#HereToo: stories of youth activism

S1 Ep. 09 Tierra Williams interviewed by Mary Rose Valentine

November 12, 2020 #HereToo Penn State Season 1 Episode 9
#HereToo: stories of youth activism
S1 Ep. 09 Tierra Williams interviewed by Mary Rose Valentine
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Tierra Williams, activist in the 3/20 Coalition and actor in The Osaze Project from Penn State Centre Stage Virtual shares her thoughts experiences with Mary Rose Valentine in the ninth episode of the #HereToo Podcast. She touches on white supremacy in the United States (“And it says to me that […] white supremacy is real, […] that systematic racism is real. And it shows just how unfair it is for African Americans to maneuver through everyday life,”), the drive and demands of activism (“There is no break. There is no rest. […] Until racism rests, until white supremacy rests, there is no break,”), and the importance of talking about social issues and change (“If we don't have this type of conversation, if we don't have this dialogue, then we can't get anywhere,”).

Penn State Center Stage Virtual’s The Osaze Project premieres Friday, November 13, with a pre-show discussion at 7:30 p.m., and presentation at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. The event is free and can be viewed at sites.psu.edu/pscsvirtual beginning on the first date of performance. The Osaze Project is directed and devised by Charles Dumas.

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Mary Rose Valentine  0:00  
Thank you for tuning into the #HereToo Podcast. I'm Mary Rose Valentine, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I'm a sophomore in the Theatre Studies program at Penn State. I've been working on the #HereToo Project theatrically since November of 2019, and I have now joined the team to create this podcast. #HereToo hopes to amplify young activists' voices through performance. In light of COVID-19, we created this podcast so we can continue sharing young activists' stories while continuing to socially distance. On this episode, our guest is Tierra Williams, and this interview was recorded over Zoom. Tierra, thank you so much for joining us.

Activists Voices  0:34  
"This was—it wasn't a shock that somebody got called the N word." . . ."The fact that I get to make a choice to see something from a racial viewpoint is inherent to the structures of white supremacy." . . . "Could I be targeted for something I'm saying right now? And would there be anybody to back me up?" . . . "It felt so good to be in a group that was just as angry as I was." . . . "With the current social climate of Penn State, it is super important that we find a way to move from this." . . . "It's about systems, it's about the 1%, it's about corporate greed." ". . . I'm not going to make it if I'm not actively fighting against the system."

Mary Rose Valentine  1:10  
Let's start with some introductions, questions that are simple to ask and hard to answer. Who are you? What do you do? And what do you want?

Tierra Williams  1:23  
So, um, who am I? I am a... You said, "Who am I, What do I want?" And...

Mary Rose Valentine  1:32  
What do you do?

Tierra Williams  1:37  
Um, I am a Black woman. I'm a mother. I'm a political activist. I call myself a "Blacktivist." I am a public speaker, I'm a poet. And ultimately, what I want is true justice, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for my people.

Mary Rose Valentine  2:08  
Do you remember March 20, 2019?

Tierra Williams  2:13  
Um, I actually do remember that. I wasn't as deeply involved in activism here in State College, when that happened. Um, that was my... barely my second year here. Um, I was just getting in town and things like that. When I heard about the situation, to be frank, I was absolutely shocked. Because the perception that I had on, quote unquote, "Happy Valley" was that things like this did not happen here. I'd had certain encounters with people in the community, I had experienced racism and implicit bias, but nothing to lead me to believe that cops were shooting and gunning down Black men in State College. And so, you know, when I heard about it, I was shocked. I went to one of the initial protests, but um, it actually wasn't until this year that I truly got involved with a lot of the organizations around here. But for me, I was—I was really just shocked, I really just couldn't believe that this town with this perception had this situation going on.

Mary Rose Valentine  3:39  
What did inspire you to get more involved?

Tierra Williams  3:42  
Oh, it definitely inspired me. Um, but at the same time, I think I was stuck in a place that a lot of African Americans are stuck in, having certain positions and working at certain places, didn't necessarily allow you to speak out the way you wanted to in fear of losing your job or having difficult times at your place of employment. So um, I think ultimately this year, is when I truly became active in State College with the organizations. I've always been active, especially when I was in Mississippi, but 2020 is the year that I truly became active here in State College.

Mary Rose Valentine  4:28  
So, are you afraid of an employer's reaction to your work? And what do you think that says about your employer and the society that allows them to believe that?

Tierra Williams  4:41  
Um, currently no, but at the time? Yes. And what that makes me think is basically that money runs the world. And when you have to make your money, you have to make ends meet and you have to decide whether or not I should start speak out against this injustice, or I should be quiet, so I don't get fired, so I can put food on the table. It's a hard call. Because the reason that I'm getting fired as a Black person, and I'm sure a lot of Black people can attest to this, is usually not the reason they write down. It's usually something else. And it's hard to prove racism in a place of work, it's very hard to actually prove that. So I feel—I feel for a lot of these people, especially those who work at Penn State University, it seems like they get more of the backlash than any other... any other employment agencies around here. Seems like if you work at the top, you just need to keep your head down and be quiet. And it says to me that, uh, white supremacy is real. It says to me that systematic racism is real. And it shows just how unfair it is for African Americans to maneuver through everyday life.

Mary Rose Valentine  6:12  
Yeah. You mentioned time in Mississippi. What differences and what similarities Have you seen between Mississippi and State College?

Tierra Williams  6:25  
As far as it pertains to activism?

Mary Rose Valentine  6:28  
Yeah. And the culture of activism and being a Black person just existing in the different places?

Tierra Williams  6:38  
Well, I will say that, at least in Mississippi, you knew who the racists were, um, it was a very out-front outright thing. Here, you don't necessarily know who your enemy is, there's a lot of implicit bias—of implicit bias, there's a lot of microaggression, there's a lot of racial nuances that play out. So, in Mississippi, it's just right there, in your face. And here, you—you never know who's your friend or who's your foe. Um, as far as activism, there are more Black people in Mississippi, in the area that I'm in, versus the area... the area I was in versus the area I'm in now, um, I will say that more Black people are not afraid to speak up as much in Mississippi. And I will say that more white people speak up here, in Pennsylvania. So, um, there's pluses and minuses, but, all in all things balance out in its own way.

Mary Rose Valentine  7:48  
How has the pandemic affected your activism?

Tierra Williams  7:54  
Personally, it really hasn't affected my activism. Um, I actually truly became active with organizations in State College shortly after the murder of George Floyd, which was right at the beginning of the pandemic. And we've been protesting since, so it actually hasn't changed, for me, and for a lot of people that have been out there with me, it hasn't changed anything.

Mary Rose Valentine  8:31  
From George Floyd to Walter Wallace, Jr., how have things changed over the past few months? Have situations become different? Has the local government actually listened to your demands?

Tierra Williams  8:48  
In some ways, yes, and in most ways, no. In some ways, they have listened to our demands. The problem with... the problem with the State College Police Department is if they acknowledge some of the things that we have put forth, then they would be acknowledging fault. And they can't acknowledge fault, because in their minds, in their head, and according to their internal report, there was no fault. There was no murder. So if they acknowledge some of the things that we asked for, then it would, it would kind of turn... turn over everything that they've worked so hard to keep together. So in some ways they have listened to us. Um, but we're, we're, we're not as far as we need to be. And I think State College is realizing they're not stopping. And I think Walter Wallace Jr. was another instance that probably is going to propel the 3/20 Coalition to act more, because the situation and the dynamics are so similar to the Osaze incident. The difference is they actually had theirs on tape. But it's, it's almost a tit for tat. And it shows you how police officers are not equipped to handle the mentally ill, to handle mental health warrants, to assist in medical, um, medical situations unless they've been trained as such. They just, they shouldn't be there. Um, so I just think it's, it's... it's sad that we have to have these situations over and over again, these deaths and these protests over and over again. And a lot of these protests that we've had, over the past couple months, have centered around other people. But I've always come right back around to Osaze, because that is the injustice of this community. But we won't stop, the fight is not over, it is a ongoing situation, is a ongoing struggle. But if we give up, it's like saying, "We agree with you. We agree with the rulings and we agree that Osaze was not murdered," and we just can't do that.

Mary Rose Valentine  11:31  
So, it's a nonstop fight. But that is difficult to upkeep when you have jobs, you have kids, a lot of people have classes... How has the community shown support for each other when you do need to take a seat for a little bit, get your energy back, before you can stand up again?

Tierra Williams  11:59  
You know, actually, there—there is a there is nothing like that.

Mary Rose Valentine  12:03  

Tierra Williams  12:06  
There is no breaks and there is no getting myself back together. I mean, I mean, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, all of these things have happened in the midst of after George Floyd. There there is no rest, there is no break. Um, and honestly, it'd be insulting to take one here in State College when you have towns where George Floyd was murdered, towns where Breonna Taylor was murdered, where they went consistently, for weeks on end, protesting every single day, not weekends like we do here in State College, but every single day. Um, yes, I have a job. Yes, I have a child. But me being in the streets has everything to do with my son and the future of Black children, and the future of children in general, not just Black children, because the parents of those children who are marching with me will hopefully have a different outlook than the counterparts whose parents aren't. Um, but there—there is no—there is no break. There is no rest. One of the most famous quotes is made by a Black woman over 60 years ago, saying "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." There is no—there is no break. There is no rest. This is—until racism rests, until white supremacy rests. there is no break. There might be a moment of, I mean, there is no break. There is no break, just like I can go out for Halloween and have fun, this past weekend like a lot of people did, I still have to look online and see people in blackface. There is no break. You know? There's no rest with this kind of thing. It is—we're constantly reminded of who we are and where we are at one point in society. I could have a great day, awesome day, and go into Weis market and be followed around, or be severely stared at at the self checkout. There—I mean it's, it's from something as small as that to the—to the ultimate extreme. And so um, no, there—there is no break, and a lot of people who need the break don't get the break. And a lot of people who are taking the break don't deserve it. Right? Yeah, I do need a break. But there are people who, like you just said, who use these "I have school, and I have work, and I have classes..." You must not be Black. Because we have to do—we have to be all of those in all those places. We have to be all of that and all those places. And then a lot of times, a lot of times we are asked a lot of the questions as if we are the African American encyclopedia. So, you know, it's just it's just a lot. So yeah, no, it's not—no break.

Mary Rose Valentine  15:32  
Yeah, I, I assumed and I apologize for that.

Tierra Williams  15:35  
Oh, no.

Mary Rose Valentine  15:37  
Um, I—I'm still learning a lot. Um...

Tierra Williams  15:41  
No, no, no, I'm not offended. But there's a lot of people that um... that—that's not an offensive question. And one thing that I did start with the 3/20 Coalition is, I started a... a Black mental health space for these reasons. Because we do need a second to decompress. Because I can't scroll on Facebook, and laugh, laugh, laugh without seeing a Karen incident, or seeing somebody harassed by the police. Every single day, there's a new video. And the sad thing is that the video is not necessarily new, is the crazy part. It's just finally getting into circulation. And it was just, you know, which is usually the sad part about it. So like, yeah, no, it's not offensive, we need time and space. But there's, there's no true break. And this is just, it's unfortunate, but it's just the truth.

Mary Rose Valentine  16:41  
Can you tell me more about the Black mental health space that you created?

Yeah, so we, um, within the 3/20 Coalition, we wanted to give a chance for Black people to sit and speak about these issues and talk freely without sugarcoating their words in front of white people. And it doesn't mean that we're sitting around, you know, bashing white people, like, "Oh, I hate them" type thing. It's just some things that we talk about. We want to be able to talk about it without having to explain it. And sometimes when we're in spaces, some of our allies don't necessarily understand. My, when I tell my story, and—and how I experienced racism today, sometimes my, my white allies don't understand. And then I have to go into depth explaining it, which is, which is actually quite, quite tedious. So sometimes, we just need those spaces where we can just speak freely. Um, everything from just just having regular, normal conversations. Um, it is true that in the Black community, we use the N word. But we don't use it the way the white community uses it. Sometimes it's uncomfortable to speak in an area and use the word amongst white people. I know that sounds weird, right? And sometimes it's just easier to all be in the same place, and just not have to worry about it. And it's a very, it's a very, it's a very tight, it's that kind of different dynamics. Um, using slang and not having to thoroughly explain something and just being able to say it, reference it and, and move on and everyone understands. And just being able to get together and talk about things that have nothing to do with the movement or the struggle, just being able to be amongst Black people and have a regular conversation. Because the truth is, the next time we meet, we'll be marching. The next time we meet, we'll be protesting. The next time we meet, we'll be angry. So if we can just meet and talk about normal things, which really have nothing to do with, with necessarily white people, it's just for our for our sake, just to have these conversations amongst ourselves... without the stress, without the worry of other things. And I think State College needs that more than anything because the African American community here is so selective. It's—it's very, very small. And it's, it could be bigger. But the truth is, it's hard sometimes to get African, um, Africans and African Americans together. And then it's hard to get African Americans and those who consider themselves biracial together. So sometimes it's hard to actually bring all of us together at once. Because no matter if you are African American, first, second, third generation African or biracial, the fact of the matter is when you get pulled over, most cops see a Black person. And that's the issue we all need to handle. Right? That's, that's the problem that we all have to overcome.

Uh, tell me about the younger people leading the movement, the ones where this might be one of their first really big pushes, since they've become adults.

Tierra Williams  20:31  
I think that anybody who is out there, especially those who are out there at the ages of I'll say 16, and up, um... you know, looking back at myself at 16, I don't know... I don't know, if—if I would have been as—as, as brave in certain instances, or I don't know, if I would have just went overboard, I'm not really sure how I would have acted as a teenager. But, um, looking at these young people, I say that it's—number one, it's a good thing to be on the right side of history. That's, that's the first thing. Because we have a lot of political leaders, and we go back and we go back into their teen years, these years right here where they were in college, and we see some of the things that they've done. And a lot of people want to erase it away. "Oh, they were in college. They were young, they were in there. We can excuse—" can you hear me?

Mary Rose Valentine  21:47  

Tierra Williams  21:47  
"We excuse the racism, we can excuse the—the bigotry." And 40 years later, we don't have to worry about it. But the truth is, just like you were doing these things that were negative 40 years ago, there were people, like the people on the streets right now, who're on the right side of history, who 40 years from now are not going to have to explain why they had a "Blue Lives Matter" shirt on. You understand, 40 years from now, they're not going to have to explain why they were screaming "white lives matter."

Mary Rose Valentine  22:25  

Tierra Williams  22:25  
They're not gonna, you know, they're not gonna have to explain that away. But some of these people, especially these young college students, some of these people are going to have to explain that to their children and their children's children and their counterparts, especially those—these—these children in law, these children who might end up as our future congressmen, our future senators, our future local representatives... our future president. They're going to, they're going to go back to 2020. This is a very, very monumental year. I mean, everything gets written in the history books every year. But let's think about some years that stand out to us in history, or some situations that stand out to us in history; this will be one of them. And... I hope you're on, you know, to all those people who are out there, I hope you're on the right side of history. Because—because it's gonna, it's gonna look bad. It's gonna look real bad. 20, 30 years from now, trying to explain you hanging the American flag, but you alter the colors and made it black and white with a blue stripe. You're gonna have to explain that because that's gonna be kind of weird. You know? You're going to have to explain why somebody calls you a Karen, why there's a video of you out there. You have to explain that 20 years from now. I mean, and bravo to those who are young enough to stand... some of these students have lost friends from being at these protests. They have lost their friends and they have been kicked out of their social circles, simply because they agree Black Lives Matter but their friend's cop is—their friend's dad is a cop, so... "you believe Black Lives Matter. I can't." And—and they separate, and I feel bad for them. But, I applaud them and I thank all of those who are—who are on the right side of this right now. I really do.

Mary Rose Valentine  24:58  
What role do you think the internet plays in immortalizing, those things? Like, uh... well, when—when somebody pulls up a racist tweet somebody made years ago... everything's documented now online. What do you think that adds or takes away from the activism?

Tierra Williams  25:25  

Mary Rose Valentine  25:26  
And that future reputation that you were talking about too?

Tierra Williams  25:30  
You know, honestly, I don't think it takes anything away. I do think sometimes with the internet, we have a lot of "Twitter activists." I don't care for that. It's good, because social media has a platform, but if you're actually not going to put your words or your posts to action, then you're still somewhat part of the problem. Right? But it's a great thing, because, in, in, in two seconds, the world can see this racist business owner. And a lot of these businesses—a lot of people's businesses have plummeted now, a lot of people have lost their jobs, their manage—managerial positions, at that. It's like, surprising what kind of cap—capacity some of these people worked in, after you watch the video and they get blasted. It's like, wow, that you were the manager, that you were the CEO, you were the, you know, it's just it's shocking. But I think it's a good thing. It's a bad thing sometimes, because now you see me, you see me, being a political activist, you see me on the news. And, you know, on the internet, everybody leaves a digital fingerprint. So it's easy to find people, it's easier to harass people, it's easier to do things like that. But I think ultimately, the archives are serious. And once you put something out there, they can't, they can't erase it anymore. Right? They can try their best, but once it gets sent out there, it's, it's out there now. And it's really hard for somebody to try and go back and fix it and grab all the feeds. Versus back in the day, they could stop this newspaper here, stop this newspaper there and boom, the story is truly squashed. And unless you were in that situation, you didn't hear about it.

Mary Rose Valentine  27:39  
So, this podcast episode will be released after the results of the election are announced, but it's being recorded during the day on election day. What does this election mean to you?

Tierra Williams  27:52  
Um, yeah, so I have an unpopular opinion. Um, honestly, it does not mean as much to me as, as it probably means to everyone else. Um, going back to George Bush and going back to the Clinton administration, neither the Democrat nor Republican Party have done truly anything to help my people. If we just want to be honest. We are in—in the exact same position that we were 10, 15 years ago. I believe that Donald Trump is a racist. And I believe that Joe Biden is a racist. So, I do not... because we talk about Donald Trump and everybody is in agreeance, that Donald Trump is a racist. I don't think I necessarily have to explain that or put that out there. But um, things that Joe Biden, Joe Biden said about school integration, the fact that it—he basically was forced to apologize to Anita Hill 40 years later, um, those kinds of things disturb me. Kamala Harris's incarceration rate. Those kinds of things worry me. So for me, it means that either way, I probably will be in the same situation, if not somewhat worse off as an African American woman in this country, four years from now, because I'm voting for the lesser of two evils doesn't make that person less evil. I don't think people realize that or can comprehend that. Um, so, for me, I think that if anything, I'm more worried about people getting hurt in the midst of riots because of this, but as far as a, on a—on a political stance, either one of the candidates winning is not a win for Black America. It's not a win for uh, Hispanics in America either, if you ask me. It's not a win for either, for either group of people, um, we might think it's a win because everybody's like, anything but Trump. But at least with Trump, we know what to expect. I know exactly what to expect for the next four years. And that's, uh, if I can be frank, that's bullshit. As I know that, I know, that's what I should be expecting in the next four years from Trump, because that's pretty much what he's done. But the question is, what are we... what do we truly expect from Biden? What is he really about to do for us or give us? Kamala Harris? What are they really about to do for us? How is, the situations that happened this year—what is going to be different about the George Floyds and the Breonna Taylors and Ahmaud Arberys when Biden's president? So I want to know what—what would be different? So um, for me, either result will not make me happy, sad or indifferent, because I do feel like we would be in the same place politically, unfortunately. And, full disclosure, I voted for Jo Jorgenson, because I cannot bring myself to vote for either racist, um, I just can't. Um, and I do believe that not only did my ancestors die for the right for me to vote, but for, for me to vote for who I please. So yeah, so that's what I, that's where I am, I know, I'm gonna get attacked about that. I have a lot of people who are angry with me for voting that way. But um, I can't, I can't, I can't. I can't vote against my conscience. For the betterment of what? There's no, you know, I don't see the... I don't see this light at the end of the tunnel that people are speaking of. And, and when I'm frank about it, I don't—it's not to discourage anyone, it's not to say that... maybe Biden does do something different. Maybe I just don't see. I just don't see.

Mary Rose Valentine  32:13  
So, our half hour's just about up. Thank you so much. Is there anything else you want to say to people who may be listening to the podcast?

Tierra Williams  32:21  
Yeah, I just want to say thank you, and thank you to you. I truly want you to understand that none of your questions offended me. If we don't have this type of conversation, if we don't have this dialogue, then we can't get anywhere. We can't know what is offensive and what is not. And so, giving people an opportunity to ask those uncomfortable and weird questions, that you have to ask them, because we won't get answers and we won't be able to progress further. So I appreciate your questions, and I appreciate you having me on. And I hope that anybody has any questions they can always go to Facebook or Instagram and follow the 3/20 Coalition, and see what we're doing here in State College.

Mary Rose Valentine  33:03  
Penn State Center Stage Virtual's "The Osaze Project" premieres Friday, November 13, with a preshow discussion at 7:30pm and presentation at 8:00pm EST. The event is free and can be viewed at sites.psu.edu/pscsvirtual. "The Osaze Project" is directed and devised by Charles Dumas.

Jaydin Hill  33:28  
Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the YouTube podcast. Original music was composed by Catherine Bennis and our sound engineers David Reingold and Jaydin Hill. The #HereToo podcast interns are Alex Wind, Andrew Fei, Catherine Bennis, David Reingold, Freddie Miller, Helen Zheng, Mary Rose Valentine, Abby VandenBrul, and me, Jaydin Hill. The #HereToo Project is generously supported by the Student Engagement Network at the Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design at the Pennsylvania State University. #HereToo Penn State sponsors are the School of Theatre BA in Theatre Studies, the BFA in Acting, and the Arts and Design Research Incubator. The #HereToo Podcast interns would also like to thank Barb, Jeanmarie, and Steve for their support. You can learn more about us on our website HereTooProject.com, and follow us on Twitter at @HereTooProject.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Osaze Osagie: March 20, 2019
Mississippi / State College
"there are no breaks. . . "
3/20 and mental health activism
the right side of history
the election