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A Conversation with One of the Nation’s Foremost Young Activists

Zyahna Bryant Reimagines Race & Space

Charlottesville Anti-Racist Zyahna Bryant Reimagines Race & Space

Contributed by Sam Heath | Photos by Derrick Waller

My favorite image of Zyahna Bryant is of her standing before Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee, seeming to face it down and anyone who might oppose her demands to have it removed. That is where it started in 2016, when Bryant, then a freshman at Charlottesville High School, began a petition to remove the monument. This culminated in the city council voting for its removal, followed by the Unite the Right rally in the summer of 2017 that drew white supremacists to our city’s streets. One counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was murdered.

That was Bryant’s introduction to the national conversation, a space she has not left since.

Zyahna Bryant standing before the statue of Robert E. Lee

But that image of her before Lee is not from 2016. It is from this summer. Three years later and the Lee statue still stands, though its time as part of the city’s central landscape may be ending soon. For Bryant, the statue is an important symbol of a false narrative that needs to be torn down, yet she noted, “My personal work is bigger than just statues.”

The Momentum of the Moment
Bryant is a protestor, but not only. She coordinates protests, drives, and events. She is on panels, has written a book, and was featured in Teen Vogue. Bryant is also a student at the University of Virginia, where she serves on the Virginia African American Advisory Board as the education subcommittee co-chair. She is the youngest committee member, something that does not hold her back at all from making space for what she often calls “the work.”

“There’s always work, right?” she told me.

She is willing to serve but not to be a puppet, eager to lend her expertise and voice but not to remain silent when people do not do the hard work of truth-telling, as evidenced by her resignation from the Council on UVA Community Partnerships when the university president, James Ryan, had a muted response following the death of George Floyd. He has since issued a second statement.

While she is active and engaged, she is not overworked. “I’m more a less-is-more kind of person,” and I believe her, since she expresses such an awareness of the necessity of the fight for racial equity to continue beyond her efforts. Momentum can only be maintained if people can “sustain these conversations for more than just a moment.”

Race & Space
Bryant speaks with a dancer or architect’s awareness of space. “Our collective politics…are what offer a framework for how we maneuver through space and how we organize.” She understands the importance of protest being performative. Yet protest combines people and policy, with the former as agents calling for the latter. Whether in Charlottesville or Richmond or elsewhere nationally, Bryant captures the urge of the youth to insert themselves into spaces for the sake of turning the conversation.

We spoke about churches as significant spaces for advocacy. Bryant, being “a person of faith,” has familiarity and fervor with the religious landscape. She believes in a distinction between that which is political and that which is partisan, and churches need to do the hard work of parsing that out. Yet churches should be vocal spaces, for “it’s no longer adequate to straddle the fence.” Silence is endorsement of the status quo, an unacceptable position considering that “human rights, human life, and equity and equality are all political things.”

Bryant and activism

To the church that says sacred spaces should be free of politics, Bryant said, “I don’t think there’s a way to separate what’s political and what’s not.”

One’s religion should be neither hindrance nor tool in the public square. “Faith can be a guiding factor for your politics,” and Bryant thinks it should. “Knowing that my faith also aligns with my politics is so important,” for it gives an identity deeper than a shifting political party platform. With Robert E. Lee’s image still looming, with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor’s bodies separated from their souls, Bryant feels little ability to ignore white supremacy, mass incarceration targeting Black and brown individuals, and the school-to-prison pipeline that still flows. To those who look away from the need for racial justice, she cries, “What within your politics grants you privilege to compartmentalize certain issues and to turn the other cheek? I think that’s very political.”

Black Lives Matter as the New Civil Rights Movement
Black Lives Matter signs heavily sprinkle Charlottesville city lawns. Just outside the city in Albemarle County, a host of Trump-Pence signs seem to be in conversation with BLM. “Right now social activism is marketable,” Bryant said, which was not a knock on the signs. Instead, it was to emphasize the importance of “sustained conversations,” even when the hype dies down. “You can’t just pick and choose when you’re gonna do the work. And you can’t just pick it when it makes you feel comfortable or when it is rewarded.”

Bryant and organizers in movements

Bryant met two of the founders of the Black Lives Matter network, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, in 2019, so she is familiar with the network’s ideals. But she has no affiliation with the Charlottesville chapter of BLM, one of 16 across the nation.

It is worth noting the difference between the BLM network versus the BLM movement, Bryant pointed out to me. The BLM network is small in comparison to the movement itself, one of if not the largest in US history. Language and nuance are important, Bryant believes, for “when people make the mistake of conflating all of it, it does a disservice to those organizers.”

Organizers in movements demand and bring about change. They can bring that change to institutions. Bryant recognizes this historical pattern: “For every institutional shift that we see…it is the direct result of activists and organizers doing work on the ground.” No institutional change comes without mass movement, what Bryant referred to as the “blood, sweat, and tears of organizers and activists demanding space within these institutions.” Her drive is to create space and to make more of it for others.

Are we living in the midst of a new civil rights movement? “Maybe,” Bryant said. “I don’t believe in the civil rights movement as just being the sixties.” This is about human rights, and while “civil rights is strictly talking about issues within the nation…white supremacy is a global issue.”

Bryant’s work begins with awareness, then an insistence on space in the places where decisions are made, then a direct application of those decisions to her community.

She knows the art of balancing protest and policy.

Stand Up & Stare Down
Calling the movement “Black Lives Matter” does not mean white people have no role. Bryant certainly admitted, “There is a need for white allies.” Depending on the makeup of the space, this role will look differently. “[White] people need to show up, decenter themselves, and to listen to the work and experiences of Black people.” There are also “times when white people need to call out themselves” and educate themselves so that Black people do not have to.

Bryant, lifelong learner of the art of organizing

Should whites be leading? I asked. “In white spaces”—something like SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice—“white people can lead.” But if it is a mixed environment, white people should not be leading. In a mixed environment whites can listen and step aside for those who have been historically sidelined. Whites need to show up to “stand up and stare down white supremacy” and “believe that white supremacy is well and alive and is a fragile system that is killing all of us really. It’s killing white people too. It’s just killing them a bit slower.”

Though Bryant has been on the streets and engaged for years, she still sees herself as a lifelong learner of the art of organizing.

I learn a lot from organizing and being in spaces. It’s also really powerful to be around people who have way more extreme views than you because then you start to see your politics shift a little and see where people are coming from. [Those individuals] question my ability to reimagine space and reimagine certain systems. Your imagination is a product of what you’re surrounded by. Realizing that and putting that in the context of organizing is important.

Protesting in COVID has helped her efforts, since so often in pre-COVID days she would plan an event but then have to “pop out because of class” at UVA. This spring and summer provided her the ability to remain in spaces, particularly in Charlottesville and Richmond.

Organizing: The Next Generation
I wanted to know about how she processes the myriad opinions she surely encounters, whether there are days when she just feels crazy and doubts herself. She freely admitted that there are “definitely days when we’re tired” but “the work will continue and issues will prevail whether we show up or not.”

This does not mean she is able to decompress and relax. “Black people don’t have that luxury,” because there is “a new normal once you understand how all of these systems work together against people like you.” Such conditions require “finding joy and finding happiness in the things you can control and in the communities you’re a part of.”

When I asked her what gave her hope, she replied, tellingly:

I don’t know that there is really any hope left for some of us. More so I remain committed to seeing equity. I remain committed to centering the voices of people who have been erased. That makes me feel empowered and makes me feel powerful because I know that new narratives are being told.

Her end goal is a resolute “commitment to see better and to want to be better as a community.” This is done in partnership with and for the sake of her community. She works in spaces, “finding ways to build relationships across communities, across neighborhoods” to let others know that “there are people in the community that will work on the issue.”

It comes back to making room for others, “to just have some space to be free.” After all, she concluded, “the struggle continues, so the work will continue.”

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