The big thing is presence,” according to Jerome Treadwell. “As long as you’re present in the now and doing everything you can to create a better future, that’s what’s important.”

A Highland Park resident, Treadwell is a junior at Highland Park High School. As a cofounder and executive director of MN Teen Activists, he helped organize a walkout for racial justice on April 19 at more than 100 high schools in Minnesota. Junior Remi Pye was one of the leaders of the walkout at Cretin-Derham Hall, where more than 100 students took part. Together, Treadwell and Pye said, they are testing themselves and others in taking a stand against racism.

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MN Teen Activists executive directer Jerome Treadwell (right), 17, sat down last week with friends and associates Collin Roycraft, 18, John Mbanda, 18, Gabby Hou, 16, and Ruby Haimli, 16. Photo by Brad Stauffer

 

It was a year ago this month that Fridley sophomore Aaliyah Murray came up with the idea for MN Teen Activists. Looking for leaders in Saint Paul, she learned about Treadwell’s advocacy work and asked him to come on board.

“It started with a group of 16 kids from the metro area,” Murray said. Initially, they focused on racist incidents at schools. “But after the murder of George Floyd, it expanded,” she said. The group now has about 21,000 followers on its Instagram site and is known as a major advocate for racial justice in Minnesota.

“All my life I’ve been an advocate for Black lives,” said Treadwell, who also serves as youth president of the Saint Paul chapter of the NAACP. “Going to a predominantly white school yet growing up in a Black neighborhood, I’ve seen the disparities among different races. Being the only Black student in the band program, in the Chess Club, in honors and IP classes has motivated me to defy the odds and be an advocate for my peers, for people who look like me. I want to encourage them and motivate them.”

A saxophonist, Treadwell said he has used music to advocate for arts programs in the Black community, “finding ways to fund and advance those programs. I’ve wanted to be a catalyst, using music as a healing power.”

 

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After Floyd’s death, Treadwell played his sax throughout the Twin Cities, alone and with other musicians, to offer comfort and inspiration. He played at the George Floyd Memorial in South Minneapolis, at June­teenth events, at the state Capitol and during marches. “Music is a universal language of hope, love and peace,” he said. “That was how Blacks were able to cope with slavery; they sang Negro spirituals. Music is a way I can touch Heaven, touch my ancestors and touch people.”

Treadwell joined other MN Teen Activists in raising over $8,000 for businesses on Lake Street in Minneapolis damaged in the riots last May. “I was intrigued by this organization being started by 15-year-olds,” he said, “students younger than me activating the community in such a dynamic way. They helped me grow as a human being, and I’ve tried to help them grow as an organization.”

It is estimated that 700-800 students walked out of Highland Park High School on that Monday in April, or more than half of the student body of 1,381. “As a district and as a school, we respect students’ right to peaceful protest,” said Highland Park principal Winston Tucker. “At the walkout, students spoke truthfully and respectfully about racism, equity, what is happening in society. There was a diverse mix of students, and they were attentive and engaged.

In advance of the April walkout, “I tried to help (students at other schools) with how you do a walkout, how you communicate with school officials,” Treadwell said. “We’re trying to learn time management in terms of helping others and lobbying for equality along with our work as high school students.”

It is estimated that 700-800 students walked out of Highland Park High School on that Monday in April, or more than half of the student body of 1,381. “As a district and as a school, we respect students’ right to peaceful protest,” said Highland Park principal Winston Tucker. “At the walkout, students spoke truthfully and respectfully about racism, equity, what is happening in society. There was a diverse mix of students, and they were attentive and engaged.

“I love it that we had a diverse group of kids and they were all supporting their peers,” Tucker said. The numbers may have even been greater if a third of the school’s students were not still distance learning, he added.

‘A remarkable young man’

“(Treadwell) is a remarkable young man,” Tucker said. “He’s extremely mature for his age in his awareness of social issues, engagement with other students and outlook on life. He’s a natural leader. He’s very intelligent, very personable, very principled, and has a remarkable ability to connect with people.”

Like Treadwell, Pye was involved in social justice activities before joining MN Teen Activists. Last year he organized a supply drive at CDH, “trying to help out the homeless, raising awareness of homelessness and its detrimental effects on society,” Pye said. “I think we donated about 100 bags plus three totes of coats, boots and gloves.” However, speaking out on racial injustice was not something he did.

Then, after the murder of Floyd, “I started showing up at charitable events, solidarity events, sit-ins, forums,” he said. “I educated myself on what I could do. That led me to step up during the walkout. I gave a speech there.”

Several CDH students who took part in the walkout were suspended by the school, not for walking out but for carrying signs that were profane and directed against police officers, posting videos of disrespectful, abusive and demeaning name-calling, and leading some inappropriate chants, according to CDH principal Mona Passman and president Frank Miley. In a joint statement on the school website, they said, “CDH has a long tradition of supporting our students’ voices as well as their work for social justice. We do not support hate speech.”

CDH students organized another assembly as a followup to the walkout in support of the right to protest. “It was a coordinated event with CDH alumni who supported the students’ cause,” Pye said. “We marched down Edgcumbe Road and then to the Capitol. I think we had 30 to 40 alums. Students from Highland and Central high schools also joined us.”

CDH students organized another assembly as a followup to the walkout in support of the right to protest. “It was a coordinated event with CDH alumni who supported the students’ cause,” Pye said. “We marched down Edgcumbe Road and then to the Capitol. I think we had 30 to 40 alums. Students from Highland and Central high schools also joined us.” Pye is now working with close to a dozen other CDH students to further racial justice and racial equity at the school.

According to CDH spokesperson Annie Broos, “The CDH community is working to better confront the tragedy of injustice. As individuals and as a school, we are called to determine what role we will play in the fight for justice and how to be an ally to people of color who suffer from racial injustice. We are proud of our students who stand against racial injustice and seek to make the world a better place. That is why our school is developing a comprehensive plan to work for racial justice within our school that will engage multiple and diverse voices.”

‘Not a one-and-done thing’

After this school year ends, Pye said, “I hope to stay linked to (Treadwell) and MN Teen Activists by supporting their protests and helping out in any way I can. I’d like to work on a project with them this summer pertaining to homelessness, racism in health care and food scarcity in our community.”

“The walkout was impressive as far as turnout,” Treadwell said, “seeing students from Bemidji to Duluth to Rochester to all over the Twin Cities being more cognizant of the problems.” Still, he said, there is a need for continued awareness and activism if sustainable change is to be achieved.

“The walkout wasn’t a one-and-done thing,” Treadwell said. “Our hope is to get to the legislative side and help with policies for youth and amplify youth voices there and every­where.

“And after we’re done being teenagers, we hope to be the advisers for the next teenagers of Minnesota, the next MN Teen Activists who will have their boots on the ground for Black and brown individuals.”

— Anne Murphy

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