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ChangeMakers: Valerie and Allysza Castile, carrying on Philando's spirit

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Valerie and Allysza Castile sit for a portrait.
Valerie and Allysza Castile sit for a portrait in their Brooklyn Park, Minn., home on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

Valerie, 62, and Allysza Castile, 26, are the mother and sister of Philando Castile. Philando was killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in July of 2016 during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. A jury acquitted Yanez of second-degree manslaughter and felony weapons charges. 

Since her son's death, Valerie has been an advocate for police and criminal justice reform and founded the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, which provides financial assistance to victims of gun and police violence. She has also worked with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, helping craft a toolkit to prevent and address officer-involved fatalities. 

Allysza is a new mother to a 6-month-old daughter. 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

Valerie Castile: It means we have to be a little bit more extra ... We have to be extra smart, extra educated, extra athletic, extra courageous — just extra because of who we are and the color of our skin. We're not equally treated so therefore we have to be extra in everything we do to be able to level up so to speak. We have to do everything that we possibly can to be extra. 

Allysza Castile: I agree. To be African-American in Minnesota and in the world as a whole we just have to work harder and be smarter. You know, we don't have the same privilege as other people and opportunities  — we don't get the same as other ethnicities and races in the world. Just growing up, you just know that you just got to work harder,  be smarter and kind of just always put your best foot forward and try to go above and beyond to be successful. 

What figures have shaped you into who you are today?

Valerie: Well, absolutely my son. My son has shaped me to be who I am, but God had put me through so many different changes in life and lessons to give me the character that I am. But it took the death of my son to really bring all that out of me because, you know, this is not how I envisioned my life. I never envisioned my life to be what you would consider a change agent. That is not what I had planned for my life. I didn't plan for my son to be murdered either but I'm just not going to sit back and just let that happen.

Allysza: I would say my mom for sure because she's such a strong woman and those characteristics were instilled in me. You know she goes super-duper hard for the community. You know with the relief foundation and helping other families that have been affected by gun violence, traveling across the world talking to different legislators and prosecuting attorneys and stuff to try to bridge the gap between community and police and also to help make changes in our world.

And my brother. You know growing up looking up to him, you know, he's always been a very humble individual. He was quiet but also very knowledgeable, outspoken, a leader. So a lot of his characteristics I grew up you know looking up to him. 

And then now that I'm a new mom and I just had my first baby, she has shaped me into becoming a better woman and helping me grow every day. 

Valerie: Yeah. The new baby she has been an absolute joy. And she came at the right time. God knew we were missing a part of our heart. Philando was our heart. He meant something to her and he meant something to me. It was different but the same. And both of us struggling with their hurt and pain, God knew what we needed. And he delivered us a beautiful baby girl. And she has done nothing but brought us joy and I love her so much. And I miss my son terribly. But I know that his spirit is still alive and he's bringing about change. You know I look at him as a martyr, a modern day martyr. And people see what's going on in the world. 

What's your vision for the future of black Minnesotans?

Valerie: We got so much work to do. And people are afraid to change. So there's gonna always be push back and resistance because people are comfortable with the way things are right now. But my vision is that we're gonna be treated equally at some point because if you look at the family dynamics now you have a lot of interracial marriages and there are lots of biracial of children being born ... So you get these different sets of children coming up.

So you get all these different cultures that are marrying into black people. So then after a while who's gonna be racist? This is the new generation. 

Allysza: You know we don't have a lot of black-owned businesses and I just envision that we're all treated equally and being able to support one another. I just envision a black Wall Street again. 

I feel like history is gonna repeat itself and sooner or later we're gonna rise up. We're gonna get it together because it starts with us.

I just envision that hopefully we get the same treatment and equality and privileges as everyone else. I just envision a world of as our coexisting with each other, getting along with each other, having the same opportunities and privileges as other races and also us coming together economically and financially for us as black people.