Devastation: this was my first emotion. I could not stomach the idea of watching the video of George Floyd’s death in full as friends were texting it to me. As a black woman living in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed, I sat frozen in place knowing that it would physically trigger me. When I finally turned on the TV and saw news clips, I was at a loss for words to express my disgust and deep sadness. But I also knew at that moment that to remain silent was not an option.
Having not left our apartment much over the past few months due to Covid-19 concerns, my roommate and I walked slowly, hand-in-hand, to pick up poster boards at a grocery store down the street. While it was a warm Minnesota night, shivers ran through our bodies. We returned, not saying a word, and looked at our blank canvases unsure as to what we would write on them. The only words that came to mind were the same words used by George Floyd, “I Can’t Breathe.” That is how we felt.
Double layered in face coverings, the next morning my roommate and I joined other friends taking to the streets of Minneapolis to protest. Without a clear idea of what we would be venturing into, we knew it was important to show up. Our first stop was the same grocery store we had gone to get the supplies needed to make our signs. “Flowers, we need flowers to pay our respects,” I thought. For whatever reason, white daisies seemed like the right choice at the time. Later, when I Googled what daisies symbolise, three meanings came up. The first, purity and innocence, is so powerful given the circumstances. The second is motherhood, which is all the more poignant as “Mama” is the word George Floyd uttered during his final moments of consciousness. The third is transformation. And, that was exactly what I set out to accomplish. I’ve always been a person who wants to do my research (even on a type of flower) and learn as much as possible, and this is something I would soon be pleading for all of my social media followers to do.
We drove to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. After a bit of confusion as to where to park and where to go, we found street parking and followed the crowd heading to the intersection where George Floyd was murdered. It was peaceful and people were mourning. There were people holding signs, carrying flowers, handing out water bottles, and even a man grilling burgers that made the street smell as if we were at a friend’s backyard BBQ where we were congregated to pay respects and show support for this unnecessary loss of life. Those driving by—of all races—would see our signs and honk, expressing their solidarity and support. I found myself caught up in the words of Whitney Houston blasting on a speaker, “I Will Always Love You.” It was followed by the song “Unity” by Queen Latifah. The music was empowering and created a positive atmosphere.
A group of community leaders gathered at the front of the crowd. One of them said that this was not a time to go off of emotion, but to prioritise action, and reminded us that this is not an us vs. them, white vs. black situation, but rather that all of us must come together against racism. The next to speak was a female pastor who had been leading the crowd in exclamations of “Hallelujah” and “Amen, Praise Jesus” after powerful words. When she had the stage, she asked that we all form a circle to pray and that’s just what we did. She read verses from the Bible and a group, so diverse yet united, hung on and clung tightly to every word she said. The messaging was that coming together as a community and taking action was what was needed during this painful time. As her prayer concluded, I felt safe and calm and like I had a clear mindset on what the next steps would be.
Running to the car: those were my next steps. A loud, “boom, boom, boom” exploded. Fear and panic set in as the crowd dispersed. Frightened, I clung to my friends, as we tried to recall where the car was parked. “Fireworks” someone yelled, to my relief. And just like that, my first experience as a protester came to an end. Settled safely back at my apartment as darkness fell upon the Minnesota sky, I was overcome by feelings of disbelief. What was to come in the days that followed would move me, motivate me, terrify me, and almost break me.
My mom fled the Somali Civil War, traveling on foot for 12 days to make it across the Kenyan border. I was later born, and lived for my first seven years, in Kakuma Refugee Camp before immigrating to the United States. Here I am today, my proudest accomplishment being the day I became a U.S. citizen, and standing in what appears to be a war-torn country. The Somali Museum of Minnesota holds artefacts that were transported safely to this country during a civil war and yet the museum has been damaged over the past few days by rioters. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. I am struggling on so many levels right now. However, I recognise that we can bring back buildings, but we can’t bring back a life. We can’t bring back George Floyd or any of the other black men and women who have died for no reason at the hands of those who have taken an oath to protect us and uphold the law. America is a land of opportunity, and everyone in America should have the same opportunities. In the United States, there are many freedoms afforded to us and using our First Amendment rights to voice our outrage and the need for change is one of them.
I have used my career to be a voice for change and to combine fashion and activism. Now, more than ever, activism is important. What can you be doing? Educate yourself. Do your research. Power comes from being aware and knowledgeable in order to react based on fact and not just emotion. Be a good listener. Most importantly, show up for your community. Donate money, but if you can’t, donate time. Vote. Bottom line.
I am a proud Minnesotan. You’ve heard me say this time and time again when being asked by reporters why I’ve kept Minnesota as my home base as my modelling career has expanded internationally. And now that the world’s attention is focused on my home state, I know that Minnesota will be a catalyst for change. There are flaws in our system and I have faith that my fellow Minnesotans will have the difficult conversations and put leaders in place who can unite us. We are seeing necessary calls for reform by government agencies and that is a step in the right direction.
Community is what has always given me hope. People are always surprised to learn about my happy childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Truth be told, with a population that is two-thirds women and children, it was a very nurturing environment. When my family ultimately settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the local community gave me hope that we were going to be okay and flourish in our new surroundings. The fashion community has given me the same sense of hope by providing young girls who look like me an opportunity to see themselves represented in a space they haven’t had a presence. So here we are, and once again I’m finding community. I’ve been happy to see a community on social media where people are providing hope with calls to action, a show of support, and a pledge to do better. Everyone in today’s digital age is a social media influencer, whether you have 20 followers or 20 million; you have the power to update a community of people with the click of a button. If you can commit to using your voice—big or small—right now, that gives me hope!
Many of the most rewarding experiences in my life have been thanks to those who look nothing like me. From teachers and friends to social workers and employers and now to those I employ, my circle has always included people who want to see me succeed, no matter what. It would be easy to blame racism on everyone who isn’t black, but I refuse to do that. At this incredibly difficult moment, I’ve seen the very best in people, many of whom don’t look anything like me. I see you! I hear you! I appreciate you! Your willingness to get vocal, make an effort to understand what we are going through, and be there hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thank you.
Like many right now, I keep asking myself what more I can be doing and how I can use my platform to see justice served. For me, I have chosen to focus on mental health and how that is impacting everyone at this time. Whether it be due to the current state of the economy, health concerns associated with Covid-19, recent loss of a job or your business, acts of racism, and a million other factors, we are all under a lot of stress. We can’t be our best to push for change and productively move forward if we are not our most mentally sound and focused selves. I want us to tackle mental health head on as I believe that is going to be a must to see the change we want in the fight against racism. You have my steadfast commitment that I will be doing research, educating myself, leaning on my community, and using my voice and platform in the days ahead. But first, we must say his name and say it together as one: George Floyd.
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