While the coronavirus pandemic has pressed pause on the lives of many, four young Baltimore-based activists have been full steam ahead, pivoting during the pandemic to continue to fight for racial and gender equity. These activists, all 25 years old or younger, have used their power to organize protests, found community organizations and advocate for changes to public policies, all while challenging traditional conceptions of what young people are capable of.
18, digital divide and immigrant rights activist
First generation Guatemalan American Kimberly Vasquez spent her high school career advocating against systemic injustices within schools alongside Baltimore City College advocacy group SOMOS (Students Organizing A Multicultural and Open Society).
Vasquez joined SOMOS freshman year after attending a meeting.
“There were all these strong Latina women who were voicing their opinions. I wanted to be like them so badly. I wanted other people to see me like I saw them,” said Vasquez. A once shy individual found her voice among a community of first-generation students and immigrants who shared her experiences.
Her senior year, remote learning due to the pandemic prompted Vasquez to take action about the digital divide — a lack of reliable internet access for low-income families and the absence of computers in many households. With SOMOS, Vasquez led Comcast to increase speeds for its low-cost Internet Essentials plan nationwide. In May, she spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris about the importance of digital equity.
“When I got the news about Comcast I couldn’t believe it,” said Vasquez. “Of course I believed in the demands we gave them but I never truly believed they would do anything.”
For Vasquez, creating change was not an easy process. She worked 20 voluntary hours a week while being a full-time student. To other young activists, Vasquez says that passion and dedication are important; however, prioritizing mental health is just as essential.
“Take time to be proud of yourself and celebrate even little wins but also be proud of yourself, not only for what you’ve done but for who you are,” said Vasquez. “Be proud of your existence and your energy because your value is not attached to the wins.”
25, women’s wellness lead at the Black Men’s Xchange and beekeeper
Faced with the challenges of growing up with a young single mother, women’s wellness advocate Diquayla Dukes is surprised that she made it. “In my teen years I just expected to be another statistic.” said Dukes.
The North Carolina native moved to Baltimore in 2018 after graduating with a degree in public health from East Carolina University, where she was introduced to the benefits of holistic health, yoga and meditation.
After two AmeriCorps terms, Dukes encountered the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX), an organization dedicated to social-justice and challenges faced by Black men. At the time, BMX was in search of a women’s wellness expert and Dukes joined the team to lead programs about spiritual and physical health.
Dukes’ programs target the adversities that Black women face through teaching self care.
“Growing up as a Black woman and a dark-skinned Black woman, I didn’t have much self esteem,” said Dukes. “When I learned about how white supremacy, colonialism and how all of that has impacted me, I realized that being Black and being woman is beautiful. I want to help others be aware of that as well.”
Dukes has found it difficult to get women to prioritize their healing but the changes she sees after they finally do motivates her. “It’s so beautiful because when one person has that spark, they can inspire a spark in someone else,” Dukes said.
In addition to expanding BMX programs, Dukes hopes to open a nonprofit that teaches women’s wellness through beekeeping, another hat she wears while working at Baltimore’s only Black woman-owned apiary, The John Newman Bee Company.
To other young activists she says, “The road is hard but if you have something that you’re for, it will propel you forward.”
24, co-leader of the collegiate committee of Black Girls Vote, chief of staff for state Sen. Arthur Ellis
Autumn Grant became enamored with politics in third grade, when her class took a field trip from Baltimore to the state capital in Annapolis.
“It was transformative,” Grant said. “I remember it feeling like such a special place.”
Grant’s life became one defined by political involvement. She was a leader in student government throughout high school, worked on the campaigns of local politicians and volunteered with community organizations.
When Freddie Gray was killed during her freshman year at American University, Grant was determined to unite Black women on her campus.
She founded the American University chapter of Black Girls Vote, a nonprofit based in Baltimore that focuses on empowering Black women to vote and become politically involved.
Now, while juggling her job as chief of staff for state Sen. Arthur Ellis, she coleads the committee in charge of overseeing all four college chapters of Black Girls Vote. Grant acts as an adviser and mentor to young women who are looking to become leaders themselves.
“It’s about really looking into the societal impact that ultimately controls the way women of color interact with the political system, whether it is through understanding needs of child care, or understanding socioeconomic status, or understanding just the way voting in urban environments or communities of color is traditionally looked at,” Grant said.
22, co-founder and executive director of BMORE BLXCK
Legacy Forte was a student at Baltimore City College when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, a moment that sparked a fire within Forte.
Students organized a schoolwide walkout and sit-in in the college’s auditorium to pressure the administration to talk about racism and violence against Black people.
“Every time I speak about it, it gives me chills,” Forte said. “I was able to see the impact and the ability of being able to speak up for yourself and just say, ‘We aren’t going to stand for this, period.’ After that, I hit the ground running.”
Forte went on to work in community organizing at Baltimore City College and became involved in LGBTQ+ activism before they cofounded and became the executive director of BMORE BLXCK, a youth-led organization focused on Black, queer rights and activism.
While BMORE BLXCK is active in talking about social justice issues and hosting community events, she also described the organization as “the big queer sibling you didn’t have but needed.”
“We want to be the change we wanted to see growing up in the community,” Forte said.
Mentoring and providing a space for young people to learn and explore queer identities is a critical part of BMORE BLXCK. Forte said they want to remind young people that they don’t have to have it all figured out.
“Everything is a social construct,” Forte said. “It’s OK if you don’t know. It’s OK if one day you wake up feeling like a girl and the next day you wake up feeling like a boy or you wake up feeling like neither, you just wake up feeling like yourself. We are supposed to continuously evolve as people anyway. Your identity is unique to you.”