Elise Tervalon and friend protesting
Photo by Rollence Patugan

Generation Activist: 3 L.A. Teens on Life in 2020

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For Gen Z, COVID-19 has disrupted student life. Now, nationwide uprisings are shaking things up even more.

When other 16-year-old girls were spending time with boyfriends Elise Tervalon says she was dealing with systemic racism.

“I’m tired,” Tervalon said.

The Pasadena native is now 19.

Tervalon was finishing her freshman year at the University of Louisiana Xavier, a private historically Black Catholic college in New Orleans when the pandemic upended her student life and sent her back home to shelter-in-place with her parents and siblings. “It’s definitely a transitional period,” she said. She spends most days alone in her room. “I like being by myself so it’s not horrible. I’m coping pretty well.”

Tervalon recently left the confines of home life to take part in a demonstration against police brutality, sparked by the death of George Floyd, that began in Central Park in Pasadena. The organizer asked her and others to open the march with a few words.

“The thing is, I could be next,” she told the crowd as she stood tall on a picnic bench. Her mask temporarily removed as her steady and determined voice carried through the crowd. “My father could be next. My mother could be next. I mean, I can see it already. As morbid as it sounds, our faces plastered on flyers and Instagram accounts — our pain edited to match your aesthetic.”

She continued as more and more multi-generational protesters, holding signs like “Enough is Enough,” “Black Lives Matter!” and “We Breathe The Same Air,” gathered around her.

“It’s more than the cause, it’s more than political divisions. It’s more than brands saying Black Lives Matter. Because when you think about it, that phrase is so basic and not really groundbreaking at all. It’s the simple truth, the honest truth,” Tervalon said. “No lives matter until Black lives do.”

As Los Angeles city streets have been swelling with daily protests calling out racial injustice, coronavirus cases continue to be on the rise and many of us remain quarantined in our homes we were curious about how teenagers in our city, like Tervalon, are faring. Los Angeleno spoke to a half dozen young people — including many who identify as Black — about their response to George Floyd’s death, their own encounters with racism and their hopes and fears for the future. Three young Angelenos’ stories are featured below.

Elise Tervalon, 19, grew up in Pasadena. A student at the University of Lousiana Xavier in New Orleans, she’s currently studying political science. But after the pandemic, she’s considering changing majors.

When you’re Black it seems like this stuff happens a lot. I have vivid memories of when Trayvon Martin was shot — and it just keeps happening. Sometimes you start to feel a little jaded. It’s hard.

When George Floyd was murdered I knew there would be outrage. But I guess I’m a little surprised by the amount of outrage because I’m not really used to seeing that. With George Floyd, from my perspective, it’s been different. It’s refreshing, in a way, that people seem to really care. But then, also, why are people just beginning to care about systemic racism and all these problems? ….It’s a privilege to educate yourself about racism, but it’s different when you go through racism on a personal level and you’re directly affected by it.

Elise Tervalon gives a speech at a Pasadena Black Lives Matter protest
Elise Tervalon opens a Pasadena Black Lives Matter protest with a speech in Central Park. Photo by Rollence Patugan.

All throughout childhood, I did experience microaggressions. The other private high schools, they all had a BSU [Black Student Union] at school, or at least most of them did. And I was like, OK, as Black students we need a space. And my friend and I decided to start one and we got a lot of pushback at our school. It was really disheartening.

That same year there was someone in my class who used the “n-word” a lot and used it a few times towards me. I guess that’s what I mean when I say I’m tired. I’m jaded. People are calling this is a civil rights movement. I’m a little hopeful. I am. I’m going to remain optimistic. On social media, it does seem like people are caring. But it’s just, you never know.

Afton Okwu, 16, lives in Arcadia and is a senior and student class president at Alverno Heights Academy in Sierra Madre. She considers herself a jack-of-all-trades and is involved in theater, soccer and volleyball. Before the pandemic, almost all of her time was spent outside her home at school.

When the George Floyd killing happened. I was completely removed from it. Sierra Madre is very secluded. And while I don’t live in Sierra Madre, I live right on the border of Sierra Madre and Arcadia…. what I’ve tended to do in the past is when there is some case of police brutality, I remove myself from it completely. I can never watch the videos. And I’ll read about them and I’ll know that they happened. But I’ll never completely delve into what’s happening because I know that if I did, I would fall apart essentially.

Afton Okwu
Afton Okwu getting ready in her room. Photo courtesy of Afton Okwu.

So originally, I knew that George Floyd was killed, but I didn’t know the gravity of what that started and all the protests that began and it wasn’t until my history teacher on the last day of school apologized and she was like, ” I’m sorry for what my generation is leaving you guys with.” And that was the first time that it hit me that: oh, this is a big thing that’s happening right now.

‘I get scared’

…. I’m bi-racial, my dad is black and my mom is white. A lot of the racism I feel I’ve seen is generally more directed to my father. I know that when we’re walking down the street if I’m with my mother, it doesn’t happen. But when I’m with my dad, I can see people cross the street avoid us. Every time the police pull us over if he was like speeding, or something like that, I get scared, I can feel my heart drop because I’m like this could quite possibly be one of the last moments I see him.

‘Not alone’

Afton Okwu protesting
Afton Okwu and friend protesting on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. Photo by Rollence Patugan.

Once the whole George Floyd protests started my friends created an Instagram account where they were spreading information about ways to help. They contacted me because I’m one of the co-presidents of my school’s Black Student Association. They said, “We think that you should hold a protest.’ And originally, I was absolutely terrified. Because it was not something that I had done before. And that whole week I was stressing, like, what if no one comes? Or what if too many people come?

I started by planning out exactly what we were going to do and where we were going to go. What we did was we started in Central Park, in Pasadena, and then we walked to Old Town Pasadena and essentially lined the streets and lead each other in chants. Originally, I thought only students from my high school were going to come, but my dad says that there’s maybe like 300 people there.

I thought for sure that that day I was going to cry. But the protest was such a happy place and such a place where everyone just wanted to help it was hard to feel sad even in such a devastating time. I think that’s what was so important about the protests. Yeah, we’re there to obviously get things done and get our voices heard but one of the more benefits is that it shows completely that you’re not alone.

Alex Artero, 19, is an L.A. native. She is a soon-to-be sophomore at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C. and is currently sheltering at home with her parents in Mid-City. A natural extrovert, one of the most challenging parts of the past few months has been not being able to interact with her social circle.

When the video surfaced of his murder, my friend from school had actually just been shot and killed— my community was already on edge. And then this happened.

I remember watching the video and I was just in shock. Everybody was just standing and doing nothing. And then I got angry. Then I got on Twitter, which is a huge outlet for my school in particular and I started to see the anger coming from my peers and my Howard family.

Alex Artero
Alex Artero in her room at home. Photo courtesy of Alex Artero.

When something like this happens, you realize that could be any of us. That could be anybody on this campus. And it could be our friends. It could be our families. I’m saying it just feels so real.

‘March with us’

I’ve gone to one protest but because my parents are high risk. It’s really, really stressful for me because I obviously want to be out there and I want to be on the frontlines and I want to be speaking — but I don’t want to get my parents sick.

The one protest I did go to we went to Pershing Square downtown. And it was right when they had brought military forces into L.A. It was very emotionally draining — but also probably one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.

At one point, we walked up to this line of cops and I stood there and people were yelling at them. One of them was a Black man. And I just looked at him, he looked me dead in my eyes. People were saying, “March with us, kneel with us to do something.” And he just stood there. I started to cry. Because I know that it affects him, too. Because if he’s not wearing his badge, he’s another Black man.

‘The world sees me as Black’

My high school was predominantly white but a lot of the brown people at our school were the ones who played sports. My volleyball team was majority Black, and we made it to the playoffs. And this was a really big deal for us because we had not made playoffs in the years. And so we go to our playoff game, which was in California, and it’s in some small town in the Inland Empire area. And we had got to the game and we were playing and we were doing really well. And then between every set you switch sides, and so we switch sides, and this white man stood up in the bleachers while we were walking, and he said, “Go home n-words, you’re not wanted here.” To be honest, a lot of us didn’t hear him. But three of our girls did. And we started playing and we didn’t realize why we were sucking so bad. And we took a timeout or something, and they told us what he had said.

We lost that game. Which was heartbreaking, because we easily could have won that game. That was the first time that a lot of us because we’re from L.A. —you know, there’s racism everywhere, but the blatant racism is a lot quieter — had experienced anything like that…. It was one of those times for me going to a white school and being mixed-race, where I realized whether I feel Black or Black enough or not, the world sees me as Black.

Los Angeleno