By Adia Rogers
Racism still exists in 2016 in big ways, according to Thomas Leonard. The recent graduate of Wauwatosa West High School knows firsthand the effects of verbal racism. His experience was witnessed by his fellow students who were willing to support him.
Leonard was rapping up his science class taught by a substitute at the time when his principal stopped in to observe. According to Leonard, Frank Calarco had never been in the classroom before that. Minutes later, Calarco impulsively made a comment that spoke a lot about his character.
“Can someone tell this kid that it’s not the 1960s anymore? Black people don’t have to sit in the back of the bus,” Calarco said and giggled. Thomas said that his first thought was, “Is this something you do to all of your students and staff?”
He said only one person spoke up about the comment, but that everyone else seemed either scared or in shock about what happened. Leonard then took it upon himself to take a stand because what happened was not going to pass with him.
“I felt marginalized in my own classroom,” he said.
Leonard led a demonstration in a open area at Tosa West High School with over 700 students to discuss what happened and hear students’ thoughts. He said he felt like it had to be done, especially since he was the president of the school’s Black Student Union. He said he got out of himself and thought about the hundreds of other people who have experienced that same kind of oppression at school.
Leonard was told to keep doing what he was doing and that it would not be swept under the rug. But, in the end the situation died down without any real consequences for the principal. Leonard said that gave him more ammunition to work even harder to bring an awareness of the problems going on and motivated him to do something about it.
This conviction to do what is right has made Leonard who he is and has taken his activism beyond the walls of his high school. Leonard is also a talented poet and uses his art as an outlet and form of advocacy.
“Poetry is nothing but storytelling,” Leonard said. “It is a bridge that connects us to other people.”
He goes to different schools, churches and other public places to perform his pieces of poetry to young kids which all have messages pertaining to social justice.
Through his words and art, Leonard brings awareness not only to social justice issues like police brutality and racism, but also to other issues he sees in his community like crime, in order to make the world as safe as possible.
Being born and raised in the “hood” as he states it, Leonard said he feels like he owes his people something and dedicates all of his work to the community. He said that there are so many people who go unnamed or unnoticed who are trying to make a big impact on the community.
Leonard said a piece of advice that he takes with him is something his uncle always says, “Youth are the truth.” He doesn’t know where that will take him in life, but he knows he wants it to start in Milwaukee with the youth.
Leonard explained how he knows exactly how hard it is growing up as a young black male in Milwaukee and the unique challenges he faces because of that.
“We have to work twice as hard for other people and for ourselves,” he said.
He only laughed to himself when asked about the ways that he and his friends experience racism. “You don’t even have to commit a crime to be arrested before you’re 18,” he said, shaking his head.
Regardless of the struggles he faces, Leonard says Milwaukee is where his heart is and that he wants to see it get better not worse.
“I never wanted to be on the outside looking in,” Leonard said. “My favorite quote is, ‘If you are neutral in the sight of injustice, then you choose the side of the oppressor.’”
In the fall, Leonard will serve with Public Allies, an Americorps program that works for equity, justice and diverse leadership by placing individuals with local nonprofits for a year. He said he would love to be matched with an organization that connects him with young people such as Urban Underground. That has been something he’s been totally passionate about.
“These people in my city need me and this work more than anything,” he said.
By India Smith
The stories of African Americans (particularly males) being killed by crooked police officers have become very common nowadays. I am completely disgusted knowing that many of my people get killed by officers often for little to NO reason at all. It makes me scared for myself as a young black girl growing up in Milwaukee and makes me worry about the lives of all my friends and family.
One of the worst things about it is that the officers that kill innocent people seem to get no consequences. I’ve often heard the term “You commit the crime, you do the time.” But by the looks of what happens everyday in our nation, I don’t believe the world sees killing an innocent black man as a crime, because those officers remain on the street waiting to murder someone else’s son, brother, cousin, father, etc.
Instead, I feel it is a crime to have darker skin and kinkier hair because instead of being celebrated and loved, it is shunned upon and set for death. Black people are beautiful beings overflowing with beauty, intelligence, personality and potential. We are a diverse people that have a huge part in building the foundation of our country.Therefore we should be treated just like the other people on this earth with lighter skin and straighter hair.
These killings must be stopped before it’s too late. The stereotypes of the “angry black girl” or “thugging black male” are horrible. I wish anyone who thought they were true would think about how hard it would be to smile all the time when all you know is that you are hated and being killed every day for no reason. Us as black people need to stand up and fight for what we deserve and know is right. We are stronger in numbers, and if we stand unified there will be nothing that can stop us. We are strong, we are beautiful, we are smart, we are capable, and our lives matter. #BLACKLIVESMATTER