Alumni in Action: Makeen Yasar (‘19)

Friday, June 19, 2020

Photo: Joshua Ham, Black Coffee Visuals
Alumni in Action: Makeen Yasar (‘19)
By Raven Yamamoto

Since October 2019, LMU alumnus Makeen Yasar (‘19) has been a Youth Justice Fellow with The Brothers Sons Selves Coalition (BSS), an organization working to end the school-to-prison pipeline for young men of color in Los Angeles County. During his time at LMU, Yasar was a health and human sciences major and a member of the Intercultural Facilitators program. 

Yasar is also the founder and director of the Umoja Health Project, a program dedicated to inspiring young people of color to pursue health-related careers— something I interviewed him about nearly a year ago.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Yasar again, this time to discuss the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement from his perspective on the ground in Los Angeles.

Raven Yamamoto (RY): Tell me about the work you’ve been doing with Brothers Sons Selves. What makes you so invested in their cause? 

Makeen Yasar (MY): One of the shifts that's happened over the past couple of decades is that you don't have as many men of color in the organizing world. Typically a lot of the work is invested in by women. There's a huge positive to that because our women leadership is amazing. Part of the reason why there's been that lack of investment from boys and men of color is [historical]. You have the destabilization of families, the war on drugs and the criminalization of men of color. But then you also have a lot of the pipeline programs that are out there right now focused on investing in businesses, having this idea or encouraging entrepreneurship. And so you have a lot of young, male-identifying youth not necessarily learning and participating in organizing and the way that femmes and female-identifying youth are.

It's not that the women and female-identifying leadership that we have is lacking, it's that they need support. It's trying to bring those two bridges together, develop the young people well and give them the skills [and] the agency to be able to lead themselves to path and carve out a future for themselves, that's basically what this is. 

Right now it's youth-led, it's youth-involved, but this car is gonna end up being driven by them. We're building a vehicle so that we can get young folks to be a part of something and to lead it and create that change for themselves because they can't wait. You can only imagine what our world would look like once they start getting older to already be prepared.

Photo: Joshua Ham, Black Coffee Visuals
RY: What has your experience been like on the ground these past few weeks? What has being at protests been like for you in Los Angeles?

MY: The very first protest I was at was after the response to George Floyd's death. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organized an action in Beverly Hills in the Melrose area after [I was] going through my own grief over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade. I was just like, "I need to get out of my apartment. I need to get out." It gave me my spirit back. That was what gave me my life again. When I pulled up to the action, just thousands of people and that power I felt. 

I was there when they started firing rubber bullets. One of the first people they hit was a young woman.  She was either younger than me or a teenage girl and she was hit in her stomach. I was there with the EMT and a medical student who just happened to be on the scene. The only thing I could do was give her an ice pack, you know. She had labored breathing, just terrified of the moment. The police started hitting people with batons. I have a friend who got hit in her forearm and her inner thigh. We had to bounce before the tear gas started getting thrown. 

It was just like one of those reaffirmations. This is what we know. As far as Black people know, this is who the police are the very next day. I've heard the family speak at previous actions and events I've seen and I've felt their pain.

I had a homegirl and her friends roll up in their Volkswagen Beetle with a cardboard sign on the front [that read] "Hydration Station," as they were passing out hand sanitizer and water to people. There was music bumping, people marching all throughout downtown. That was lovely. That was the solidarity of the people. Being able to be present in those moments is just comforting. It's a reminder that there are people who have been doing the work and that there are people who are jumping onto the movement aside from whatever's on social media. 

RY: What were your reactions to the Brothers of Consciousness fundraising campaign, raising tens of thousands of dollars for Black Lives Matter from the LMU community? 

MY: I was very happy. One of my main focuses, while I was at LMU, was always trying to find ways to be engaged with the community through social justice work. So the fact that they took it upon themselves to be like “We want to do something within our means to do something,” and “Let's use our networks to collectively raise funds,” that's been one beautiful thing. I commend them for their work on that. It made me feel good to see them mobilize in that way, including those from the [student-organized] protest. 

What I was seeing not only at LMU but across the country and even at the protests that I've been to, is the way in which the national consciousness sort of just rocked. Everybody was invested. Everybody was angry. Everybody was frustrated because you already had a global pandemic, you already have people dying left and right due to incompetence and systemic inequality. Then, throughout the entire month of May, you had all of these Black deaths that were just plastered over the news. Folks were being bombarded with this information. Folks were paying attention. 

There's been this constant tension and build up over the past decade thanks to people organizing and educating other people. The moments preceding this, when Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland— these moments have been building. This was the boiling point to where only so many people are still ignorant. Even for those who are ignorant, it's mostly out of choice at this point.

Even at LMU, it didn't really surprise me that people were donating because, in that moment, there were so many moments building towards [this] that made everyone engaged. I wasn't surprised [to see] Greek life coming up with the money, especially because I know they got the money and they have the network and the means to do so. It was a perfect situation, in terms of people could not deny the moment. People cannot deny the pain and there are really good people [at LMU] who want to do the right thing.

via Makeen Yasar
RY: What is giving you hope right now? Where are you finding your strength to keep going? 

MY: I think what's giving me hope right now is just the fact that this momentum that we have right now is unprecedented for this generation. You have tried and true activists and organizers like Angela Davis commenting on how this moment has even left an impression on her. And she's seen it all. Hearing from leaders in the movement, that's always encouraging. Seeing the people's turnout is encouraging. Seeing the solidarity of the moment and people wanting to better themselves and doing the work to better themselves. That fuels me. Seeing how the city has responded and how cities across the nation have responded. 

This morning, I saw an article where an East Coast state had taken down the statue of Christopher Columbus, like they beheaded it, and I was like, "Oh, today's about to be a good day. Spirit's on my side." And then in Minneapolis, their school district ending the contract between their police department, vowing to disband their police department in totality—these things don't happen. 

I think that's what gives me hope. I'm an optimist, but I also make sure I'm keeping myself grounded in my expectations because anything can happen.

RY: Why is it important for them to get out of the LMU social justice bubble and into the actual real-world where these issues are affecting people?

MY: Everything that I've learned in terms of activism or organizing was outside of LMU. Academic education is excellent and useful in terms of helping people learn about issues and developing critical reasoning to investigate issues, but not to develop solutions. Even in higher levels of academe, they teach you how to talk about problems or how to have a specialized skill set to work within a certain field. They don't teach you about challenging systems or institutions. 

Everything I've learned about in terms of solutions has been from the community. Outside of LMU's bubble, there's a city of 4 million people and there's a county of 10 million people and each neighborhood is so unique and distinct. There are people who are doing amazing work helping build power with community members and support and you have some of those individuals at LMU like Dr. Cheryl Grills, Dr. Stefan Bradley and [in] the Office of Black Student Services, Dr. Nathan Sessoms. [Dr. Sessoms] worked at one of our partners, actually, Brotherhood Crusade, for five years before he even entered LMU's space. 

Being in the community has actually taught me how to challenge systems and build community power in a way that's not redundant, in a way that’s not moderate. It's informed by the people, it's informed by youth helping put together the pieces alongside community members directly from their mouths. That's what being outside of LMU has taught me: how to be in solidarity with people, how to be a part of the community that's outside of Westchester. That's the actual reality of what life is like in L.A.
via Makeen Yasar

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

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