he was trying to get everybody to get along." And the tears start going, right, because you can't-- a child can't understand why somebody is dying for trying to get everybody to get along. Or, they don't understand why would they be treated differently. And it's a lot of things that I have to reassure him just about his Blackness in hisself, so to see-- to bring him into an environment where Black people and White people are both advocating for justice and/or togetherness, I want him to see that because I want him to understand the history, but I don't want him to grow up hating White people, or grow up in a mindset that all White people do "this" or all White people think "this" way. I want them to see that no, all of us can come together and advocate for this. But you have to be proud of who you are as well. I'm careful, so there's certain things if I feel or know or think that something might go awry, I won't bring him, just to keep him safe. But I want him to be fighting for justice. And I'm giving him the opportunity to see things, but I also give him the chance to let him put his own thought process together. I don't want to influence his thought process when it comes to how he views racism or white supremacy, or especially the police, because, you know, he's a child, he likes the police, right. He likes the sirens, they save people, they help people, right, that's the first thing children tell you, and it's it's heart-wrenching because in your head you're like, "Yeah, they're supposed to," but you're not gonna tell him that, right, because you want to keep as much innocence as possible. But the truth is, you know, he's a Black child. So, in schools, he does get treated a little bit differently. If he speaks out, he's overly-disruptive, overly-active, and if another child speaks out, they just had too much sugar. So, it's different aspects and different levels that I have to fight on a consistent basis. But I do feel like he, as a upcoming Black man, needs to see and needs to understand what's going on, because whether or not I want to shield him from it or not, he's Black, and he's going to be Black and people are going to see him as that. So, I can't-- I can only do so much to shield him from reality. But I want him to see the positivity in it, too, right, because a lot of times people think, "Protests," and they automatically think negativity or rioting, and that's not how it's been in State College, right, it's more about coming together and unifying, and I want him to see that.
Cheraine Stanford: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Tierra Williams, a mother, performer, and activist who joined the local State College social justice movement after the police killing of George Floyd. What does the term "Black lives matter" mean to you?
Tierra Williams: I believe Black lives matter. And I always, you know, I say it with people. But to be honest, for me, it's very depressing. It's very unsettling that I have to even tell you that, that I have to even convince you of that, that I even have to propose the idea that my life matters. Because of so many people that have come before us and died and fought and bled and have been mutilated, castrated, raped, I can't really understand why I still have to say that. And so, it's empowering on one hand, but it's so depressing on the other, because when you think about it "matter" is the minimum. Like, like, we just, we just matter guys, like...And, initially, I was mad about the phrase because I felt like we were running up to master kind of like, "Oh, master, I's matter too, I'm a good one. I do 'this.' I goes to school." And I felt like we were more like, "We matter, too, stop killing us." And that annoyed me initially, right, but then, when you hear all of the clapback with the "all lives matter," "White lives matter," "blue lives matter," then you think, "Well, damn, I guess we do need to say it," right, because if any of you agree, you wouldn't even have a retaliation chant or retaliation thing for that, so it's sad. It's really sad for me, because I just-- when you have clear cases of police negligence and murder, and then you have people who will say, "Oh, I'm still not gonna take the blame for it. We still didn't do anything wrong." Case in point, Breonna Taylor. It's just-- it almost makes me want to give up sometimes because it's so confusing. It's like, "Oh, no, she wasn't running away. She didn't get pulled over. She wasn't in a traffic stop. She didn't have any drugs. She didn't--" Why-- how are we able to explain away that, right? Because everybody has these levels of explanations, right?: "Well, if they would have just did...if they would have..." [inaudible]. I mean, they-- people were just sitting in their houses. I mean, this is-- this is where it's at right now. And it's just, it's just so sad. And it's so depressing. And I don't think people realize, like, all activists probably, not just myself, how-- and even you, doing things like this-- how uncomfortable the feeling is in your stomach, like how sickening it can get, it makes you want to throw up sometimes, it makes you so uncomfortable because it's so draining. It's so draining and right when you are trying to get over this killing, "this" shooting happens, and then "this" beating happens, and then "this" killing happens, and then it's just over and over and over again, and then you have to watch these visual murders on a constant basis. It's just constantly repeating and replaying in your mind over and over again. And all we're trying to say is, "We matter," and people can't even get on board with that, right. And so that's why it's so sad and sickening on one hand, but, at the same time, you have White people and Black people and Hispanics and Native Americans and Asians all screaming, "Black lives matter," and that's important. That's what I feel like Black Lives Matter as a movement has done. It has drawn attention and it has made people pick a side, and we've needed that. It's either you believe Black lives matter, or you don't. And that is a good thing, because it's making people really think about where their perspective is. Because we never said that all lives don't matter. We didn't say ours mattered more. So, if you can actually understand that and align with it, then it's showing where people stand and where people are, because if you really can't get it, if you really can't understand it-- I do believe racism is a sickness that you have to figure that out, because if you really can't get it and can't understand why people are saying, "Black lives matter," then the problem is with you. And it's going to take a lot more than-- apparently, it's going to take a lot more than a video with someone's knee on their neck for you to get that. I don't know what it's gonna take. But after that, after seeing that, if you can't decide that you're on the Black Lives Matter side, I don't know what-- I don't know what else I could do.
Cheraine Stanford: You mentioned Breonna Taylor. No officers are being held responsible for her killing.
Tierra Williams: Right. They just gonna hold them responsible for the bullets that didn't hit her. I mean...[sighs] yeah...
Cheraine Stanford: So, when you heard the news about the charges that would not be filed in the Breonna Taylor case, what does that do for you? How did you feel? How do you feel when you hear stuff like that?
Tierra Williams: Honestly, I don't really-- I think I'm still somewhat in shock. I know that sounds weird, like, what do you mean? Like, I guess in my head, I'm just trying to think of a way that they can still be charged, right? Like, cuz in my head, I can't really, I can't really understand it. It's actually-- it actually scares me. And I think that's why I'm refusing to somewhat accept what the reality of it is, because, the truth is, it scares me because there have been a lot of Black men that have been gunned-down and shot; some of them get justice and some of them don't. But, when I look at the list of Black women, I see no justice. I realized that with this Breonna Taylor thing...not a Black woman you could say had an attitude, or her, or-- it scares me. Because it's like, if Black lives matter, like, is right here, then Black women gots to be up under here. Right? It's confusing, because I'm like, "Why is it that you care so much less for Black women?" We already know you barely care for Black men, but you care so much less for Black women. It scares me because I've watched a lot of protests online and I see a lot of Black women out there in the front. I see a lot of Black women out there with the mics. And I see a lot of Black women posting and a lot of Black women-- and not saying Black men don't-- but I see a lot of Black women in the forefront of this fight. And if they're in the front of this battle, and they're fighting, and then when they die nothing at all happens? I waited six months for that? And I feel like we're mourning twice because we've already mourned her death and now we're mourning her dismissal, you know, so it scares me. It scares me a lot because it's at least 12 Black women that have been shot, gunned-down and no justice whatsoever, nothing has happened, absolutely nothing. And it's sickening.
Cheraine Stanford: In State College, as a Black woman, do you feel safe?
Tierra Williams: I feel...I feel more like people are threatened by me, than I necessarily feel safe. It's like they look at me as if I'm just like, "[rawrs]," like, you know, I'm just gonna attack you and I'm just-- you know, I don't have the-- I don't even have the time, I'm not even thinking about you. And I, as a Black woman in State College-- now, when we say "safe," compared to Mississippi and the fact that it's one of the highest crime rates, and then moving here where there's virtually no crime, yeah, I can say I feel safe. But I feel uncomfortable when I go in Walmart, and I don't even carry a purse in there, right, I just carry my wallet; I'm still stared at. I'm uncomfortable when I go in the grocery stores. I'm uncomfortable when I go to a park, sometimes, if me and my son are the only Black people out there. I'm uncomfortable with the schools up here. So, you know, I might not feel like my life is technically threatened in State College specifically, but I'm more scared that any minor altercation could get the police called on me. And why that's so scary? Because we have no idea who shot Osaze, right, so everybody, we just put in the same realm of that, any minor encounter, like, can literally end up somewhere I don't want to be, right, and it's clear that the police officers have implicit bias. Have I had a negative experience with a police officer here? Not necessarily. But I've also-- I also can read people, and if I call you because somebody hit my car, and when you show up to the scene, you go over to the White people shake their hands, "Hey, how you doing?" I have to say, "Hey, I'm the one that called you." You know, you're like, "Oh, yeah...like, oh, like..." I'm already just-- you just implied guilt just by pulling up, right, and that's not a serious situation, but what if it was? And you just immediately imply guilt on me, and that's something that you have in your mind, that's something in the way you've been trained, the way that you operate. So, I don't-- I'm scared that if I defend myself, if I speak up for myself, that it's not going to end in the way that it's supposed to, so yeah...
Cheraine Stanford: That's, that's tough. You talked a little bit about that when you speak, you don't always-- you're not always planning to necessarily, or you don't know exactly what you're gonna say, but, just in general, when you are out there, like, why does it feel like protesting as your form of activism is something that you need to do?
Tierra Williams: The reason why I feel like it's important, is because you're making noise, you're making noise, you're disrupting the normal day-to-day structure, right? It's-- usually it messes with businesses money, you know, you gotta hit somebody where the money is, and it causes a disruptance to bring attention; that's why I like protests. And then when it comes to speaking out-- you know, everybody that comes to the protests aren't necessarily aligned with the views. That's not always the case, like every single person out there. And so when I say things, I say things to try and hit those people who really came out here for the wrong reasons, so maybe they can change their mind and maybe come back for the right ones, right, or saying something to somebody that they can maybe take home to their racist grandfather or racist uncle or, you know, whatever, maybe they can take these things back. And that's why I feel like protesting is good, but it does not solve what you want it to solve. You have to do it on both ends, because if you're just out there protesting, then no laws will get changed. And then if you're just behind the scenes doing laws, you don't wake people up outside, and then they have no idea what's going on. So, like, they have to work hand-in-hand to do something and to be a part of it. I can still, you know, take off that activist hat and still be an activist in a meeting with the [inaudible] manager, in a meeting with Chief Gardner, right, because I need for them to be able to hear me professionally and politically, and that way they can process everything I have to say and know that just because I'm out here yelling doesn't mean I'm not professional, it doesn't mean I don't want the job done. So, like, it has to work hand-in-hand. It has to go both ways. But I don't think it could work without protesting, because who-- you're calling attention to something that people don't even know, don't even understand "why," you know, not everybody-- honestly, even though it's 2020, not everybody stays on social media, not everybody really just understands how many people since George Floyd have actually died, have actually been shot by the police, like, I don't think they realize how many people just since George. I mean, and shot in the back at that. In the back. So, it's like bringing people's attention to like, "Hey, this wasn't just one time." This is happening and it's happening, and it's happening. So, 3/20 is working, yeah for the justice of Osaze, but working with Penn State, we're working with the high school, we're even working with elementary schools, because we're trying to eliminate all of this bias.
Cheraine Stanford: You and I talked about a lot of different things. What's something you want our audience to just take away from our conversation?
Tierra Williams: Well, I want them to first know that Black people are not a monolith, and so I do not speak for all Black people and all community-oriented, conscious, grassroots organizations. And I want people to take away that this is not a new struggle. This is not a new movement, it's just gotten new light. This is something that has been going on. Since we've been brought over here, we've been fighting in some form or another to get our freedom to get our justice and to get our equality. So, this is not some new thing. This is not a fad or a short-lived movement just based off the situations like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These situations are constantly happening around America, around the world, actually, and you can't stop, you can't sit back; and if you aren't anti-racist, then you're part of the problem.
Cheraine Stanford: Why do you keep fighting? What gives you hope?
Tierra Williams: I fight for two main reasons: I fight for the past and I fight for the future. I fight for the past because so many people have died just for me to even be having this conversation with you and us being able to be on the radio, right? People die just for voting. It's so many little things that we kind of do and don't even kind of think about and let it seep in. But people really died in the midst of that. And even when you look at current times right now, after George Floyd was murdered, the officers weren't just like arrested and that was it; there were protesters that died after that just so we could get that kind of justice. And so, I do it for the past, for everybody whose lives have been lost and my ancestors and the historians and people who worked so hard to get us to where we are, and I do it for the future, like, my son; so that way, hopefully, he doesn't have to fight. And so, that's why I work so hard at doing what I do.
Cheraine Stanford: Tierra, thanks so much for talking with me.
Tierra Williams: You're welcome.
Cheraine Stanford: Tierra Williams is a mother, artist, performer, and activist who joined the local social justice movements after the police killing of George Floyd. She was also involved in activism work in her home state of Mississippi before moving to State College a few years ago. We previously heard another voice from the local protests, activist Kyra Gines. You can hear this and other Take Note interviews at WPSU.org/TakeNote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.