Seventeen-year-old Zyahna Bryant is always pleasantly surprised when strangers let her know they follow her podcast, website or social media pages.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, really? You do? I didn’t think anyone read that,’” the Charlottesville, Virginia, native tells admirers.
In those online spaces, she’s expanding the work she’s been doing throughout her young life—improving the lives of black people. Zyahna takes action to enact the changes she wants to see: She’s been a member of the Charlottesville Youth Council, she founded the Black Student Union at her high school, and she was recently appointed as a student school board representative for Charlottesville City Schools. She’s also racked up several prestigious awards, including the 2018 Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement.
Zyahna organized her first protest, a response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, when she was only 12. At 15, she petitioned the City of Charlottesville to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from what is now Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park)—a move that famously aggravated virulent white supremacists.
From School Assignment to Civic Action
Zyahna’s push to have the statue removed from her city began as a high school assignment in which she was tasked with describing something she could change. She later reformatted it into a change.org petition to rally support around the issue. It garnered hundreds of signatures.
“I wasn’t too sure of what to expect after I wrote the petition,” she says. “I definitely was concerned and wanted [the statue] to go, but I think throughout the process of starting that effort and getting out in the community and having conversations, I’ve learned a lot more than I would have if they would have just been instantly removed.”
Responding in part to the petition, the Charlottesville City Council established the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. Their report led the council to vote to remove the Lee statue. It also incensed the Ku Klux Klan, which protested the decision on July 8, 2017.
The following month, armed white supremacists marched into town for a “Unite the Right” rally. They claimed they were there to protect the statue, but it wasn’t long before their rally turned violent. Ultimately, three people were killed: Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer died after a white supremacist drove his car into an assembled crowd of counter-protesters, and two Virginia state police officers were killed when the helicopter they’d been using to monitor the rally crashed.
Locally, the dates of the rally have become known simply as “A11/A12.”
Zyahna says she wasn’t surprised when violence broke out. She remembers how, weeks before, local activists (including some of her friends) handed to city council members a thick packet of information about the people who were planning violence.“Screenshots, we had email receipts, we had all the receipts in a package, and we handed it to the city council,” she says. “They basically ignored it. I’m just not quite sure why everyone was so surprised. We knew it was going to happen. They were very vocal about it in all of the social media, the violence that was promised.”
Black people feel like this place isn’t for them, and that’s very evident in our public spaces.
While Confederate monuments had been coming down gradually around the country, after the events in Charlottesville, cities and towns began removing statues and memorials from public spaces as a much more rapid pace. But the statue of Robert E. Lee at the center of the Charlottesville rally is still standing. Immediately following the rally, the statue—along with a statue of Stonewall Jackson—was shrouded in black and obscured from view. But since then, lawsuits have been filed and new leaders have taken the helm, creating a shift in priorities. In February, a judge ordered the shrouds removed.
While support for removing Confederate statues is still broad, the process has slowed significantly. “The debate seems very stagnant in a sense that there’s not a lot of progress because the city is trying to rebrand and rebuild the image of Charlottesville,” Zyahna says. “We’re getting a new city manager and it’s just like there are so many things going on, the statues seem to be taking a back seat at the moment.”
Public spaces in Charlottesville have a history of exclusion, she notes. The statues of Lee and Jackson were first erected in the 1920s and positioned near black communities as a way to memorialize the Lost Cause while sending a strong message that black residents weren’t entitled to public spaces.
Today, there still aren’t many spaces that pay tribute to the contributions of black residents in Charlottesville. Zyahna feels this uneven telling of history isn’t welcoming to black residents—a lack of consideration reflected in the city’s black exodus over the years. The black population in Charlottesville has been declining since Emancipation, when black people made up more than half of the population. About 19 percent of Charlottesville’s current residents are black, down from 22 percent in 2000.
“That just goes to show that black people feel like this place isn’t for them, and that’s very evident in our public spaces, where we’re still honoring the Lost Cause narrative or honoring Confederate heroes,” Zyahna says.
Truth and Equity
In her current activist work, Zyahna is inspired by the ways her family and fellow church members engage with their community. “Being black in America is my life, and I don’t really have a choice to be passive about the issues that are prevalent in the black community, or just with black people in the United States,” she explains.
Her activism, she says, is much more than social media hashtags, Facebook filters or combating hateful rhetoric online. She’s focused on tangible ways to tackle the effects of structural and institutional racism. That means centering black voices and other marginalized identities and supporting organizations that have been doing the work long before white supremacists and Nazis marched into her town.
“There are a lot of very deep problems that aren’t evident on the surface when looking at Charlottesville, and that has been my goal—to continue to uncover and unmask those illusions,” Zyahna says.
Her heart is set on bringing awareness to the educational inequities that lead to such stark differences in black and white students’ academic achievement—and then finding solutions to close it. As a former private school student who has taken AP and honors courses, Zyahna became interested in this issue when she realized that many students who looked like her didn’t have access to the same educational opportunities. While her curiosity, artistic abilities and leadership skills were nurtured in her early education, she was almost always one of a few black students in those spaces.
In another example of her ongoing work, she’s teamed up with a friend to build the framework for the Blackness Lecture Series, which features black community leaders as guest speakers.
“I’m hoping to continue in it, and I’m hoping to build infrastructure for it so that it can continue when I go to college,” she says. “But I’m hoping this year to have a similar theme and to get organizers and activists and people who are experts even on these histories and the Lost Cause to come in and share more of this information with students during Black History Month.”
Despite the slow progress—and the anonymous threats that accompanied the media attention last year—Zyahna says her stance on the Confederate symbols in her town hasn’t changed. “My opinion still stands that they should go, but I think that it's given our community the opportunity to have some real conversations and to reassess.”
And she won’t stop working to make sure everyone has a voice in those discussions. “If we don’t have people who are standing their ground and continuing to seek truth in this fight for justice, then people like me who are young, black, female will continue to be marginalized in their own efforts,” she says. “So, I think it’s important that we continue to hold space and claim time and positions that are rightfully ours.”
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.