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The obelisk at the center of the Santa Fe Plaza was vandalized in June with the word ‘racist’ spray-painted on top and the words ‘Tewa land’ and ‘end the genocide’ at the base. In addition, a portion of the monument’s contentious inscription, which dedicates part of the 153-year-old memorial to ‘heroes’ who died in battle with ‘savage Indians,’ was broken off. The base of the obelisk later was covered up with plywood, as shown here.

For months now, young people across the country have protested systemic police brutality that targets people of color. In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, teens have been fighting against racism and for equality.

As protests continue to draw attention worldwide, New Mexico residents say it is more important than ever to learn about racism, take a stand against it and hold conversations with friends and family — regardless of how uncomfortable they are — about racism and police brutality.

And while people of all ages, skin colors and economic backgrounds have joined the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s clear to many that in order to make real and long-lasting change, young people will have to lead the way.

“I think young people are in a space where they’re tired,” said Nikki Archuleta, the founder of Black Lives Matter in Albuquerque. “They’re in a space where they value human life, and they see the things that are happening in the world, and they’re not OK with it.

“I personally believe that creates some type of rage in people — and what rage can consist of a lot of the time is change and wanting to be involved and wanting to do things,” she said.

Part of that change is taking to the streets. Many teens say protests are instrumental in creating solidarity and letting younger voices be heard.

Artemisio Romero y Carver, a senior at New Mexico School for the Arts, says protests “give you proof that there’s reason to hope, because they give you proof that there are other people who feel as passionately about the injustice as you. And then from there, you can start to build community and then you can work with those people to hopefully right those injustices.”

Xitlalitl Rodas, a senior at Mandela International Magnet School, agrees, noting gathering together can be a starting point for compassionate listening and community engagement.

“An enemy is a person whose story you haven’t heard,” Rodas says. “It takes young people like us to get [people] thinking and getting that conversation started.”

Because older generations have stayed silent on some of these issues, some teens say, starting these conversations can be difficult. Before they can talk to others, they must first have the conversation with themselves.

After personal reflection, they are able to name their traumatic experiences for what they are: racism.

“I think from a young age, I may have not had the language or the tools to directly identify what I was experiencing, but I know that it was … racism and misogyny and all those things that come with being a woman, but also being Black in America,” Archuleta says.

Too often, she says, teens not only face overt racism and misogyny — but equally damaging responses from the public. After coming forward about these issues, young people are oftentimes belittled and dismissed because of their age, she says.

“I think any young person can attest to having an experience where they weren’t listened to or they weren’t heard,” Archuleta says. “I knew, as I got older, I never wanted to be a part of that silence.”

Despite the steps New Mexico has taken away from this silence and toward positive change, such as the formation of the Governor’s Council for Racial Justice and the creation of bills advancing police accountability and anti-racism, prejudice is still deeply rooted in systems across the nation.

Jim Harvey, executive director of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, says that in school systems, minority students are often targeted for disciplinary action despite there being alternatives. Many of them “end up being kicked out of school and being written up in police reports for several behavioral issues that could be mitigated with restorative justice, mediation or sometimes just a disciplinary conference between school leaders and parents,” he says.

Harvey says change is needed not only in local politics but in systems of education, health care and security.

Ezra Spitzer, executive director of NMCAN, and organization that which works with 14- to 26-year-olds who have been in the foster care system or experienced homelessness, says systemic oppression can influence a teen’s relationships and self-worth, subsequently leading to higher rates of homelessness, suicide, incarceration and unemployment.

“You have a complete loss of agency and sense of self-worth, and all of those things that go with systems of oppression,” Spitzer says, noting that in school systems, these disparities can manifest in academic performance.

For these reasons, Debbie Norman, program manager for the Anti-Racism Training Institute of the Southwest, says it’s important the public recognizes that racism is rooted in systems, not people.

“People can be prejudiced and bigoted, but it’s systems that are actually racist,” she says, noting “racism is alive and well today” because of our history. Only when America understands its past can the country move forward, she says.

Doing this, however, will not happen overnight; it is a long-term community effort.

“Government leaders need to learn how to take a close look at what’s going on in communities and actually ask people on the ground for their opinion, and engage people on the ground and up for suggestions and recommendations,” Harvey says. “And until that happens, you know, government leaders are never going to get it right.”

Part of that feedback right now relates to folks who argue against Black Lives Matter with the rebuttal “All Lives Matter.” Romero y Carver says people must reconsider priorities and take a harder look.

“There’s a difference between destruction of property and the destruction of human life,” he says.

Ultimately, what it really comes down to is compassion, says Archuleta.

“I think we just need to be more compassionate and understanding of people’s experiences and allow ourselves to listen to those types of things,” she says. “It’s not a competition [about] who’s being hurt the most.”

After listening to, acknowledging and caring about these experiences, she says, “we’re going to move so far.”

Niveditha Bala is a senior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at niveditha.bala@mandelainternationalschool.us.

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