by Naila A. Smith, PhD
Zyahna Bryant is a powerhouse. At 22 years old, the Charlottesville native, youth activist, and community organizer, has shown up, spoken out, and been a catalyst for change in her community for the past decade.
Zyahna’s first racial awakening came around age 12, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenage boy in Sanford, Florida, to death. She recalls this as the first major incident of racial injustice that happened in her lifetime. Deeply impacted by this event, she organized a protest in Charlottesville seeking justice for his death and that of other unarmed Black men who had died due to police violence.
Soon after, Zyahna became connected to a network of local leaders, activists, and community organizers in the city of Charlottesville and embarked on her journey of student activism. She served on the Charlottesville Youth Council, a group of 17 young people who help inform the local government and community about issues affecting the youth. With this group, she recommended actions to improve the city and attended local government meetings and events.
In 2015, in her first year at Charlottesville High School, she also started the Black Student Union (BSU) to create a space for Black students to come together and build community. The BSU soon organized to create change in the local high school. Importantly, the group was concerned about the racial disparities in the student groups enrolled in advanced placement (AP) and honors courses. Zyahna, who was enrolled in several AP courses, saw very few Black students who looked like her. The BSU organized a walkout and list of demands for several initiatives including that the school district diversify AP and honors courses and hire more Black teachers.
In the spring of 2016, Bryant, then 15, continued her work for racial justice when she wrote a petition calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of the park, formerly known as Robert E. Lee Park, just across from the Downtown Mall. This petition, born from a classroom assignment on “how to make a change” inspired others across the nation and led to the formation of a special council by the city of Charlottesville to deliberate on the statue’s removal. The proposed action was eventually approved by vote and would precede the fatal clash between white supremacists and counter protesters between August 11th and 12th of 2017.
Before Activism: Growing Up in Charlottesville
In some ways, Zyahna’s experiences growing up did not seem like they would have led her down a path of student activism and community organizing for racial justice. Her family, she says, was like a lot of Southern Black families when it came to conversations about race and racism: they cautioned her “not to do too much” and to be careful about going into spaces where she might be the only Black person.
Like many African Americans in the South, Zyahna grew up in the church and was very active at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church, where on Sundays she rarely saw white people in the congregation. In her words, Mt. Zion was a place “where Black people found community.” However, while most of her neighborhood friends attended Charlottesville public schools, for several years Zyahna attended St Anne’s-Belfield School, a prestigious, independent boarding and day school serving pre-K through grade 12. At St. Anne’s-Belfield, most of her peers were white and rich and she found it difficult to authentically connect with them. In her words, her home and school life simply “didn’t mix.”
Moreover, despite her academic prowess, Zyahna also describes having other difficulties at St. Anne’s-Belfield. Specifically, she shared how she got suspended a lot and the school tried to push her out. Zyahna’s “push out” experiences mirror those of other Black girls across the United States who experience disproportionate rates of school discipline, resulting for some in school dropout and interactions with the justice system.
Developing a Critical Perspective
Zyahna credits this policing of her voice as a Black girl as one reason why she may have developed a sharp critical perspective at such a young age. She shared that while growing up, people frequently didn’t see things the way she would, causing her to have to advocate for herself. Moreover, being in a space where she was being socialized around white people made her more aware of the anti-Black messages perpetuated in society.
As her social analysis sharpened, she also became increasingly aware of how colorism intersected with her experiences as a Black girl. She began to notice how most girls in her honors courses were biracial, and women in Black church leadership roles were mostly light-skinned, and how teachers tended to treat darker-skinned girls differently than girls with a lighter complexion. Her observation is supported by research that has found that darker-skinned girls are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than lighter skinned girls.
While her work continues to be rooted in racial and educational justice, Zyahna has also focused her activism on issues pertaining to Black women and queer and trans people. She said she underwent a second awakening in 12th grade, when had personal experience with how Black women are often marginalized in the racial justice movement. For example, when research Zyahna led made it to Capitol Hill, she was miscredited and given a lesser role than what she merited.
As a result of this focus, during the pandemic, she engaged in several initiatives for Black women and girls such as mutual aid organizing, takeovers with Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes, and virtual panels. She is especially passionate about lifting up Black women’s organizing practice and strategizing. She shared, “We hear a lot of emotional accounts of Black women’s contribution but not a lot of discussion of their contribution to strategy like Latosha Brown.” Latosha Brown founded Black Voters Matter, an organization that has led to significant voter turnout in recent elections in Alabama and Georgia state.
Zyahna currently works as a program lead for Black Girls (EM)Power, a part of the Youth Mentoring Action Network based in Upland California. She recently graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor of arts degree in African American and African Studies in the Distinguished Majors Program. In the fall, she will be enrolled in the Bridge to the Doctorate program at University of Virginia. She plans to pursue a doctorate in History. She credits public historians as being critically important to supporting her activism across the years and sees historians as laying the foundation for activism.