Northern California

“Young people will be the leaders of our future, so why not start now?”

Tell us about yourself – where you grew up, what shaped you into the person you are today?

I consider myself very fortunate. I grew up in Oakland in a Caribbean family that was never wealthy, but never poor. My parents are really responsible for setting up my foundation and priorities. My mom, who is currently the assistant district attorney in Alameda, has always worked in law and has always known that the criminal justice system in this country is skewed. Her motivation for becoming a lawyer came from wanting to change the system from within. She graduated from UC Berkeley at 19 and is the one who taught me about working hard and to speak up for what I believe in. My dad, who was a professional swimmer taught me about dedication and discipline from his experience in professional sports. Splitting my time between my parents in the Laurel District and East Oakland, I went to private school the majority of my life and surrounded myself with like-minded friends, including Akil. He was the co-organizer of the protest, and we have known each other since we were four. We had a lot in common: we were both Black, heavily into sports and academics and loved history, politics and the arts. It was the desire to tell the untold stories of people of color and Black people that lay the ground for my love for the arts.

How do you define leadership? Civic engagement? How do you see those connected to the protest you organized?

Both leadership and civic engagement are tied directly to the act of protest. With any action, you have to have people engaged, and be able to get across what you need. There is no protest without some sort of civic engagement. In terms of leadership: a leader is someone who cares. You can’t have strong opinions or tell people what to do unless you care about them, and respect them as much as they respect you.. Akil and I genuinely cared about the cause. We told ourselves the day after we put out the flyer that even if it’s just the two of us, we’ll still march because we care about the people who listened to us. Throughout the process, we made sure that every single person felt safe and felt heard.

Why is the leadership of youth of color so important in this moment?

When we are talking about the youth – youth of any race – we have to remember that they are the future. Young people will be the leaders of our future, so why not start now? Elders always have to pass on the torch. For youth of color, and particularly Black youth, this is our cause. Just like the Black Panthers of Oakland fought for their rights, we have to fight for ours. We know what we want. Even if it is someone who is in their 30s protesting, they’re protesting for what they want, but if it’s Black youth like me that want something different, we have to speak up. You can do whatever you put your mind to and make a difference at any age.

What’s your vision for Black youth, for boys and men of color? For our state?

I want to see respect. Black men and Black people in this country, and in some parts of the world, are not respected as humans. I want to see respect from the outside in, and see respect within Black community. When I see us get the respect we deserve, I know that we’ve achieved our vision.

What demands do you have for community leaders, or policy makers? What do you want other young people to know?

Policies around policing in Alameda County need to change. When I say defund the police, I don’t mean to disband the police, but to give the excessive funds that go to police to build up the community so police are not needed in the first place. There can be a specialized group that is specifically trained for high-stake situations, and trained for much longer than they are now, but using the police as a militarized force to solve any issue that may arise needs to change. Currently, police are targeting people who are a products of their own environment. For example, a lot of low-income, Black communities don’t have access to stable housing, quality education, family-sustaining wage jobs, or mental health programs. And when someone grows up in this type of community, and are policed on top of that, of course you are going to have problems. We don’t see police presence in predominantly white neighborhoods like Piedmont, where people have access to all those things, because people have what they need to be happy and thrive.

I also want to make clear that the way I choose to protest and show my pain may be different to other people’s. I have no opposition to the rioting or looting because it’s people showing their pain. I show my pain through my words. I want to make sure that people know that the protests we organized were not truly peaceful. The media made it out to be as such, but, while it was non-destructive, it was not peaceful because we were not at peace – we were mad, hurt and angry.

Xavier Brown is in the acting program at UCLA and an Oakland native. He co-organized the Oakland Tech youth march in response to the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the numerous Black lives that have been lost to police violence. The protest saw more than 15,000 attendees.