BEMIDJI -- Local youth shared their perspectives of the current social justice movement and their vision for the future during a panel discussion hosted by Building the Bridge Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation conducted via Zoom Tuesday night.
The students, who chose to be identified only by their first names, answered questions posed to them by the panel leader, David Frison, a professor in the business administration at Bemidji State University and the BSU Black Student Union Adviser.
Frison introduced the young speakers, who are all members of Generation Z. He said while they may not be able to vote yet, they will be able to soon.
He described the generation as more “powerful” than it often gets credit for, and said that this group will help to propel the current social justice movement forward.
“We count on you to keep it from dying,” he said to the panelists. “We are counting on you to have your voice, to be out there and to protest, protest peacefully. You captured the world’s attention.
"You guys have done that. The world is listening now.”
The four student panelists came from diverse backgrounds: Eddie, spoke about being a Native American teenager. Rolando, said he moved to Bemidji from Jamaica and spoke about his experience coming to the area.
Aaron, who spoke about his experience as a Black student in Bemidji. Sierra, who spoke as an enrolled band member in White Earth and a student at Cass Lake-Bena.
Panelists were asked to share their experiences surrounding the current social justice movement.
“A lot of people have been saying that we are starting a race war,” Sierra said. “But I think we are trying to end one that’s been going on for a really long time. It’s not only about George Floyd, it’s about everybody, the thousands of Blacks and Natives that have to deal with police brutality.”
“(After) all of these protests I’m looking for ways we can look forward and keep it going so all of this doesn’t just get pushed under the rug -- we can actually make a difference this time,” Aaron said. “I don’t see it as black versus white, I see it as everybody versus racism, which I’m liking.”
Eddie mentioned that he feels they are going about changing things the right way -- having discussions like this one and peaceful protests.
“It makes me really proud to be involved in being that younger generation that can bring about change,” he said. He added that “Diversity is not a threat, it is what makes this country great. It’s more of a blessing.”
Eddie said the community should strive for not just equality, but tolerance.
“You could be equal in the eyes of the law, but laws don’t change a person’s heart,” he said. “You're going to need tolerance, you’re going to need empathy. That’s what is key, those three things: empathy, tolerance and equality.
“That’s the absolute recipe for a healthy community.”
Panelists detailed their experiences with racism in the Bemidji community and their disappointment with how these situations were handled.
Plans to form a Black Student Union or racial equity club at Bemidji High School were discussed, and Frison told the panelists ways they could effectively talk to school officials about issues they’re facing.
Around 40 people participated in the Zoom call. Bemidji City Councilor Michael Meelhause and Mayor Rita Albrecht were in attendance. Audience members were given the opportunity to respond in chat messages after the panel discussion and share their overall impressions.
Many shared sentiments that youth voices should be elevated and adults should take a step back from the conversation.
“The adults should be quiet and listen to the youth,” one person wrote. “Such eloquent youth! I don’t think I had that wisdom at their ages,” another added.
More information about the Building the Bridge Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation group and future meetings can be found on the group’s Facebook page.