Jun. 19—ROCHESTER — The day before the anniversary of the official end of slavery, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Saturday, June 18, 2022, was filled with community members. The gathering told the history of Juneteenth and celebrated Black culture.
The celebration also presented a sort of juxtaposition: speakers told of the barriers still blocking the way for Black growth and equality, while honoring members of the new RISE for Youth program, created by the NAACP and Mayo Clinic. It illustrated where Rochester, and the country, is now — many acknowledge the need to help the next generations of Black youth succeed, but it takes the NAACP to mastermind programs meant to do so.
"We've been around for 57 years," Wale Elegbede said of the Rochester branch of the NAACP, which he is the president of. "We continue to fight hard for you, for our vision as a society in which there is no racial discrimination and hatred. And we lift everybody up through equity and social justice. That is how we achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is how we ensure that everybody has freedom."
W.C. Jordan, the president of the NAACP Minnesota/Dakota State Conference, read off the history of Juneteenth and the significance of the now federal holiday. Jordan told the crowd that Juneteenth "remembers the tragedy of slavery and celebrates the promise of freedom."
"There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S.," Jordan said. "Why is Juneteenth still relevant? It's time for America to truly grapple with his legacy of slavery. In many ways, Juneteenth represents how freedom and justice in the United States has always been delayed for Black peoples.
"The decades after the end of the war would see a wave of lynchings, imprisonment and Jim Crow laws take root. But what followed was the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, a lack of economic investment, acts of police violence and various racial profiling incidents. It is clear that while progress has been made in Black America, 157 years out of bondage, considerable barriers continue to impede that progress."
Jordan ended his speech with the famous Maya Angelou poem, "Still I Rise."
The poem transitioned perfectly to Marvellous Lasisi, Eleni Araya and Helen Girma taking the stage to discuss the RISE for Youth program, which Elegbede described as a program "designed to really help Black and underrepresented students transform themselves from youth with potential to a competitive and empowered workforce."
"The RISE for Youth program has been incredible. We've met many people talking about different leadership skills, mentorship, promoting ourselves, marketing ourselves, and a lot of skills that we can use in the future," Girma said. "And we're really excited about it."
After, Rawhi Said, the program director who also works at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, said the RISE for Youth "program is really up our alley."
"The true intention of all of our pathways is to really attract, inspire and provide opportunities for underrepresented communities," he said. "We've always been committed to improving tomorrow with what we have today. And so it's a huge deal for us. There's a lot of work that needs to be done. We recognize that, but we're also very proud of the things that we've achieved to this point."
And, in Rochester, history is still being made. Joyce Gibbs and George Thompson will be the first African Americans to Grand Marshal the Rochesterfest Parade on Saturday, June 25, 2022.