Conversations around race and racial justice

Difference makers: 8 Minnesota students helping transform their communities

A collage of students
MPR News education reporter Elizabeth Shockman interviewed eight Minnesota student activists on how they're leading the fight in their communities.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer set off a movement of student-led protests and calls for change. Nearly three years later, many of the young Minnesotans called to action by Floyd’s killing are still working to shape the state’s future.

Some are high school juniors and seniors while others have moved on to college, but they remain focused on closing the state’s racial, economic and educational rifts. 

MPR News interviewed scores of students the past three years working to transform their schools and cities in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Here are snapshots of eight students. Click on their names to read more. 

Aaliyah Murray: ‘Let’s put kids to work’

Fridley High School student Aaliyah Murray was 14 years old in the spring of 2020 when she started the group Minnesota Teen Activists. 

“We decided to stop waiting for a seat at the table,” she recalled. “This is affecting us. Let’s put kids to work.” 

Now 17, Aaliyah and her friends have organized protests against racism, gun violence and police violence involving thousands of students. They’ve put together petitions, supported students facing racism and planned get-out-the-vote events.

 “I remember being like a little girl and not really sticking up for myself. And I look at myself now and I really wish that there was an older person, or at least someone who could have done that for me. So I believe in doing it for myself and for others,” she added. 

A peron poses for a portrait
“We decided to stop waiting for a seat at the table,” said Fridley High student and founder of Minnesota Teen Activists Aaliyah Murray.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Jerome Richardson: ‘If we can’t do it, who’s going to do it?’

Jerome Richardson, 18, who graduated from St. Paul’s Highland Park High School last year and is currently a freshman at Temple University, is executive director of Minnesota Teen Activists. He connected with the organization’s founder, Aaliyah Murray, in the fall of 2020.  

Over the years, he and fellow student leaders have used the online platform to educate, organize and rally around legislative and community issues that affect students. That work includes protesting police killings, advocating for tougher gun laws and pushing back on how school administrators have handled incidents of racism.

“This is not something that students are complaining about. They’re not walking out because  they want to defy or they want to skip class or they don’t want to be in school. They’re walking out because they’re really being affected by these things,” Richardson said. “If we can’t do it, who’s going to do it?” 

A person poses for a portrait
Jerome Richardson has helped organize students around issues that affect them, including advocating for tougher gun laws.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Deepti Pillai: ‘The way change happens is conversations’

Deepti Pillai, a 17-year-old at Minnetonka High School, spent time in 2020 and 2021 attending rallies, posting on social media, putting together a petition, getting people to sign it. But things feel very different now. She and her fellow students are leading fewer walkouts and protests. She’s as passionate as ever about racial justice, and working to make her school more equitable. But the arsenal of tools she has for pursuing those goals has changed. 

“The way change happens is conversations with administration,” she said. “I’ve learned what’s effective and what’s not.” 

A person poses for a portrait
Deepti Pillai said she continues working to make her school more equitable but her strategies have shifted. “I’ve learned what’s effective and what’s not.” 
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Calvin Zimmerman: ‘If we start now we can see big change’

Calvin Zimmerman, a 17-year-old at St. Louis Park High School, has joined walkouts to advocate for racial justice as well as a club, Students Organizing Against Racism, at his school. He’s cheering on his school’s efforts to diversify curriculum. He hopes being open about his experiences can be a part of change. 

“We have a long way to go. But it's not too late to start. If we start now we can see big change, but it has to be a brave soul. It can't just be one person.” 

A person poses for a portrait
Calvin Zimmerman says he wants to see more teachers of color in his classrooms and he wants the curriculum to be more diverse.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Asha Mohamed: ‘I'm never uncomfortable about a conversation with race’

Asha Mohamed is 19 years old and a senior at St. Louis Park High School. She has spent much of her time over the last several years learning how to lead difficult conversations and restorative circles. It’s something she wants her school to implement more of. And learning about the practice has given her the confidence to speak up for herself and others on a variety of topics, including race. 

“I'm never uncomfortable about a conversation with race, because … wherever humans are present, race is present,” she said. “I'm definitely comfortable with doing that, like no matter what the space is … that's why I think of myself as a leader.”

A person poses for a portrait
Getting trained in restorative circle work gave Asha Mohamed the confidence to speak up for herself and others on a variety of topics, including race.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Landon Nelson: ‘Start treating people how you want people to treat you’

When Landon Nelson, now 16 and a sophomore from Annandale High School, made it public that he was gay, he learned something about the world that he’d never realized before. 

“You start looking at people and you start thinking, ‘Maybe I should talk to them, just ask them how their day’s going,’” Landon said. “It teaches you to start treating people how you want people to treat you when you felt down.”

Landon has advocated to allow teachers to display tiny placards on their desks with the phrase “you can be yourself” so students can know teachers will respond to students with kindness and respect, regardless of their sexual orientation. 

A person poses for a portrait
Landon Nelson advocates for more teaching about American's struggle for equality. “It really helps those students who just feel alone to know that they have this whole history of leaders that will fight for them.”
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Aisha Abdulwali:  ‘Make sure your concerns are heard’

Seventeen-year-old Aisha Abdulwali, a student at Minnetonka High School, has advocated to get her school to open a prayer room for Muslim students to use so they don’t have to pray in stairwells and hallways or miss class activities in order to keep up with their religious devotion. 

“If you feel like there’s some way you can feel more welcome and more part of the community at school, and you have any suggestions for the principal or staff…you have a right to let people know, because this is part of your education,” Aisha said. “Make sure your concerns are heard.” 

A person poses for a portrait
Aisha Abdulwali and other students helped get a prayer space at school. “I realized that my issue that I have is something that other students share.”
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Naciima Mohamed: ‘I really do want to see my school be successful’

Naciima Mohamed, a 17-year-old student in the Columbia Heights school district, started a blog with interviews and articles on racism, history and other issues. She founded a Muslim Student Association that organized culture shows and a World Hijab Day celebration. 

“I was never really an outgoing student. I was always the shy, reserved student, so it was kind of nerve-wracking for me to be doing this, but I saw that no one else in our school was doing work like this so it was really important for me to step up and fight for the changes,” she said. “I wanted to see and just rally other students who I knew if I did it, they would be able to do it … I really do want to see my school be successful.”

A person poses for a portrait
Naciima Mohamed founded a Muslim student group at Columbia Heights High School that organized culture shows and a World Hijab Day celebration. 
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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