Meet five young Black leaders emerging in Madison

Through art, demonstrations, fundraising, poetry and otherwise, young Black leaders are making their voices heard
Nalah McWhorter
Nalah McWhorter (Photo by Rebecca Radix)

Through art, demonstrations, fundraising, poetry and otherwise, young Black leaders are emerging in Madison. Meet five people who have made their voices heard.

Starting a Revolution: Ayomi Obuseh

Ayomi Obuseh with her fist in the air

Photo by Rebecca Radix

As the first day of protest at the corner of Main and Carroll streets turned into night, Ayomi Obuseh stood in front of a large crowd with her hands shaking and her voice quavering as she began to lead chants. In fear and excitement, she yelled, “No justice, no peace!” and “This is not a riot, this is a revolution!” in front of a diverse group of people who had gathered on the Capitol Square for the same reason — to demonstrate that Black lives matter. That night, Obuseh became an organizer in the youth movement in Madison. “I think it’s crucial that young people are leading this because they have the energy to keep pushing,” Obuseh says. “[Our] voices are strong.”

The 19-year-old University of Wisconsin–Madison student is a member of Impact Demand, a group of Black youth in Madison demanding an end to police violence. It started as a group of protestors who want to see change, according to Obuseh. The name of the organization is intentional. “We don’t request change. We don’t request action. We demand it now,” Obuseh says.

Policy change is at the forefront of the group’s agenda, spearheading the call for community control, Breonna’s Law and the Hands Up Act in Madison. Community control demands police transparency and civilian oversight, Breonna’s law would end no knock warrants, and the Hands Up Act calls for the immediate firing of any police officer who fatally shoots a detained person. Obuseh says, “Kneeling [in solidarity] doesn’t save a life, policy does.”

Obuseh began the Madison for Black Lives page on Facebook to communicate opportunities for community engagement in protests, rallies and petitions around Madison. It is important to Obuseh to have the community behind this youth-led movement. “Starting a revolution is a long process. But I think if we stay educated, we’re going to get there,” Obuseh says.

Obuseh’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. She says she has been followed and stalked since she has been on the front lines of the protests. This has only reaffirmed her belief in the movement.
“If people are scared of a 19-year-old peaceful protester, then I have to be doing something right,” she says.

In His Own Words: Matthew Charles

Matthew Charles

Photo by Ian Kpachavi

The milk stains on Matthew Charles’ shoes are a reminder of his recent clashes with tear-gas hurling police in Madison. Pouring milk into his stinging eyes is an experience Charles knew he would write about. His lived reality as a protester fill the pages of his new self-published poetry book, “You Can Not Burn The Sun.” It made sense for his activism and art to become one. “[I am] letting myself be fueled by what otherwise could be exhausting experiences and then giving myself permission to just tell stories,” Charles says.

The 24-year-old’s poetry book focuses on his Black experiences in today’s world, both in Madison and the United States. With words that are scorching and uncomfortable, he chronicles a journey of marching in the streets every day, reaching a place of burnout and finding shelter with his Black friends. “This book … is actually just rooted in lament and grief. … I wish it wasn’t like this, but because it’s like this, I have to be hot,” he says.

Charles is influenced by poet Nikki Giovanni, songwriter and rapper Kendrick Lamar and African American spirituals that are popular at church-led marches. His art pulls influence from those he calls the nation’s first freedom fighters — enslaved Black people. “To sing that, as a Christian, there is a spiritual power. It’s a Jesus song and a justice song, but it draws on the history,” he says.

Charles’ art always considers history and how oppressive regimes stifle art. As a Black artist in America, he believes this is the moment to seize and say what Black artists have been saying for generations.

“Because our voices are sought out now, this could really be a revolutionary moment. It’s about the power of the people,” Charles says.

Amplifying Black Voices: Nalah McWhorter

Nalah McWhorter

Photo by Rebecca Radix

Nalah McWhorter, 19, stepped into the role of president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union, or WBSU, at UW–Madison on June 1, 2020. While this was a great honor for the up-and-coming junior, it arrived in the midst of chaos and sadness a week after the murder of George Floyd. Given WBSU’s long tradition of activism on campus, McWhorter knew this was the time to bring the members’ concerns to the university. “This is the perfect time to start demanding big things, not little things,” McWhorter says.

On only her fifth day in the position, McWhorter and the Union released a statement with several demands, including the removal of monuments on campus, including the Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill and Chamberlin Rock. The rock sits on Observatory Drive and was originally named “N—–head rock.”

“I use my privilege, my platform, my access to administration to really amplify those [marginalized] voices,” McWhorter says. “There [are] certain monuments on campus that truly make us feel that we don’t belong here.”

The Wisconsin Black Initiative Fund was created to financially support Black student organizations, departments and spaces across campus and the community. Contributions can be made through GoFundMe or UW–Madison’s fundraising portal, Jumpstart. McWhorter plans for WBSU’s activism to have a steady and long-lasting future. This coming fall, the organization will focus on voter rights and education while continuing to offer a safe space for Black students.

According to McWhorter, her advocacy and leadership on campus requires willing administration figures and other student organizations to follow WBSU’s lead. “I feel like what needs to be done for Black people needs to be done by Black people. So speaking in the UW sense, I feel like what needs to be done for Black students needs to be done by Black students,” she says.

Education is Power: Noah Anderson

Noah Anderson stands in front of Orpheum

Photo by Ian Kpachavi

Noah Anderson’s father, Marlon, received national attention in the fall of 2019 when he was fired from his job as a security guard at Madison West High School. His father was fired because he used the N-word while telling a student not to use the word, and it was against the district’s zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs. Noah Anderson advocated for his father’s return and for policy changes in the district. His father was reinstated. Around that time, Noah Anderson had a dream of Black people walking into the promised land and being free, like in the biblical Exodus story. When the uprising started in Madison this summer, he knew that dream was coming to pass. “We’re close to freedom. Racism is not going to hold us down any longer,” Anderson says.

The 18-year-old plans to attend Madison College, where he can continue his work in the community. Anderson is pleased that conversations are happening — like the one he had at the Virtual Town Hall and Youth Summit with Madison365 — but he wants to move toward solutions. “I never think that somebody should go for a walkout or should lead a walkout without having step two,” he says.

Along with Denaria Rowe X, a 2020 East High School graduate, Anderson leads the Young Panthers of Madison. The organization’s goal is to pour resources into the Black community and create a cycle of wealth, according to Anderson. The organization hosted its first event with Black businesses in Madison, featuring food and live performances in June. “Activism is not always coming directly at the enemy or the person that’s oppressing, but it’s building yourself up with knowledge and education and building up the people around you,” Anderson says.

Anderson’s activism honors those who come before him, and he often quotes Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. He educates himself and his peers about those who worked for freedom. “They did their part, they did their share, now is our time,” he says.

Activism in Artwork: Sirena Flores

Sirena Flores in front of Tony Robinson Mural

Sirena Flores in front of the mural she created. (Photo by Rebecca Radix)

While painting a mural of her friend Tony Robinson on a boarded-up State Street business, vomFASS, Sirena Flores, 22, was approached by many onlookers who asked who Robinson was. She said he was a friend, a big brother, a skateboarder — and a Madison police officer put seven bullets in his body in 2015. “We say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but here are these people’s lives,” Flores says. “People are more than just bodies. They have a history. They have families. They have lives.”

Flores chose one of her favorite quotes, “Our Existence is Resistance,” for the adjacent mural space she was offered on State Street’s visual canvas of plywood-covered storefronts. The saying is surrounded by a multitude of monarch butterflies intentionally representing her Afro-Latina identity, the Latinx movement and all other groups of people who migrate. “I think that the butterfly is just a powerful symbol to symbolize trying to escape white supremacy,” she says.

Flores’ activism continues in the classroom with the papers she writes as a political science and sociology major with an African studies certificate and as a UW–Madison PEOPLE (Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) scholar. She plans to take her advocacy into politics and public service after graduation and continue to center Black and brown girls in her art and poetry.

“My activism looks like my education. My activism looks like my artwork. My activism looks like my voice,” Flores says.

As Madisonians walked down State Street and saw her art and the work of many other artists of color, Flores hopes they saw the anger and sadness that targeted those buildings and how the painting of the murals brought about healing. “It’s a reclamation of space,” she says. “People came down here and broke and destroyed because that was their expression. And they were there because they were upset about the murder of a black person. So now this space should be reclaimed by Black people.”

Read more of the August cover story here.