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How BLM Changed A Generation (Interview with Emma Mele)

Content warning: mentions of white supremacy groups and violence against trans people.

On the night of the first Presidential Debate between Biden and Trump, I sat down at my home office (an IKEA desk in my bedroom) to talk with my friend and fellow class of 2020 graduate Emma Mele. We were both nervous and teeming with an apprehensive excitement for what we teased to be “reality tv”. She said her politically uninterested little brother was also filled with diabolical anticipation.

I reached out to Emma because for our zoom graduation, she gave a powerful speech about Black Lives Matter and her experience as a black woman at our small school in Los Angeles. I wanted to interview her for this issue of Rad Mag particularly because her speech was outstandingly courageous, and I wanted the world to hear her insightful observations and hopes for the future.

Between studying Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis and wrangling her little brother, Emma has been encouraging her friends and family to vote despite not being able to vote herself because of her birthdate. She feels “absolutely terrible” that she will still be 17 by the election, but is passionate about getting out the vote regardless.

We began by talking about the issues that were at the forefront for her right now during this election season.”I’m biracial and I think my main issue right now, and the scariest issue for me, is the racial injustice in America. […] To know that there are people going around representing Nazi’s and KKK members.. like oh god, this is not supposed to be happening, and our President is supporting them in many ways… and it’s very discouraging.”

After discussing briefly how Trump claims to want to make American education more “patriotic”, we were equally alarmed by it and the repercussions it would cause. “We act like we’re the example, […] and that’s not necessarily the case, and then we turn around and we have so many issues hidden under the surface. And just because we keep saying ‘oh land of the free, freedom of speech’ like you can’t just say that and turn around and not do it. Your actions have to match your words. And I wish that they would.”

She then mentioned a recent event that happened in Los Angeles that unfortunately didn’t get a large response from the community. “The issue in Hollywood when the three transgender women were attacked and nothing happened with that, that was very frustrating […] and it kinda opens your eyes that Los Angeles is not immune to these issues either.”

Emma then said that at our small liberal school that preaches diversity still struggled with systemic racism. She detailed her experience of being one of only eight black kids in a graduating class of 100, and how her intelligence seemed to surprise people. “It kinda has an impact on you because is it the way that I speak? The way that I look? Is it what I identify as? What’s the reason why someone would be surprised that I’m doing well academically?”

She remembers going to a board meeting to discuss how the school did in testing, and it struck her that even though there were so few black kids in the entire school, they were the lowest performing group. “It was sad to see that the ten black students in the class were also the ones who performed the lowest. And I feel like that’s not a coincidence. My personal experience was a little bit difficult because sometimes I tried not to think about how I was one of the eight black students in our graduating class. But sometimes it would occur to me in the classroom that I was working three times harder than the people around me to be recognized.”

She says that she could tell when a staff member had a racial bias against a black student. ” It was something that any black student could see.”

Around the time that Emma was asked to do the speech, it was at the beginning of the movement when all you saw on the news were the protests. Although she was inspired by the movement, she couldn’t help but be frustrated with the performative activism of some people. “I think it’s good when things like that are trending, but it’s not okay when it’s a trend to go to protests. You have to really care.”

She was also keeping close tabs on how her family and friends were reacting to the movement. “I witnessed a lot of people not really saying much, and I noticed it was because they weren’t ‘political people’ but this isn’t a political issue, so it was really uncomfortable for me to see people so uncomfortable.”

With all these thoughts, she threw herself into writing the speech. She said that in a moment of 3am emotional inspiration, she typed it out in one go. This is what she had to say about the impact she was hoping to have:

“My main goal was to raise awareness to the fact that just because we’re a very liberal school and just because we try to be super diverse doesn’t mean that the systemic issues weren’t still there. It kind of mirrors the situation in America where we’re preaching one thing but doing the other, and that’s just kind of how it felt for me. I was trying to get the point across that a lot of the students were feeling that systemic issue within the school which is kind of shocking. Things did happen and I wanted not only the student body to know, but the staff members to also be aware. At the end of my speech I wanted to talk about how a lot of people get uncomfortable because they don’t want to be controversial, and they don’t want to talk about controversial subjects, and that’s okay sometimes. However, it’s important for everybody to speak up. When people are uncomfortable, you kind of know that there’s an issue, because then everybody would be comfortable talking about whatever.”

She even says that the response to the speech she got from teachers and staff members was very satisfactory. “After my speech a lot of teachers and staff emailed me to thank me for giving the speech and that was great.” She got news from a teacher that over the summer the school was going to do more racial equality training and incorporating her speech into the training for teachers to analyze. She brought up how she observed that a lot of diversity training doesn’t involve personal student stories, and she wishes it were more widely considered. “You can’t train someone to fix an issue they don’t know exists,” she said.

Although Emma and I might not ever know the future of the diversity training at our school, she was happy that she could make a difference for the education of other black high school students. She then mentioned how young people online are inspiring her to keep working hard. “I really wish that there would be one generation that could really make a difference, and I’m really hoping that it could be us.”

She talked about a series of Tik Tok videos of teenagers and young adults talking to their conservative families about the issues that matter to them, or why it’s important to vote. She says that often older generations or conservatives don’t fully understand the Black Lives Matter movement, and just need to be more educated. “I feel better personally coming out of a conversation than coming out of an argument.”

“I would like for the future of the BLM movement to really explain, like point blank period, what they’re doing, what their ultimate goals are, because a lot of conservatives that I’ve seen don’t fully understand what the Black Lives Matter movement has done for black people. I think aiming the movement towards people who don’t support the movement, it’s powerful.”

“But I think Black Lives Matter is great right now, it’s going pretty good and I feel really comfortable knowing Black Lives Matter is an organization and that people are supporting it, it makes me feel safe and comfortable.

Her strong parting message is to encourage people to open up productive conversations with people who might disagree with them about voting and the issues that matter to them. “If you have the capability to vote, it’s important to do so.”

Are you registered to vote? Be sure to check on vote.org and prepare yourself with knowledge of your rights as a voter! Remember to send in those mail-in ballots early (by October 20th), and double triple check.

You can read Emma’s speech by clicking this embedded link, or going to the “October 2020 Issue” tab.

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