“I defined it differently before and after I turned 18. Before I was of voting age, I looked at it as educating myself and learning about policies that can impact me and my community. After I turned 18, civic engagement and the role that I can play look different because I can vote.”
Tell us about the community you grew up in. How has it shaped the vision that drives your work?
I grew up in Inglewood, California, and was lucky to always be surrounded by people who look like me. This gave me a strong sense of community, while also realizing, from a very young age, that there was a lot of unnecessary stigma towards folks who look like me through policing. Once I started attending Inglewood High School, I started learning more about social and racial justice. From there, the journey into advocacy with other Black students and students of color came naturally for me.
How did you get involved in being a youth leader as part of the Brothers Sons Selves coalition and the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) and fighting for police free schools?
I was only 12 or 13 when I got involved in the SJLI and the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition. Starting in middle school, I was involved in a public health fellowship program that focused on health inequities in communities of color. The fellowship made me comfortable in using my voice and the opportunity to engage in civic leadership in different ways. At the end of that program, my mentor, David Turner from the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, encouraged me to go to Sacramento to testify and speak truth to power about the inequities I was working to change.
My background in public health connected directly to my work and advocacy to decriminalize our schools. Our society ignores how influential living conditions can be on other aspects of our lives. Not having access to healthy food or safe housing, for example, can impact how someone shows up at school. When I got to high school, I started seeing police intimidating Black students for just standing and congregating in one place. That’s not what our students need. What schools and students need are mentors, fellowships, and connections – to be surrounded by folks that look like you and can relate to you, not police.
How have you been involved with the organizing around police free schools in LA? What is the call to action to school districts and local officials when it comes to police free-schools?
When school closures happened at the beginning of the pandemic, I was part of the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition’s push for police free schools and the efforts to reduce LAUSD’s police budget. Additionally, with schools not being in session, I wanted to be part of that organizing during my downtime. I reached out to the local BLM chapter and worked with their cohort to start putting together a list of demands, which later became #StudentsDeserve. The demands included ICE and police-free food distribution centers, end the use of pepper spray in schools, conduct graduation ceremonies for students and mandatory passage of classes for seniors to ensure that students still had a fair and just education experience during a pandemic.
Even with some of this progress, it does not feel like youth of color are safe anywhere. Recently, a young Black man was murdered close to my school. He was shot 29 times by LAPD. It makes you think that there are no safe spaces. If someone can walk down the street and get shot, why would someone think they are safe in a school that is flooded with police? Our society has a problem with the way we think about youth, and particularly youth of color. If our school system is so scared of young people that they need police presence, it is time to either rethink our schools or the role of police.
How do you define civic engagement and why, particularly in this moment, is it so important?
I defined it differently before and after I turned 18. Before I was of voting age, I looked at it as educating myself and learning about policies that can impact me and my community. After I turned 18, civic engagement and the role that I can play look different because I can vote. Now, I do more research and am more intentional about my voice. It is easy to be in a classroom and learn about issues in our society, but now it is about applying that and continuously educating folks of how they can go beyond just voting to make a difference.
What does leadership mean to you and how does that show up in your work? Why do you feel like it’s important to support the leadership and voice of boys and men of color?
Leadership is a two-way street. You need to be able to lead while lifting up everybody in the room and their voice. Everyone is a leader in their own right and leadership should not be centralized to one person. A leader should be open to criticism, hearing other perspectives and representing those that put their trust in them. Folks think about different things in different ways.
More importantly, boys and men of color are not a monolith – each person has their own perspective and an individual way of doing things. This moment has given a lot of people initiative, so we need to make sure that individual voices are heard and magnified. It’s our moment, but we must also acknowledge what this moment has different meaning for each individual.
What do you think is the opportunity in this moment to reimagine communities and schools without police and community safety?
I don’t think I need to explain why I don’t want Black people getting killed. It’s not complicated. They look like me. When we reimagine safety, we need to acknowledge that it’s happening to real people – this is someone’s uncle, son, best friend – it’s not someone random. It is ridiculous that there are police in schools, but the fact that they are shows how incredible of a force police are in our cities. If we have a system of policing that is supposed to be protecting people and providing safety, but is instead cutting lives short, we need to ask “why” does this system continue to exist, and is it functioning correctly.
What advice would you give to other young people of color around civic engagement and leadership? Why is it so important that youth get involved?
Your voice matters more than anything.
Amir Casimir is a youth leader at Inglewood High School, the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) and, most recently, as part of the Brothers Sons Selves coalition. He has testified on behalf of his community in Sacramento and across the state, and worked with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to speak out about gentrification in his community.