Finding their voice

Finding their voice

From left, Johnadalys Montas, Alimatou Saine, Anta Sall, Mariam Kaba, Zainabou Thiam and Destiny Renee are some of the organizers behind Silence is Violence, a local youth movement that grew out of Black Lives Matter protests in Woonsocket in June. Also involved is Binta Ndiaye (not pictured). (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
City youth movement demands change after protests

WOONSOCKET – On June 12, close to 175 people marched from Market Square to the Woonsocket Police Station, demanding justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The peaceful protest was organized by Zainabou Thiam, Daishanay Francis and Jaliyah Joseph, three Woonsocket students who said they felt youth needed to have a voice in the current demonstrations. Borrowing a term common across the Black Lives Matter movement, they named their group “Silence is Violence,” a rallying call to speak up in the face of inequality.

After about an hour of speeches, the crowd went home, returning to their daily lives. For many, the zeal of the June protests faded during the summer as thoughts returned to the COVID-19 crisis and the reopening of schools.

But not for the young people of Woonsocket.

Since that first protest, Silence is Violence has gone on to host several other outdoor events, including a Black Lives Matter art show, a social experiment in River Island Park and a “Day of Play” at World War II Veterans Memorial Park. This past weekend, the group held a second art show and Day of Play, featuring a basketball tournament and dunk contest, as part of a weekend-long effort to bring out the city’s youth.

“We want everybody to be able to come together,” said Thiam.

Thiam, who will begin her freshman year in the pathways program at Cumberland High School this fall, said they didn’t initially plan to hold any events beyond the march and art show in June. At the time, the focus was on protesting racial inequality and demanding change in policing following the death of George Floyd and others. But the events, she said, received such a strong response, especially among young people in the city, they decided they had to do more.

“We did the art show and people were like, what’s next? You have to keep it going. And I was like, we do have to keep it going,” she said.

What started as a protest has now become a movement for change among local youth. Focused on expanding opportunities for Black youth, the group is entirely youth-run, led predominantly by Black, high school-aged women. Promoting their events on social media, the women said they hope to showcase the talents of young people in the city and provide opportunities for teenagers to gather together.

According to Destiny Renee, one of the organizers of the events, the group also serves a simpler purpose. A typical weekend for young people, she said, often involves walking around the city with friends, an activity that can lead to getting in trouble or finding themselves targets of racial profiling.

“There’s nothing else to do,” she said. “You’re either doing that or you’re at a park.”

With the group planning regular events, young people now have an excuse to gather in an organized setting where volunteers hand out masks and leaders are passionate about racial justice.

“Everyone’s happy that we’re doing this and a lot of people are like wow, someone’s fighting for us,” said Thiam.

“As a community, I feel like we’ve gotten closer, especially the youth,” said Johnadalys Montas, another organizing member.

The message seems to be finding its mark. Their August event drew close to 250 people, while this past weekend also saw a strong turnout at World War II Veterans Memorial park. Along with Woonsocket, Thiam said they’ve had young people attend from Providence and Pawtucket and have seen similar events cropping up in other cities.

Though their events remain youth-run, the group found mentorship in the WATCH Coalition, a Woonsocket-based organization that has also been involved with Black Lives Matter protests. Nwando Ofokansi, an organizer with the WATCH Coalition and member of the city’s Racist Policies Review Advisory Board, said the young people are responsible for a positive rebranding in the way many others view the city.

“They’re in it for the long haul,” she said.

Silence is Violence eventually plans to merge with the WATCH Coalition to form a youth branch of the grassroots organization.

In the meantime, leaders said they hope to expand their mission to work on college access and plan trips to Six Flags and other locations for city youth. Mariam Kaba, another organizing member, said they want to see change in the city and young people accomplishing things for themselves.

“The youth, we’re not going to be silent any more,” she said.

Players warm up for the basketball tournament and dunk contest as part of the Woonsocket Day of Play last Saturday afternoon. The program was hosted by Silence is Violence. (Breeze photo by Robert Emerson)