Fargo-Moorhead area's new faces of activism 'not backing down' as push for social change continues
2020 was the year of the coronavirus pandemic, but also the year for activism, which will continue to move forward for social change.
FARGO — Since Claire Stoltenow was a child, she has needed to include everyone in the playground. Now that she’s in college studying political science, that playground is the community in which she lives.
Black. White. Brown. Red. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Everyone needs their voices heard. Stoltenow and Arden Light, of Fargo Moorhead Student Activists, are working to fix the injustices they see in society.
“Activist isn’t a term that I’ve earned yet,” Stoltenow, 19, said. “In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I got together with students from the area, and we created the Fargo Moorhead Student Activists to try and support marginalized and oppressed communities in the Fargo area.”
While 2020 was the year of the coronavirus pandemic, it was also a remarkable year of activism after Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Fargo saw protests with thousands of people supporting Black Lives Matter and a local group called OneFargo , and the city also suffered a one-day riot, which left the downtown area damaged and more than 20 protesters facing charges, some of which were filed in federal court.
One protestor was also struck by a car that sped away for more than three blocks before the protester jumped off, breaking bones in his leg.
Changes Fargo-Moorhead activists helped bring in 2020 included pressure on the police department for mandatory body cameras, a chokehold ban and the possibility of a citizen advisory board for police. They were also instrumental in pressuring the city into investigating former Deputy Police Chief Todd Osmundson, who went undercover without authorization during the May 30 riot and yelled obscenities at officers.
While the local chapter for Black Lives Matter and the group led by activist Wess Philome, OneFargo, have been quiet during the winter months, the social disruption left an indelible mark on the community.
And OneFargo isn't finished yet, said Philome, who is back in Fargo after visiting his mother in Florida. He recently began conducting interviews with area leaders and professionals about topics important to him over Zoom and broadcasting live to Facebook.
"I can't say that I am pleased with the progress that we've made as a city; a lot of what was said in the beginning was lip service," Philome said. "When I do look, I do see a bit of chaos within all of the movements going on at the same time, but I'm also inspired by it. OneFargo has some self reflecting that needs to be done, but as long as I am not done, OneFargo is not done."
Introverted at heart, Philome said the months of protests, speeches and marches took a toll on him physically.
Despite being surrounded by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, he never contracted COVID-19 because of precautions the group put in place, he said.
"I have stepped into the background and have been working privately, and there will be a time when I step forward again. It won't be just a me thing. It will stretch across the state of North Dakota," Philome said.
A new group on the activist scene is the Red River People Over Profits Initiative, a group with an online following of nearly 200 people in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The group declares it stands for justice and against the "violence of capitalist greed."
"People Over Profits Initiative recognizes that that vision is impossible with our current system that is built on exploitation, and is inherently centered on money, hierarchy, class division and that caters to wealth and white-male patriarchy," a post on the group's Facebook page stated.
So far, the group has led at least three marches around downtown Fargo and police departments since January and is planning monthly walks or protest marches.
"We are definitely the new kids on the block, and we value the community and the concerns of the community over profits and corporate greed," said Avalon Fyreheart, an organizer.
Another newer international activist group is the African People's Socialist Party, which found a coordinator with Jamaal Abegaz, formerly with Black Lives Matter.
Abegaz understands that the word socialism is controversial in North Dakota, "But they've forgotten their history. The state bank, the state mill. North Dakota is one of the most socialistic states in America."
Abegaz has been active locally in social reform for more than two years, but his position with the African People's Socialist Party is new. He's the first person in Fargo-Moorhead to join the organization that started in 1972 after the Black Liberation Movement ended.
He hopes to recruit others to take on issues such as police reform, climate change and advocacy for the African American working class against "capitalist-colonialist domination."
"The black and Indigenous working class has been at the boot's end of imperial oppression for too long. It's time we make our own order. The state means to exploit us until we die and kill the earth in the process," Abegaz said.
More changes are coming, and groups like the FM Student Activists and the Justice Action Coalition, a Minnesota based group seeking police reform that Stoltenow was working with, are new faces on the local activist scene.
“I think that activism in the conventional form is going to change. I don’t think activism is going to die because there are so many students and adults out there who want change,” Stoltenow said.
“It’s not always going to be sitting in at the city council meetings. It’s not always going to be protests on the sides of the streets," she said. "It’s going to be on Instagram, livestreaming videos and educating people. It’s going to be sharing info-graphs on Instagram, posting on Facebook, doing stuff on Snapchat."
The FM Student Activists, composed of hundreds of college-aged students, is looking to reform the English Language Learner program in public schools, Light said.
Some of the main issues the group is focused on are increasing inclusion of parents in the ELL program and solving communication issues with families where English is not a native language, Light said.
Light has also set his sights on educating the public on transgender issues.
“We need change in regards in discrimination against trans people, and that needs to start in education. When people become educated about it, it’s a lot easier for people to accept it,” Light, also 19, said.
North Dakota law states that people need to use the restrooms of their assigned sex at birth, and he hopes to bring change to the Century Code through legislation.
“I came out as transgender my junior year in high school, and it was very tough. And there were no guidelines for how the schools should handle that or how we should be treated. I would love to get something going in the schools, which I know will be a huge fight. But it’s needed,” Light said.
FM Student Activists are also working on addressing hate crimes and hate speech in schools , and they’re working with the NCAA to publicly condemn racist speech in schools.
“It’s daunting, but I’m not someone who is scared of anything, and FMSA isn’t either. They have fearless leaders. We understand it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be a long process. We’re not backing down, and we plan on working with the education system, mostly ,” Stoltenow said.
The Just Action Coalition is based in Minnesota, and the group is working to make police personnel records easily available to the public, Stoltenow said. She’s not looking to permanently dismantle, but to overhaul a biased system, and to one day soon work in North Dakota, she said.
"If you look at the policies that North Dakota has in place, they’re specifically designed to disenfranchise communities. That’s where you have to start, because it’s in the law," she said. "Racism and all other forms of oppression that stem from white supremacy and patriarchy are in the law. You have to start by abolishing institutions that no longer serve their purpose and rebuilding from the ground up, and that’s from the educational systems on up."
Stoltenow grew up in Moorhead, and she’s a sophomore at Minnesota State University Moorhead but is planning to soon travel abroad to study. Light, class of 2024, is also studying political science and would one day like to become involved in politics.
Both Stoltenow and Light received their fair share of threats and “nasty messages” on Facebook, Light said.
“I got multiple death threats the year I came out in high school, but I worked through it. I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten used to it, but I’m prepared for it more than I used to be," he said. "My perspective is that, obviously, I’m not going to put myself in a dangerous situation, but if I have to die for something I believe in, so be it."
Stoltenow said a car once tried to run her down while she was wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt.
“FMSA is fighting for the students now, but we’re also fighting for the students of the future. I am more than willing to sacrifice my life for something that is important, and that is a reason that activism won’t die, because of people like Arden and I who are more than willing to lay down our lives to protect other people,” Stoltenow said.