Frank Yellow, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, raises his fist in front of the People's Way at George Floyd Square on May 20, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

George Floyd was murdered a year ago at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. 

His death changed the world and sparked the largest American protest movement since the days of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Millions took to the streets nationwide. Protests in Minnesota spilled into civil unrest for a few days last May, leading to chaos, burned buildings, and devastated businesses in some of the Twin Cities’ most diverse neighborhoods.

The killing spawned a national reckoning about racism in America and inspired numerous proposed changes to the way cities across the United States police themselves. 

In the year since, Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, has been convicted of murder. Chauvin awaits sentencing and three other officers who participated in the arrest still await trial. More Black men have been killed by police: In Minnesota, that includes Dolal Idd and Daunte Wright. 

It’s tempting to look back and analyze what’s changed, which promises were kept and which were broken. Has Minnesota made any meaningful progress on racial equity? It’s not the kind of question to answer on a single day. Anniversaries can be full of expectations and they rarely deliver. 

Sahan Journal opted instead to ask community members about their experiences in the past year: how they learned about Floyd’s killing, how they reacted, how their community responded, and how they are reflecting upon his murder this May 25, a year later. 

We conducted interviews with a Nigerian American theater artist, a Korean American activist, a Native volunteer, an African American racial equity educator, and a Mexican-born attorney/Aztec dance troupe leader. Some of them talked about transforming their lives based on what happened last May—though many of them described a frustration that the city hasn’t kept pace.

“This is really difficult, because I’ve been involved in justice-related work for many years,” said Susana De León, the lawyer and dancer. “We sometimes see some changes, and sometimes we get frustrated at the pace things are changing.”

Here are the rest of their stories. 

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Na Choih poses for a photo in Powderhorn Park on Sunday, May 23, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Na Choih

After joining the community at George Floyd Square, Na Choih eventually moved on to working with youth to combat climate change. Now, Choih wonders whether George Floyd Square is now doing more harm than good. More

Mohammed Ojarigi is a writer, director, actor, and acting coach. Credit: Mohammed Ojarigi

Mohammed Ali Ojarigi

Mohammed Ali Ojarigi reflects on what he learned, what he’s trying to teach kids, and why Black families can’t wait for anniversaries to reflect on race. More

Susana De León is a Minneapolis-based immigration attorney and the leader of the Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue Aztec dance troupe. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Susana De Leon

Susana De León, an immigration lawyer and dancer, is done waiting for politicians and police chiefs to reform a racist system. More

Frank Yellow, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, raises his fist in front of the People’s Way at George Floyd Square on May 20, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Frank Yellow

Frank Yellow helps coordinate conversations between unhoused people and the police. He plans to watch one of the entry gates at George Floyd Square on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder. More

Jess Davis at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis on May 24, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Jess Davis

Last summer, Jess Davis quit her job teaching high school math in South St. Paul. Now she helps St. Louis Park teachers see how race and racism affect their classrooms. More


“I still could have visited the square, I still could have maintained contact with the people I had forged relationships with. But I chose not to do that. I sold out a little bit. I work for a nonprofit”: Na Choih poses for a photo in Powderhorn Park on Sunday, May 23, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

‘I stood for something bigger than myself’: Reflections on three weeks of providing security last summer at George Floyd Square.

Na Choih eventually moved on to working with youth to combat climate change, and wonders whether the square is now doing more harm than good.

I am a child of immigrants: my parents immigrated from South Korea. I was born in Robbinsdale and grew up in Apple Valley. I’m a child of the suburbs.

At this point last year, I had just finished up my last year of college. I graduated from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities with a degree in global studies. At that point in my life, I had done a little bit of community organizing, and was interested in activism. So when George Floyd was murdered, and I learned of what was happening at the square, I saw it as an opportunity for me to get involved in the things that I believed in.

At this point I am a little bit conflicted as to how to interpret my experience at the square. 

There have been some residents in the neighborhood who have expressed concern the square has caused harm. I know two people of color, one who I know identifies as queer, who have voiced their concern about the square’s continued existence, in that they believe it’s causing harm to poor Black immigrants, other lower-class people of color, disabled people, and other queer and trans people. And for that reason, I am not sure whether or not I’m still in support of the square. 

We need to do some deep reflection on whether the square needs to stay or go, based on accounts of people within the community who feel that the square is causing harm and residents who don’t want the square to be there any longer.

Na Choih

We need to do some deep reflection on whether the square needs to stay or go, based on accounts of people within the community who feel that the square is causing harm and residents who don’t want the square to be there any longer.

At the time I thought that I was being involved in something radical and revolutionary, and it certainly felt so. I was with many other people who stood for what I stood for as well, which was for the end of this racialized violence, for accountability, and for the protection of a community which I saw as vulnerable. 

But I now realize that I don’t think it was necessarily my place to have been there doing what I was doing, which was security. Because that’s not my neighborhood. It wasn’t my neighborhood. I didn’t live there. I officially moved to Minneapolis in 2017, so it’s not even like I’m a long-time resident of Minneapolis. And most of the people who were doing security were not residents of that neighborhood. 

Support at George Floyd Square

My first day there as support for medics and security was pretty intense. I remember a woman who was in her car and drove up Columbus toward the medic bus at full speed. At that point there weren’t any barricades. And there was a decent amount of people by the bus. I didn’t hear her say this, but other people said that she was saying the n-word while she was doing that. That was the first and only time I had experienced that, but apparently she had come back again either the next day or a few days after.

So that was actually really terrifying. I had never experienced that kind of rage and fear in my life. 

We started at 4 p.m. and stopped watching the roads at the barricade at 4 a.m. I would watch for any suspicious signs, such as cars that didn’t have license plates, or cops if they were passing. And I would report that if I had a radio. 

There was a lot of just sitting and staring. But we would pass the time by talking with one another, and we got to know each other, and I think I formed some friendships that are difficult to maintain now because the conditions aren’t the same. But these are people that I will remember for the rest of my life.

At the beginning there were some people from the neighborhood who were really kind and provided us with some food. I remember one night I was so tired that I was lying down on the concrete in the road. Another community member came out with a swimming floatie and I ended up lying down on that for a while. There was another resident who offered us tea and had set up a little tea station on his front porch. I asked someone to use their outlet to charge my phone and they were willing to let me use their electricity. There was another community member who lived past 39th who is still actively involved and had invited me to take a shower at their place whenever I needed to and cooked me a meal. So there were a lot of people who were looking out for us.

We smoked a lot of cigarettes, and we talked, and there was a good amount of laughter too.

But it also was traumatizing because of what I witnessed. I witnessed a death in the square. 

The first thing that I remember is running to the Port-a-Potty from the 39th and Chicago barricade. And as I was running to and from the bathroom, I witnessed an altercation. There was a lot of yelling, and I recall some people being held back by others to prevent them from getting physical with one another. That particular house where the altercation was outside of had a lot of visitors. And I didn’t really know the nature of the house. I thought it would have been out of place for me to step in. I also didn’t think that it would escalate into what it did. 

The resident who lived a few houses down from the house where the altercation was outside of ended up running out to me and saying somebody’s been shot, we need a medic ASAP. So I called into dispatch and let them know. Before I knew it, there was a crowd of people who had gathered around the scene.

It’s hard for me to recall exactly but I think what happened was the paramedics came. I think that they had parked right outside the barricade which we made sure to leave open for them, and they came to help the medics that were part of the team at the square. 

The cops came shortly thereafter. And when they came in, some people were physically trying to prevent them from being there and got pushed aside and hurt by the police. That was hard to watch. And it was also difficult to see the police getting around the body of the person who eventually passed. Because they weren’t supposed to be there to begin with. The square being a police-free zone, we didn’t want them there.

That night was particularly difficult for me. I think that I tried not to be so perturbed by what had happened. But not having witnessed anything like that in my life, and knowing that I could have done something to have prevented this man from dying, put me in a state of shock. 

Staying true to peace

At the time, I was seriously considering taking up some kind of a martial art, or taking self-defense classes. If we want to move toward abolition, we need to start thinking about what we can do as individuals to replace a force that is supposed to be protecting and serving.

I haven’t thought about that in a long time because it’s hard to grapple with the reality that we live in, which is that violence still is a threat to people of color. Especially considering the rise in Asian hate crimes, I’m reconsidering doing what I can to be able to defend myself and others if need be. And I’ve always been interested in martial arts to begin with, so I do think it would be worth my time to take up a practice.

I was only involved for three weeks, but there every day during that span of time. I didn’t stop after I witnessed the murder. That’s not why I stopped going back. I stopped because I wasn’t sure whether or not I was staying true to my value of peace. There were guns in the square. People were armed. And while I understand the need for self-defense, I couldn’t really justify for myself being in a space that met violence with violence. That was part of the reason I naturally gravitated away, I think, now on deeper reflection that I’ve had some space from the square. 

But in a practical sense, I found employment. And I wasn’t able to do security anymore because of the hours. I still could have visited the square, I still could have maintained contact with the people I had forged relationships with. But I chose not to do that.

I’ve sold out a little bit. I work for a nonprofit. I was introduced to the horrors of climate change when I was in high school at the School of Environmental Studies, and have chosen to dedicate myself to working with youth at an organization called Climate Generation.

I moved to Powderhorn. My partner lives a few blocks south from where I am. And every time I would go to his place, I would pass the square. And I didn’t go in the square for many, many, many months. I felt that it was difficult to go back. I can’t really say exactly why. But those three weeks were an incredibly intense time. 

I must have passed through this winter. And then didn’t meet anyone that I had met during my time that summer until the day of the verdict.

It was difficult. I wanted to celebrate with a lot of the people that I knew. But I felt ashamed for not having stuck it out with them.

I was so in my head during school, going over the issues that exist in the world. I felt as if my involvement in the square was a way for me to get out of my head and to live out my beliefs and my politics, to have my boots on the ground. That was incredibly empowering, especially because I had formed so many bonds with people that were in alignment with me. Like it felt like we were a part of something really big and meaningful. 

I don’t know that it surprises me that I would continually choose to go back to a place where my life was in danger. But I am happy that I had deepened my understanding of this world and my analysis of systems of oppression to the point where I would do something like that. To me, that’s a marker that I stood for something bigger than myself.

Mohammed Ojarigi is a writer, director, actor, and acting coach. “In the following days and weeks,” he says of the killing, “I tried to stay away from social media. I tried to stay away from the news.” Credit: Mohammed Ojarigi

‘I haven’t to this day looked at the video of George Floyd’s killing’: A theater artist looks for connection with friends, family, and community—without social media.

Mohammed Ali Ojarigi, 39, is a writer, director, actor, and acting coach from north Minneapolis. While Ojarigi currently lives in Los Angeles with his family, he remains connected with his parents and extended family in Minneapolis. Ojarigi also works with a community of Black theater artists in Minnesota. After the killing of George Floyd, Ojarigi organized groups with people in L.A. and Minneapolis.

I remember the day I had found out what happened to George Floyd because it fell on a time where I was going through quite a bit in my life. I had established an urban garden over in north Minneapolis that I had to part ways with. On top of that, I was supposed to sign a contract for a black box theater in L.A., called MOments Playhouse, that fell through. 

That, accompanied with coming home and seeing my timeline flooded with all this news of another police killing, I was like, Oh God what is happening

Then this video starts popping up. Truth be told, I haven’t to this day looked at the video of George Floyd’s killing. It’s just too much for me to take in. From that moment of hearing about it and seeing it on my timeline and through friends, I just remember sort of shutting everything off. I knew it was going to hit the media circus. 

With my family, we talked through as much as we could and checked in on each other. I took that time to really just be in a moment where it could be quiet, because I knew a storm was going to come.

In the following days and weeks, I tried to stay away from social media. I tried to stay away from the news. I’d just communicate with people in my community to make sure they were okay, see how they’re doing, and just be a shoulder and an ear. 

George Floyd was another unjust police killing that has happened. It was like a lot of the world seemed to get numbed to it. Having four children of my own—three Black boys and a little Black girl—it hits different. This is deep and we need to actually communicate with one another. COVID made people sit down and see the Black experience. We have so many things going on in our lives: We go to work, we take the kids to school, eat dinner together. 

When these things typically happen some people just go about their day. George Floyd made the world sit down to say: Something isn’t right.

Reflecting with family

The week after George Floyd’s death, there were lots of protests here in L.A. We engaged as a family unit safely. Some of the protests got rowdy—not by the protesters but people who don’t understand what’s going on and are blinded. We were peacefully protesting on sidewalks with signs to have a voice and let people know that the killing and lynching of people is not okay. I don’t get how protesting that rubs people the wrong way.

My mother and father still live in Minneapolis. I have cousins, aunties, uncles that still live there. We communicate quite a few times a day. My parents themselves kind of quietly dealt with what they could. A lot of my cousins and aunts and uncles, I’d seen them out on the streets protesting in Minneapolis and doing things the right way.

My family there was holding up but it’s disheartening because even after George Floyd, there are still killings that are happening. You have to think about it from their standpoint. I’m talking to my parents and they’re thinking about me and my sister and my brothers, and calling to make sure we’re okay. They’re being extra cautious. 

Me being a parent as well, you hope the best for your children and you hope that they’re safe and protected when they go out on the streets and not feel threatened because of the color of their skin—especially by people who are supposed to protect and serve.

With my own kids, I technically don’t like to jump into the “one-year later” rhetoric of the media. We should be paying attention to it, but the reality is this is an everyday conversation in Black households. 

Mohammed Ali Ojarigi

My life had already started to shift due to COVID. It made me zero in on my time and energy, who I associate with. I was educating myself, reading a lot more books. I’ve been so busy that I didn’t get the time to sit down and reflect and edify myself so I can give more. 

Because I consider myself a giver, and everything was shut down, I was able to reflect more and write more. I have screenplays for television series, I have stage plays I was able to create and polish during this time. I have a lot of work that I’m looking forward to giving that I believe will touch the world. Every work that I do has a social impact component to it. That’s the idea: I want my art to be my activism. 

Creating art and community

I was a part of the virtual “Blackness Is…” festival that’s going on with the Guthrie Theater. I showed a piece called Greenwood 1964. This is a piece that I wrote about a true trip Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte took to Mississippi with relief funds for people who were getting killed for registering to vote. 

That alone is so rich, because it’s sort of coming back to what we’re talking about now. People are still getting killed in the year 2020 and 2021 for being Black. How far are we moving? 

I will be spending Tuesday giving back to the community. I hold free virtual and in-person workshops for teen youth in 7–12 grade. They’re acting classes that are more than acting classes. We touch on the business of acting, the creative side of things, and talk about how to create performance and build character. 

I do that because coming up, we’re going to need new voices. We need to celebrate those voices and make sure they’re protected. That’s my way of giving back at this time, one year after George Floyd’s lynching: to make sure I empower the youth, to know that they are powerful, beautiful, and they have a lot to offer the world. 

With my own kids, I technically don’t like to jump into the “one-year later” rhetoric of the media. We should be paying attention to it, but the reality is this is an everyday conversation in Black households. But it’s unfortunate that that is a conversation that has to be made predominantly in Black households, when I believe every household should be talking about how to treat each other. 

This day is a day of reflection, it’s a day to look at: Do I have biases? Do I have racially charged emotions inside of me? Where does that come from? You need to see where it comes from and research that source, that entity, whatever it is, and understand it. Then get out of your comfort zone and reach out to people that think differently than you, that are of a different religion than you, that do different things than you, so you can actually open your mind.

I was born in Minnesota but my father is Nigerian. We speak Hausa. My father came to the U.S. and met my mother, who lived in Minneapolis—but she’s from St. Louis. I’m Nigerian American and very proud of my culture and where I’m from. I would also like to add that I speak from a place of privilege a bit. As a Nigerian American, I have experiences that a lot of Black Americans do not have. To know that I’m from the soil of Nigeria, to know the history of my people, it gives me an upper hand in society.

That’s the thing. When we’re talking about identity and name. White America does know about some things, but white America is quiet about a lot of other things. They know that a lot of our history has been stolen and taken out of history books. You can only hide the truth for so long. It resurfaces. It comes back. 

The empowering thing for me is when a cop pulls me over and they see my name, Mohammed Ali Ojarigi, they automatically know that there’s something different about this person. The name that I’m so grateful to have automatically makes me different.

Susana De León is a Minneapolis-based immigration attorney and the leader of the Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue Aztec dance troupe. “No one has had the guts to stand up to white supremacy, but the community has had the guts all the time to stand up to white supremacy,” she says. “And now they have nowhere to run.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘There’s no going back to this violence and obvious neglect of the community’: An immigration attorney and dancer examines why last year’s protests can’t be ignored.

Susana De León is an immigration attorney and the leader of the Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue Aztec Dance troupe. She lives in south Minneapolis and has a long history of being involved in social justice advocacy. 

I grew up in Mexico, then came to live in California when I was 18. I came to Minnesota in 1989, when I was 23. I’ve been here ever since. I’m much older now. The father of my son was from Minnesota, so love brought me here. 

I wanted to be an attorney from an early age, but I didn’t have an opportunity to do it. When I came to Minnesota, I found a program through the University of Minnesota—back then it was called General College. I had been out of school for eight years. They really helped me get my math credits and English. It was a long journey, but I did it. 

In 1992, when I started at the University, I finally found my place in Chicano studies. That really helped me see how we went from being Indigenous to now suddenly having all these titles and identities assigned to us. I knew I wasn’t Hispanic, I hated that term. I knew I wasn’t Latina, though I disliked that term less. 

Through my university experience, I got involved with a dance group at St. Cloud State. Some of the older teachers had come to Minnesota to teach there. There’s a lot of dance parallels. A lot of my community involvement in self determination stemmed from dance. Eventually, around 1995, we began a group here in the Twin Cities. The rest is history. 

I live a few blocks from the intersection [of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue]. I have a lot of connections there because of CTUL [Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, a worker’s rights and advocacy group] being there and because of the 38th and Chicago Business Association—they have invited us to dance many times at the corner of the church. And when I heard about it, I was just shocked. It was just total anger, sadness. I can’t talk about it,. It just tied to so many awful things that we have seen. It’s very hard for me. 

When Jamar Clark was killed, we went out there immediately. We were in the cold, we held that space for a long time. There have been many others. But then, George dies and it was so visceral. My reaction was just to go out. 

People were gathering at the 3rd Precinct and then I became afraid, really afraid of the response of the police. So I came home. I was just shaking. I drove there and drove back, but my husband took his bicycle and then he came back because they had already been gassed, and he was in tears and it was just a very long few days. To see the helicopters, to see the burning, to smell it, to see the pieces falling into my backyard. It was really awful.  

We were very much in contact with our dancers and neighbors, with people involved in the movement. At that time, I don’t think we were thinking about meeting anybody’s needs. We were just out there talking and trying to hold each other in some way. I don’t think it was explicit how we were trying to process this. 

I think being out marching, bringing flowers—it was a lot of mourning the losses. Talking to the young people in the group about what was happening. Talking to each other about the state’s violence and history. 

We did an event within a week. Lake Street was hit very hard, and friends got hurt and friends lost their businesses. There was fear of white supremacists coming to our community to do harm. We convened the dancers at Lake and 12th and held community space there for a number of hours. We said, we’re just going to go out there and dance and get it out of our bodies through dance and create spaces for people to speak and say what’s in their hearts.

‘They have nowhere to hide, because we won’t let them.

This is really difficult, because I’ve been involved in justice-related work for many years. We sometimes see some changes, and sometimes we get frustrated at the pace things are changing. We continue to see the same abuses. 

I’m very angry, because I read in the paper about a police officer who has committed so much wrongdoing and they’re still out there. Not even a discipline. Nothing. You know, just recently a police officer was found to have committed misconduct by alleging to have a confidential informant and then doing a warrant on somebody’s house. And that case got thrown out because of the misconduct by the officer. But then you read that there were no consequences for that officer. Nothing, not a slap. 

We did a lot of work researching another police officer who used to pull people over at the Wells Fargo on Lake and Nicollet because they look Latino. That’s the only reason why he did it. So you see all of these things and you think, all your fighting, all your screaming, when is it going to end? 

I think with this horrendous murder, with the response of the community, with the uprising, people are right to have this terrible feeling of anger. The ineptitude of our governor, the ineptitude of our city leaders, the ineptitude of the mayor, the ineptitude of the chiefs of police past and present. All of them are to be blamed for what we see.

Susana De León

I think with this horrendous murder, with the response of the community, with the push, with the uprising, people are right to have this terrible feeling of anger. The ineptitude of our governor, the ineptitude of our city leaders, the ineptitude of the mayor, the ineptitude of the chiefs of police past and present. All of them are to be blamed for what we see. 

No one has had the guts to stand up to white supremacy, but the community has had the guts all the time to stand up to white supremacy. And now they have nowhere to run. They have nowhere to hide, because we won’t let them.

So things aren’t changing because finally the leaders have thought that they need to change. They’re changing because the community is unyielding in demanding this change takes place. And we are unrepentant, we’re unapologetic about it. Something has been lifted and there’s no going back to this violence and obvious neglect of the community. 

Honoring the memory of George Floyd

The important thing right now, at least for me, is to continue pushing. The idea of reopening [police brutality and violence] cases has to be front and center. Who knows what has been covered up in that culture. It needs to continue, it needs to be front and center. People say it will be hard to reopen old cases, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand it. We have to continue to push. 

In Indigenous cultures, there’s a big significance about the first year of passing. You have gone home and now you’re home with your creator. First you have to honor that memory and honor the work that has taken place, and after that we continue. 

Yesterday we had an event at the “say their names” memorial to honor victims of police violence in Colombia. It was a very beautiful time for me to let my soul be healed by everyone else’s words. I think the work itself is the medicine. And we have a lot more work to do, so we have a lot more medicine to get.

Frank Yellow, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, raises his fist in front of the People’s Way at George Floyd Square on May 20, 2021. “I was doing a lot of outreach, a lot of intersection between the police and the homeless communities, along with helping get certain needs met by the homeless people,” he says. “In Lakota, we have a saying. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, ‘We are all related.’”  Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

‘This again’: A Native volunteer comes to George Floyd Square ‘to help—and to be helped.’

Frank Yellow, 41, lives just steps from the intersection where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd last year. Formerly homeless, Yellow now helps mediate discussions between unhoused people and the police. He has been coming regularly to volunteer at George Floyd Square since last fall. He plans to watch one of the entry gates on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder.

I learned about George Floyd’s murder probably the day after it happened. I was probably just getting up. I usually watch the news when I wake up.

I felt anger and sadness, and then came that concern, like, “This, again.” When they keep doing this with, obviously, not much for recourse or correction. 

They’re been doing the same thing to indigenous people back in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana. Where they just disappeared, the women. We all know what that’s tied to.

I’m from Eagle Butte, South Dakota. I am a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. I don’t like that word Sioux, but that’s our designation. Lakota, that’s a more direct description. 

I’ve been in Minneapolis half my life. I’m 41. I’ve been coming to the George Floyd Square fairly consistently since September. I was doing a lot of outreach, a lot of intersection between the police and the homeless communities, along with helping get certain needs met by the homeless people. In Lakota, we have a saying. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, “We are all related.” 

To think for a second that the homeless situation doesn’t contribute to crime or desperation … I was just recently homeless. 

On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, me and my buddy are going to set up a table that says, “Stolen land, prove us wrong.”

Frank Yellow

At the same time, I came to George Floyd Square to help all kinds of people. We’re just a community. And knowing that, I’m here to help and be helped. It just seemed like a natural progression in what I really want to do, to just help. 

It’s definitely changed my life. Being Lakota, we say Tiyóspaye Oyate, the people, the community among them, those we live with, who we do everything with—sing, dance, pray, all of that—those are the ones.

I just moved over there [he points northwest from the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue]. I come here when I can. This isn’t a job or anything. This is the community I love, that I want to be a part of. I want to see the growth and help with the healing, and be around when I can and where I can. We’re evidence that the healing is happening. 

On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, me and my buddy are going to set up a table that says, “Stolen land, prove us wrong.” We’ll be at one of the entry gates.

Jess Davis at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis on May 24, 2021: “Folks, specifically white folks, recognize this is their work. I had reached my maximum of what I believed they were capable of. And I’m so happy to have been proven wrong. But I had to get away to see that.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

‘Why didn’t you do something?’ After George Floyd’s murder, a student’s question prompted Minnesota Teacher of the Year to become a racial equity coach

Last summer, Jess Davis quit her job teaching high school math in South St. Paul. Now she helps St. Louis Park teachers see how race and racism affect their classrooms.

I was the only Black teacher in the district of South St. Paul for almost a decade. And with that came this responsibility to be the person who was addressing racial equity. I was a classroom teacher, high school mathematics, and I was also the advisor for the math team and the advisor for the Black pride organization.

On the night of George Floyd’s murder, some of those students that were part of my Black pride organization were personal friends with Darnella Frazier. They were just shaken. They were upset because she had observed this murder.

We were having a regular conversation, processing through Zoom. At that point, by May, we were logging on together almost daily, just to check in, how you doing? I was just trying to be empathetic with them. I get it. I remember what it was like to be a student having these conversations and being the Black representative, because I was in middle school when Rodney King was beaten. I remember that pressure as a person of color, being the spokesperson.

[One of my students] was like, whoa whoa whoa. You’ve been through this before? Why didn’t you do something about it.

At first I was like, what was I supposed to do about it? I was 14! Also, with that realization: I’m 40-something now. What am I going to do about it?

That’s where I was a year ago. They really inspired me to just speak my truth from my perspective as a person of color in the district. Realizing that they’re watching me, and the way I’m working and putting up with some microaggressions and not really interrupting the status quo. That was when I made the decision that I don’t think I can do this anymore.

That was when I lost my mind. Just typed up this email that I sent to the superintendent, the principal, athletic director, the equity director, the curriculum director, a laundry list of stream of consciousness: Here’s all the microaggressive BS that I have had to put up with for the last 11 years. And now I have to comfort white tears? I can’t do that.

Jess Davis

By the third day, by that Wednesday, when South St. Paul hadn’t acknowledged the murder of George Floyd or even reflected on it, and when the white students were coming to me for support because of conversations they were having with Black pride organization students, I was just so overwhelmed. I’ve been supporting our Black and brown students over this trauma that they keep witnessing over and over. But now I also have to support the white students and their fragility?

That was when I lost my mind. Just typed up this email that I sent to the superintendent, the principal, athletic director, the equity director, the curriculum director, a laundry list of stream of consciousness: Here’s all the microaggressive BS that I have had to put up with for the last 11 years. And now I have to comfort white tears? I can’t do that. 

A week later, I was diagnosed with cancer. Oh! This is a wakeup call on all sorts of levels. It feels like 400 years ago, and like it was yesterday.

It wasn’t like I quit because I was mad at South St. Paul, and had to teach them a lesson. It was like, what’s the next place where my talents can be best utilized? Also came with this reflection, especially after being diagnosed with cancer: what can I learn from all this? What’s the purpose of all this? 

I’m really grateful for the way everything worked out, that I landed in a district that is unapologetic about their racial equity transformation. This has also been a year for me to learn about how to have courageous conversation, what it looks like to be in an interracial group, and have team members of various different ethnicities and backgrounds. That’s what I want to be normalized for kids.

Truthfully, one of the biggest draws was its leadership. Astein Osei is a Black male superintendent who is absolutely unapologetic about leading this district through a racial equity transformation and is asking all of its—not only teachers—but all of their staff to have courageous conversations about race with students and with each other and with the community.

What would it take for you to believe this is the real life experience of people of color in this country, and what are you going to do to interrupt that? Those are conversations happening in St. Louis Park I haven’t seen happening in other districts.

There’s been a lot of personal reckoning: Dealing with my righteous rage, knowing the body keeps score, wondering what part of my experience led up to the fact that I ended up with cancer. I’m actually grateful for it. I had the most basic breast cancer. I’m not going to die from it, right now anyway. It was a way for my body to be like, you’re working too much, but we’re going to hang on to this for you. We’re going to hold it right here in this part of your body that is not vital to your life until you can take care of it.

When I reframed it as cancer is what’s going to save my life, and slow me down to really analyze—what are you doing? What conversations are you engaging in? Distinguishing the foolishness from the actual work—last summer, last fall, it was all very humbling. That’s why it feels like it was also 500 years ago. I just feel like a totally different person now.

I’m a peer observer. I have a caseload of about 40 teachers that I work with, and I observe them in their classroom or in their curriculum development, or in their engagement with kids. We have instructional conversations about what I notice, what they experience, what feedback they’re getting from students. The reason St. Louis Park is different in these peer observations between teachers, is St. Louis Park uses this model to center race. In South St. Paul, I just had a peer coach. But in St. Louis Park, it’s a racial equity peer instructional coach.

So my feedback in conversations with teachers in St. Louis Park, my conversations usually are, uh-huh, and what did race have to do with that? Sometimes it’s, I noticed you called on the non-students of color 14 times, you called on one Black student, one Latinx student. Did you notice that? Getting folks to understand how they’re operating. So I have lots of conversations every single day with teachers and then sometimes I get to be inside classrooms with kids too, which I enjoy.

It was one of my worries of leaving the classroom, but I have found ways to still connect with kids. You’re getting to know all these kids behind a computer screen in a rectangle. The other day I was on campus, I was walking through the hall during passing time, and just to hear somebody go, is that Ms. Davis?! I’ve never taught in this school before. That has been the highlight of my whole year. They’re doing courageous, amazing work. And they’re more ready to have conversations and to make changes and to call out injustices than the adults are.

At the end of the day we’re creating experiences and outcomes so that these kids can have it better than us. We don’t need to get all worked up about the adult feelings right now. When we reframe it on that, all is good in the world as far as my purpose goes.

Something I often have conversations with my supervisor about, when I’m at my low: I made a mistake, I should be in the classroom! She reminds me that my impact is now exponential because of my 40 teachers, they each have their own five classes. So I’m potentially impacting hundreds of students at one time. Just because I’m not in the classroom right now, and I’m learning this new job and how to have these conversations with teachers to impact student outcomes, it doesn’t mean I won’t be going back into the classroom.

But now I’ve gotten to see a different way of how the system operates, and then maybe I’ll try something else. This is what makes up this healthy community of educators, when you have multiple perspectives and experiences.

I don’t know if I knew what it was that I was looking for. But this is absolutely where I’m supposed to be. 

After I left [South St. Paul], a bunch of teachers decided to take charge and order copies of the workbook Me and White Supremacy. And they worked through it. That was their work this year as a collective team as a high school. It blew my mind, oh, now you’re ready to do this work? And also, so proud. If I had stayed there, would that have happened? Or did they need that jolt to be like, oh snap! Now who’s going to lead the Black pride organization? Those kids were our leaders, and we were leaning on you to help us do this.

Folks, specifically white folks, recognize this is their work. I had reached my maximum of what I believed they were capable of. And I’m so happy to have been proven wrong. But I had to get away to see that, and maybe to propel them into that work.

I definitely feel decidedly middle-aged. I also feel empowered to make some real change. Versus my middle schooler self: what was I supposed to do? But now as an adult, I can actually ask that question. And I’m expecting an answer, and a response.

Correction: This story has been changed to include the correct spelling of Frank Yellow.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...