Calls for change

Davonn Epps and Stephen Long: Two generations of Brainerd residents motivated to speak out

Two people sit across from each other at a picnic table.
Activists Davonn Epps (left) and Stephen Long meet at Gregory Park in Brainerd on Thursday. Long, 84, has been involved in protests since the 1960s. Epps, 19, is relatively new to protest. Both joined in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Brainerd in the days and weeks after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
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.

The paths of Davonn Epps and Stephen Long hadn't really crossed until a little more than a month ago.

It was the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that brought both of them to a busy intersection in Brainerd, carrying signs and speaking out against racial injustice.

Epps, 19, grew up in Minneapolis. She moved to Brainerd, the central Minnesota city of roughly 13,000, when she was in high school.

Epps said she experienced her first encounter with discrimination when she was 12 or 13, when another child’s father made racist comments and used a derogatory term. Back then, she didn't know how to react or stand up for herself — but that’s changed.

"I feel like I'm at that age where I'm learning so much and I'm able to process much more than I was when a lot of things were happening back then, with Trayvon Martin [who was killed in 2012] and Philando Castile [who was killed in 2016],” she said.

“I feel like this is the first time I was able to stand up for something I believed in."

Long, 84, has been standing up for his beliefs the environment and social justice for decades, as a member of the Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace. He said he's called by his Quaker faith to take action.

"The hard part about being Quakers is not theological, because there is no theology. It’s that you've got to act,” Long said. “You’ve got to do something, and there are times where I wish I didn't know what I was supposed to do."

Epps and Long were among dozens of people who showed up for four days of demonstrations and vigils in Brainerd after Floyd was killed.

"I was fed up,” Epps said. “I haven't obviously been on this Earth long, but long enough to realize that [racism] is a problem.”

Epps recalled witnessing her dad being racially profiled, dragged out of his car in Minneapolis and wrongly accused of doing something he didn’t do.

After Floyd's death, Epps said she felt she could make more of a difference in her own community, rather than joining the mass protests in the Twin Cities.

“I can spread my awareness here,” she said. “I’ve helped a lot of people … and it makes me sleep better at night knowing that people have changed their perspectives because of things I said.”

For Long, it's encouraging to see more people in his city getting involved. He's never been one to shy away from speaking out, even when his views weren't popular within the community.

People stand on a sidewalk holding signs.
Protesters gather May 28 at the intersection of Washington and South Sixth streets to demonstrate in Brainerd, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch

"I've been in peace demonstrations for over 50 years, and I never saw in all of our demonstrations as much support as we got for Black Lives Matter,” he said. “We had more people honking and giving us thumbs up than I have ever seen by far. So I was very encouraged just to see that."

Epps said there were a few people who honked and yelled, “White power!” out of their car windows as they drove by the marchers. But she added. “There’s always going to be people like that. It’s about changing the majority of people’s minds.”

Changing people's minds is something Epps says she's been doing a lot of lately, through conversations with friends and social media posts.

"I tell a lot of people, ‘Imagine dealing with it every day. I was born with the color of my skin. I can't change that, but I have to fight for the color of my skin every single day,’” she said. “I feel like that's helped a lot of people."

Epps said she “absolutely” thinks she will still be speaking out when she’s Long’s age. But she hopes she won’t have to.

“I hope I can look back and be like, we really made a change,” she said. “It takes a long time to make change, but hopefully [this movement] expedites the process a little bit."

The work, she said, continues. Both Long and Epps plan to join a Black Lives Matter vigil in Brainerd Monday night.

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