The current gun control debate has made it clear: When white kids organize, the media pays attention; when Black kids do the same, they go silent. In light of this disparity, it is now more crucial than ever to highlight the voices of young Black activists. The Chicago collective Youth for Black Lives (Y4BL) is doing exactly that.
Founded by 18-year-old Maxine Wint and Natalie Braye and 19-year-old Sophia Byrd and Eva Lewis, Youth for Black Lives has transformed the Black liberation movement in the windy city and beyond. Their first protest, peacefully conducted in July of 2016, shut down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. “It was after the death of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men who had been murdered by the police,” says Wint of the collective’s origins. “I realized I had to use my voice to stand in solidarity with every Black person who was going through such a rough time to cope with the idea that racism is still very prevalent in today’s society. My original plan was to create a sit in or protest for any youth who felt like they needed to get involved or just be around people who were experiencing the same feeling as me, tired and ready for a change.”
According to Wint, her peers’ willingness to take action is what turned her idea into a nationally recognized act of resistance. “I had no intentions of it being such a big thing, but after I posted the flyer on social media that’s just what happened. Peers began to contact me and ask if I needed help and it felt empowering to know that I wasn’t alone,” she says. “After the post I created a group chat with Eva, Sophia and Natalie and we made a list of things that needed to be done in order to execute our plan well.”
Together, the young women mapped out a route for their march and ensured protestors had the resources and legal know-how they would need on-site. Then 1,500 people showed up. “It almost seems like a blur because we organized it just in three days,” Wint remembers. “After that first protest, we thought that a youth organization was something that Chicago needed, so we remained a group.”
Since then, Kanyinsola Anifowoshe, 16, Amaya Lorick, 17, Maxine Aguilar, 18, and Yahaira Tarr, 18, have joined forces with Wint and Lewis to create a Black femme-led powerhouse. In no small feat, Y4BL regularly holds discussions with Chicago officials—including monthly meetings with Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson—and host youth-oriented events like teach-ins. “Y4BL’s teach-in events are an attempt to center the voices and knowledge of young Black women in education,” says Aguilar. “We recognize that there is so much knowledge out there that is either ignored in curricula for political reasons or is dropped when our schools lose funding. For this reason, we created these teach-ins for young Black women to share their knowledge and create conversations with other young people.”
The utmost care goes into organizing a Y4BL teach-in: They must secure a venue, map out a timeline, post a call for workshops on social media and work to make each accepted workshop part of a cohesive whole. “From there,” Aguilar explains, “we work on getting together all the materials that the workshop leaders need, publicizing the event, organizing food for the attendees and getting stuff to decorate the venue for the day of the event.”
Y4BL is also currently organizing an event in collaboration with Thousand Waves to bring programming related to self-defense and emotional well-being in relationships to the South Side of Chicago in response to growing numbers of missing Black women in the U.S. “Our existence as young Black women is what brought us together in the first place,” Tarr reminds me. “Since Youth for Black Lives is organized and shaped by this lens, it is easier to empower the voices and perspectives of other marginalized youth.”
No matter the event, that mission never wavers. “The most rewarding thing was that we gave Black Chicago youth a voice in a time where we were being continuously shown that in America Black lives do not matter,” Tarr adds. “Seeing young people being positively impacted by our story and the things we do for our communities is very motivating—and what keeps our collective going.”
Tess Garcia is a student at the University of Michigan. She is a contributor at Teen Vogue, an intern at V Magazine and Style Editor of the Michigan Daily.