Editor’s note: This is the first in Policy Watch’s new series of profiles of the up and coming progressive activists in North Carolina.
The movement to remove Silent Sam, the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus, is decades old. But in the last year it has gained new urgency and momentum, bolstered by young activists who have used social media and old-school coalition building to rally students, staff and faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and the surrounding community.
One of the most prominent voices in the movement in Michelle Brown, a senior at Chapel Hill majoring in Hispanic Literature and Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Brown became aware of the Silent Sam statue during her freshman year, when there were student rallies against it. But over the course of her four years on campus, she said she’s seen the movement to remove the statue become better organized, tighter knit and more effective in planning its demonstrations for maximum impact.
“This year I could really tell it was different – the first day of school, the protest was so large and the community was so supportive and tightly knit,” Brown said. “I went early in the morning and then went again in the afternoon and it was still going and strong.”
Brown, 21, is now finishing up her senior year and looking toward graduate school, where she hopes to study public administration. But she’s also committed to her activism and community building, which extends well beyond the movement around Silent Sam.
This month marks her fourth year helping to organize the annual Catalyst Conference, which brings 100 select high school students to UNC for a weekend-long discussion of social justice issues.
“We spend the weekend talking about social justice issues, all day and all night,” Brown said. “This year our issue is privilege. We talk to them about the issues, they get to know people and how they can become real social justice agents in their communities.”
The event is so popular that it got more than 500 applications this year, Brown said – a good sign for the future of progressive activism in the state.
There was no real tradition of activism in her own family, Brown said. She and her identical twin sister were raised by a number of different family members from her mother’s side of the family in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio. They moved around a lot, but the issue of racial and economic identity was a constant. Read more