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Protesters lie down on Peña Boulevard, blocking traffic and chanting “I can’t breathe” for eight minutes and 46 seconds to call attention to George Floyd’s killing during a youth-led Black Lives Matter demonstration in Denver on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Melissa Boateng is still scared.

It’s a quiet fear, not one expressed through echoes of rally chants and parades of protesters, but one that follows her from her Denver home out into her community.

This time last year, Boateng, now 18, had recently led a youth-centered Black Lives Matter protest that drew a crowd of supporters near Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood to Peña Boulevard. That rain-soaked Saturday in June 2020 left the Black teenager feeling invigorated and inspired, encouraged to see that young people can create change as she and a handful of her peers launched an initiative called Denver Metro BLM — Black Lives Matter — and guided more than 200 people on their march.

But she said she also carried “a deep sadness” that day as protesters mourned the death of both George Floyd after he was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor, who died at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky.

Boateng’s feelings haven’t changed. Nothing much at all has changed, she said. Some of Colorado’s younger voices that raised concerns about systemic racism across the country aren’t convinced they’ve truly been heard. And they wonder if anyone other than people of color are still listening.

The Colorado Sun talked to students who became leaders in the momentum of last year’s Black Lives Matter movement to learn what steps toward racial equality they’ve witnessed, or haven’t, since last summer and how much optimism they hold for the future.

Boateng, who graduated from Denver’s Strive Prep — RISE in May 2020 and will be a sophomore at the University of Houston in the fall, said the flurry of protests that overtook Colorado and much of the country last year has culminated in a sense of inertia.

“There’s still a risk of us going outside and not coming back home to our families,” she said. “That fear is still looming in all of our lives, and so I feel like for many people, for those who stood in support of Black lives, those people who don’t have to go home and worry about such things when they go out, for them everything is back to normal. But for us, everything is still the same.”

She hasn’t seen the force of her and her peers’ calls for change last summer translate into much tangible progress. She’s also watched broad support for the Black Lives Matter movement dwindle as the voices of allies who took to social media and the streets last year to condemn systemic racism have largely trailed off. Boateng said she is disappointed in how “demonstrational” many people were with their support as they took a stand with Black lives “mainly because they saw it as a trend” and they didn’t want to appear racist.

“Their lives went back to normal whereas our lives were stuck in the same place,” she said. 

Haley Valdez, 19, and Melissa Boateng, 18, pose for a portrait on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Strive Prep — RISE in Denver. Boateng and Valdez graduated in 2020 and hope to continue seeing activism throughout the student body at Strive as well as the metro area. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Still, there have been some moments of transformation that give Boateng hope. She’s especially heartened that her generation has stepped up to draw attention to the glaring need for change and that she and her peers have helped even younger kids understand that, even as the country has become desensitized to seeing people being murdered, “it’s not a normal thing, and it shouldn’t be a normal thing.”

She’s adamant that communities need to reckon with the past.

“I think it’s really important for all of us to acknowledge the wrongdoings of our history,” Boateng said, “so that we can all move forward and work towards a better future.”

“There’s still hate out there”

Haley Valdez reflects on the past year with an odd sense of gratitude that she personally has been spared from any acts of racism.

“It’s such a weird experience to feel really blessed and grateful to not have experienced any kind of hate speech or violence, knowing that it’s at an all-time high,” said Valdez, 19, who is Latina.

Valdez, who was also part of coordinating last summer’s youth protest with Denver Metro BLM, graduated from Strive Prep — RISE last year and now attends the University of Southern California. The urgency behind her own calls for racial equality hasn’t waned, though she’s grown more skeptical this summer as the spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement has dimmed.

Valdez noted that last summer’s wave of the movement gained more traction and led to more conversation than in past years when Black Lives Matter would be trending, but now “there’s just less attention around it.”

That doesn’t mean that hate crimes and violence against Black people have stopped, she said.

Valdez is well aware that systemic oppression won’t end over the course of one summer or one year, but it’s been discouraging for her to see a rise in hate crimes, especially against Asian Americans.

“I know that at the end of the day there’s still hate out there and it’s still manifesting in acts of violence and that tends to be toward people of color,” she said.

She said moments like the verdict in Chauvin’s case are important, but she hesitates to think of his conviction as anything more than “the bare minimum” of justice. 

“It shows that there is still some sense of justice happening,” Valdez said.

Other changes in the right direction have been “surface level,” she said, pointing to more attention on telling Black people’s stories. While significant, Valdez said it’s “a small step toward equity and visibility.”

More consequential changes, like policy-level changes, haven’t necessarily been set in motion, she noted.

Haley Valdez, 19, and Melissa Boateng, 18, pose for a portrait on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Strive Prep — RISE in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But she has hope that racial justice is within reach, particularly with many people continuing conversations about Black Lives Matter and with the power of social media to stir up attention.

“It gives me a lot of hope that it’ll be a lot easier to call out injustices when we see them and to get that bare minimum justice,” Valdez said.

She urges people to keep talking about racial inequality, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, as it’s embedded in every part of society. And she encourages those who want to be allies to actively educate themselves about issues of racism and racial injustice, adding people of color often face a lot of pressure to guide those conversations and end up drained.

It takes a lot of hard work, she said, but succeeding in spaces that were once reserved for white people feels “really empowering.”

Shying away from “alliance on display”

As Zail Acosta helped piece together Denver Metro BLM’s youth protest last summer, creating graphics, stickers and posters, he knew he wouldn’t be at center stage during the demonstration. 

His voice didn’t necessarily need to be the one booming from the megaphone. He recognized that his Black peers who have felt the full weight of struggles faced by the Black community deserved to be leading rally chants and demanding change from their communities.

It was an important lesson for the 19-year-old Denver resident. 

A lot of allies try to put their “alliance on display,” he said, when in reality they can support a movement “and not get a thank you and not get recognized and not get even noticed, and that’s OK.”

Support should flow from a place of genuine empathy and humanity, he added.

Acosta, who graduated from Strive Prep — RISE last year and who will be a sophomore at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the fall, is a first-generation Mexican American and knows firsthand about how much racism can hurt a community.

“It was good to see that people started waking up,” Acosta said as the fight for racial equality picked up more support across the country and as racial justice “became more mainstream.”

“It kind of pushed these barriers with politicians and celebrities” who wield a lot of influence, Acosta said. He was also glad to see corporations, websites and commercials reflecting Black Lives Matter, even if for some it was a performative strategy.

Acosta separates Black Lives Matter advocates into two groups: those who long pressed for racial equality before it was trendy and before Floyd’s death, and others who latched onto influencers, celebrities and corporations in driving forward the movement. He calls that “bandwagoning support.”

Their support sparked a lot of momentum around Black Lives Matter, so much so that protests prompted curfews in many cities last summer, he said. That support has largely tapered off.

“For some people, no more protests equated to no more injustice,” Acosta said. “It was weird.”

But he also knows that as much as the energy behind the movement has died down, it “doesn’t necessarily mean it’s died period.”

Acosta hopes that it won’t take the loss of another life to prompt another surge of support for racial justice — a pattern he’s seen in the past. Victims of police brutality often mark eras of protest and activism, and with each new victim comes another uproar. 

“I’m just hoping that in the future we can get that momentum again without having to wait for some tragedy to happen,” Acosta said.

Shania Brace (left), 17, and Haley Valdez, 19, join hands as they march toward Peña Boulevard during a Black Lives Matter demonstration they helped organize with other student activists in Denver on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He pointed to incremental signs of progress, including sweeping police accountability legislation signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in June 2020 that, in part, requires police officers to activate cameras, either that they wear or mount on the dash of their patrol cars.

But Acosta knows the work is far from over. To him, racial equality would mean that discrimination, oppression and disproportionate rates of violence against people of color would sit in the rearview mirror for good.

“I’m hoping that we can start talking about a lot of the things we’re fighting for in past tense,” he said, “and look back on them and see the changes that they brought.”

Though he also acknowledges that racial injustice is an aspect of history that must be remembered.

“It’s an inescapable part of history,” Acosta said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s an unchangeable part.”

Part empowered, part pessimistic

Much of Kaliah Yizar’s work mirrors the work that generations before her put in to end segregation during the Civil Rights Movement.

And she’s angry.

It’s been frustrating for the 16-year-old Parker activist to watch other areas of society improve while progress around police brutality toward people of color has stalled as many of the same arguments and the same people continue to propel racial injustice.

She’s become “numb” this summer to the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence against people of color but is also trying to keep her passion for the cause alive and not let anything veer her off course.

Last year, the Black teenager endured a lot of trauma as clips of police brutality played over and over while at the same time people denied struggles that have ravaged her community. 

But Kaliah, who will be a junior at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in Denver this fall, refused to sit on the sidelines. With a group of female classmates, Kaliah launched a podcast last July Fourth to help listeners better understand the experiences and perspectives of Black students. The podcast, now known as “Know Justice Know Peace The Take,” has branched out into a few different series, including one in which Kaliah and her peers have conversations with local police chiefs about Black history and police training.

The group of young women landed a major victory in October when they took their voices beyond their podcast to propose a resolution to the Denver Public Schools Board that sought to redesign curriculum to be more inclusive of communities of color. The resolution was passed unanimously.

Kaliah Yizar, a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, speaks to the audience during the announcement of the Know Justice, Know Peace resolution she and classmates initiated to provide more comprehensive education around Black history in the district’s curriculum in Denver on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kaliah, who pointed out that Black Lives Matter is an official organization and not a fleeting movement, has found herself more empowered as she advances change for people who look like her. Among the brighter takeaways of her year over a podcast microphone has been the lesson that all it takes is one voice to speak up and others who either couldn’t speak up or were afraid will follow. But she’s also learned how many hurdles she’s up against as a young, Black woman facing racism, sexism and the misconception that her age precludes her from knowing anything.

And she’s grown more pessimistic about who she can trust in the fight for racial equality. While Kaliah is glad that activism has spread, it’s also opened a loophole for fake allies to come in and slow progress, she said, describing them as people who pretend to support the Black community. She also continues to deal with people who ignore her calls for change altogether and who won’t acknowledge white privilege or the history of Black people being oppressed.

The student imagines a future of racial equity in which “there are no loopholes where racism can be accepted on a broad scale.”

To get there, she encourages people like her podcast listeners to do more than tune into her episodes — to be “co-conspirators” in her work and spread the message she and her peers are broadcasting.

“Really show up and stand by people of color,” Kaliah said, “and don’t just put on your activist hat when it benefits you and then (take) it off when it doesn’t.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...