It was one of the most triumphant days of my life.
Thursday, June 15th was a day when I took the most painful moment in my life and used it to produce one of the most joyous days of my life. This was the day I had the honor to present the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award to four incredible young changemakers in the Seattle Public Schools. The Student Activist Award fund offers a cash scholarship and community support to deserving Seattle public school students who demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles for social justice and against institutional racism. Our winners this year were Jelani Howard, Baily Adams, Precious Manning-Isabell, and Mahala Provost—young activists who you will undoubtedly hear much more about in the future as they continue to challenge racism and transform every institution they encounter.
Each student received $1,000 from the fund I started after winning a settlement when I was assaulted by a Seattle police officer. I won this settlement by launching a federal lawsuit against the City and the Seattle Police Department after being pepper sprayed without provocation at the 2015 Martin Luther King Day rally in Seattle. While the officer who doused me with pepper spray, officer Sandra DeLaFuente, didn’t even receive a one-day suspension for assaulting me on the sidewalk, I was at least able to win some compensation that I could put to good use. I then partnered with leaders in the Seattle NAACP–education chair Rita Green and youth outreach coordinator Rachael DeCruz–to form a committee for finding and selecting leading student activists.
Joining us for the award ceremony were the Super Bowl champion Bennett brothers, Michael and Martellus–two of the greatest football players in the NFL and two of the greatest activist athletes in the world. Having these two celebrated athletes and powerful spokesmen for justice made the award ceremony deeply meaningful for all in attendance. Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett gave one of the awards in the name of his mother, Pennie Bennett, to Mahala Provost. Bennett said of this newly established award,
The Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters award is given in the name of my mother who, as an administrator and a teacher, has dedicated her life to changing the school system and her community. This award is presented to the most outstanding student changemaker for their work in the community and at school–and for believing that anything is possible and inspiring others to be different.
Provost won this award for her dedication to showing the power of STEM fields (winning seven gold medals statewide in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) and her activism for food justice with the organization FEAST, where she worked to eliminate food deserts and teaches about nutrition in communities of color.
Student award winner Precious Manning-Isabell is the president of the Black Student Union at Chief Sealth International High School and has been a leader on and off the campus. She helped to lead the Black Lives Matter At School day action at her school, as a cheerleader she refused to stand for the national anthem to raise awareness about racism and police violence, and she helped produce an award winning documentary, “Riffing on the Dream,” about race relations at her high school.
Award winner Baily Adams is the president of the Black Student Union at Garfield High School and has helped organize teach-ins, die-ins, know your rights trainings, and was leader in the Black Lives Matter At School event this year. When Donald Trump was elected president, Adams was one of the students who lead a walkout of hundreds of students out of the school, joining thousands of other students from all around the city in one of the biggest walkouts in Seattle’s history.
Jelani Howard is a member of the Garfield High School football team and helped lead the team in discussions about taking a knee during the national anthem, building on the example of Colin Kaepernick, to raise awareness around racism and police violence against people of color. The entire team agreed and their action–all season long–garnered national news headlines and inspired teams all around the city, state, and nation to follow suit.
Seeing the joy in the faces of the student activist award winners and their families that evening made me certain that pain I endured from being assaulted by the police was not in vain. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.” These students represent a new generation of young Black rebels who are expanding our understanding of the purpose education, refuse to accept a system that does respect their humanity, and are becoming truly powerful agents of change.