Alexandria, Minn. (AP) – They grew up in the same small town, and graduated in the same high school class. One experienced racism, the other witnessed it.
Both Mattie Bogart and Niki Botzet say they were intimidated into silence – until this summer, when people across the state and across the country took to the streets under the banner of racial justice, in the days and weeks after George Floyd’s death.
Bogart, 19, a sophomore at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, organized a Black Lives Matter protest in their hometown of Alexandria – where 95% of the population is white – on June 3.
She intended it to be low-key; in that ﬁrst week of protests, she was worried about counterprotesters. But instead of the 20 friends she expected to join her, more than 200 people showed up in support. Counterprotesters weren’t a problem.
“I just never expected in this community that there’d be so many people that actually wanted to do something about these issues,” Bogart told Minnesota Public Radio News.
WASN’T THE PLAN
Botzet hadn’t planned on joining that ﬁrst protest. She was already worrying about friends who lived in the Twin Cities, and was conflicted over how to feel about the violent protests unfolding there.
But Bogart texted her the night before the march, saying her voice was important. She changed her mind and joined the rally.
“I was not prepared for this at all,” Botzet, 19, a sophomore at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, said. “I had no idea this is where we would be in a few short weeks.”
The women didn’t socialize much in high school; they knew each other in the way most people know each other in a relatively small high school. But since that ﬁrst march a month ago, they’ve become close friends.
Before now, they said, they might have watched in silence as protests swelled across the country. But after a year away at college, now home for the summer, both felt empowered to take a public stand.
Bogart became aware of racism in middle school. By high school, she said, she was speaking out – and losing friends.
“THIS IS NORMAL”
“I felt kind of isolated in my opinions, and it made me feel like I didn’t want to speak out, so I deﬁnitely didn’t as much as I should have,” she said.
Botzet felt the pain of racism much earlier. In elementary school, she was teased because her hair and skin were different than most of her classmates’. By high school, she said, racist comments were more common – and often felt intentionally hurtful.
“Through all of this, when it was happening, I was just like, `This is how my life is.
This is normal. Every Black person experiences this. I’m not alone.’ And so I told myself that it was OK for them to say that kind of thing and I kind of just got used to it,” she said.
“I never thought that I would be able to embrace my Blackness and be proud of it,” she said. “I was very scared to even say anything, do anything different, wear my hair natural anything like that just because I wanted to blend in so bad.” The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, but Botzet said she feels energized by the planning and conversations.
The protests and marches are just a starting point.
The women have started a nonproﬁt called Change in Motion, with a mission to educate people in small towns about oppression that exists in their midst.
“We can have a protest, but if we don’t continue to stand for the things that are important to us, it’s all pointless,” Botzet said. “So I think it’s huge to continue the education.”
The conversation and the education need to evolve – and broaden, Bogart said. It needs to include Black voices, even in a largely white place.
“If you’re a white person talking to other white people about racism, you really aren’t hearing about racism, you’re hearing about what you see as racism,” said Bogart. Conversation helps change that.
Botzet said she welcomes conversations about what it means to be Black in smalltown Minnesota. But too often, she said, those conversations are superﬁcial: Does her skin tan in the summer? How long does it take to have her hair done? It’s exhausting.
“Those are valid questions – sure, you can ask me those kinds of things. But that’s all they ask. Not: `What can I do to help?’ Or: `What’s your story?”’ she said. “Just asking the right questions is huge, and it becomes a lot more meaningful and less exhausting when you feel like you actually are educating someone.”
“NEED TO STEP UP”
Bogart said she’s not interested in having conversations with overt racists _ and she’s encountered a few in Alexandria, she said. She wants instead to challenge what she calls the silent white majority to ask questions, and take a stand.
“White people need to step up,” she said. “White, straight, privileged people need to step up. Because they are such a strong majority (here) that if they decide they are just going to be silent, nothing is going to be accomplished.” The women are determined to break that silence. They have connected with mentors who are helping them set up their nonproﬁt – and with education as their primary focus, they’re working on next steps that will help them keep the issue of racial justice front and center in rural Minnesota long after the protests are over – starting right there at home in Alexandria.