Muntaas Farah and Yezi Gugsa: Teenagers lead the charge in Rochester

Two women sit on a concrete stage.
Mayo High School senior Yezi Gugsa (left) and University of Minnesota sophomore Muntaas Farah sit on a stage at Mayo Park where they organized a Black Lives Matter Protest in Rochester, Minn., after the killing of George Floyd.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Protests large and small have emerged across Minnesota since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

All this week, MPR News is talking to some of the people behind rallies, marches and demonstrations happening beyond the Twin Cities metro area — about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future. See and hear all of the conversations here.

Muntaas Farah has been thinking a lot lately about a moment from her childhood. She was 14 and wearing her hijab.

"My first instance with Islamophobia and racism happened with my mom, in the car,” she said. ”People were yelling, 'Go back to your country. You don't belong here.’”

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Farah, whose parents immigrated from Somalia, says the memory from five years ago was galvanizing. In that moment, she suddenly understood the ostracism her parents faced in Rochester, a largely white city of about 115,000.

It pointed her down a path of activism for racial justice.

"I want to belong here. I want to make this place my home as much as the next person," she said.

Now 19, Farah said it was clear what she needed to do after watching the video of George Floyd's death.

On June 6, she and a group of friends — including Yezi Gugsa and Mouny Ould-Ali — organized a protest that drew hundreds to Mayo Park. There's no official head count, but local law enforcement said it was the largest protest the city has seen in decades.

The teenagers — driven by a racism in their city that they say is both subtle and exhausting — have been the force behind Rochester’s protests since Floyd’s killing.

The big crowd at that first demonstration didn't surprise Farah.

"People are just done, at this point. People are just tired of seeing innocent Black lives being taken by people who are meant to protect and serve,” she said. “At this point, our voices have been unheard. We've been swept under the rug."

Farah and one of her co-organizers, Yezi Gugsa, met when they were both students at Mayo High School. Farah graduated in 2019. Gugsa, 17, will be a senior this fall.

Gugsa's activism is, like Farah’s, rooted in part in the experiences of the generation before her. Her father is Ethiopian, and had immigrated to Sudan when he had to flee war there and move to America.

He's felt like an outsider his entire life, Gugsa said — when he was an Ethiopian living in Sudan, and again once he moved to the United States.

“He never felt like he belonged anywhere,” she said. “He watched video after video of people who looked like him being killed by the people who were sworn to protect him. And he still does, to this day."

The women both say they've experienced overt racism in Rochester — from fellow students who use racist language in front of them in school, and from teachers who aren't quick to act.

But more often, they say, the racism they experience is subtle: Comments made on social media or behind their backs. White friends who tell them that racism doesn't exist in Rochester.

Earlier this year, Gugsa said, her high school hosted a presentation on privilege in all its forms — economic, social and racial.

"It blew up,” she said. “After the privilege presentation, there were a lot of instances on social media where people were commenting on a post and making hateful and racist comments on there, but they won't say anything in person."

A month after Floyd's death, Gugsa and Farah said they're now fighting on two fronts: against the systemic racism they see all around them — and against letting the momentum for racial justice succumb to the teenage indifference of their peers.

Just because they're young, they say, doesn't mean they're unmotivated or inexperienced.

Gugsa is focusing her efforts now on working with school officials to improve equity policies at Mayo High School. She and Farah are working to coordinate community discussions around racial justice throughout the summer, and they're working to help newly minted 18-year-olds become newly minted registered voters.

Her youth, Gugsa said, just means she has more time to work toward making Rochester welcoming and equitable for people like her.

"We're all fed up. We know we're not being heard,” she said. “And unfortunately, we're just going to have to keep annoying the people in power."