Photos by Tyla Barnes
At 20 years old, Nupol Kiazolu has shut down highways and pageant stages, becoming a leader in what is now one of the largest civil rights movements in history.
Nupol Kiazolu is the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Miss Liberia USA, and is the founder and CEO of the national voting campaign, Vote 2000.
In 2018, Hawk Newsome, the former President of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, told Teen Vogue that the then 18-year-old was like, “a young Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman.”
“When she speaks, she’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable, and she’s impassioned,” Newsome continued. “She adds something to her arguments that really makes her appeal to her generation.”
Born in Brownsville
Nupol Kiazolu launched Vote 2000 in 2017 with the goal of educating disenfranchised communities, and getting them to vote.
According to the Center for American Progress, “In 2016, 9.5 million American adults—most of whom were people of color—lacked full voting rights.” That’s why Kiazolu partnered with DoSomething.org in 2018 to register more than 100,000 young people. The campaign is currently gearing up to raise those numbers even higher, says Kiazolu, particularly in communities of color.
“[..] People don’t want to come to disenfranchised communities, aka “the Hood,” Kiazolu explains. “A lot of people advocate on our behalves, [but they] never come into our communities because of the predisposed biases they may have.”
“But [..] I’m from the hood,” she says.
Kiazolu is from Brownsville, Brooklyn — one of the poorest parts of New York City.
According to the New York City Health, “37% of Brownsville residents live below the Federal Poverty Level; it is the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn and the seventh-poorest neighborhood in NYC.”
“We need people that are from our communities to advocate on our behalf,” she says.
Nonetheless, She Persisted
Nupol Kiazolu has been an activist since age 12.
“Trayvon Martin’s Tragic murder is what pushed me into activism,” she tells Emerald.
Martin was 17 when he was shot and killed while walking home after buying a bag of skittles and a bottle of juice. According to several reports, his killer, George Zimmerman, told a 911 dispatcher that “the young man in a dark hoodie, a gray hoodie” was a “suspicious guy,”” reports NPR.
At the time of Martin’s murder, Kiazolu says she could not fully articulate how she felt. “But I knew that I was angry, and that I had to do something.”
So she put on a grey hoodie with, “do I look suspicious?” taped on her, grabbed a pack of Skittles, a bottle of iced tea, and went to school.
It caused conflict within the predominantly white administration at her middle school, she explains. “They thought I was being too political. Nonetheless, I persisted.”
Kiazolu refused to take her hoodie off. As a result, she was written up for suspension, “ironically by my history teacher,” she explains.
Her only ally was her math teacher, Ms. Gibbs. “[She] risked her entire career by making the decision to march down to the principal’s office with me in solidarity with her hoodie on,” Kiazolu explains.
Instead of suspension, Kiazolu’s principal sent her home to build a case. “So that’s exactly what I did,” she continues. “I came across Tinker vs Des Moines,” the Supreme Court case that established the rights for students to peacefully protest on school grounds.
She won her case. When she arrived at the lunchroom afterward, “literally every student had their hoodies on with the same exact message taped on the back,” she describes. “At that moment, I knew being an activist and organizer was my calling.”
Uniting the African and African American Communities
Kiazolu recently accomplished another dream — becoming a pageant queen.
“I’ve always been interested in pagents,” she explains. “One of My favorite shows growing up was Toddlers and Tiaras. I would watch all the Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageants; I always pictured [myself] walking on a pageant stage.”
But she did not have enough confidence, she says. So she spent an entire year preparing herself for the competition.
“I didn’t have enough money to pay for a coach for anything like that,” she continues, which required her to self-train.
On July 26th, 2019 — Liberia’s Independence Day — she competed and won. As Kiazolu’s first pageant, she says she felt like an underdog. “But I left it all on the stage by being my most authentic self, and I won. Now I am Miss Liberia USA.”
Kiazolu’s reign has been extended from 2020 to 2021 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Her platform is focused on uniting the African and African American communities by working with organizations in Liberia, and raising awareness and funds for infrastructure, education and healthcare in the West African nation.
“This is not Just About our Future, it is About our Present”
Kiazolu is a full-time political science and pre-law student at Howard University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) located in Howard, Virginia. When she is not on campus, she is on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kiazolu says it is important for her to stay active in the uprising, “because this is not just about our future, it is about our present.”
Her work has so far brought her to uprisings in Charlottesville, Minneapolis and Louisville. On July 14th, 2020 Kiazolu was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky while protesting at the home of state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. She was there to demand justice for Breonna Taylor.
She and several other activists were detained, and held in close proximity in cages without food, water or hand sanitizer.
Those cages are visible in a video, which has now gone viral, filmed by Kiazolu while in jail. “They literally have us chained to cages like animals here,” she says in the video.
“When they ran out of cages […], they put all these Black people on this chain of cuffs,” she tells Emerald. “They looked like slaves getting off of a boat. The visuals; it was just so disturbing.”
“It was Literally a war Zone”
Nupol Kiazolu is no stranger to the perils of protests.
In response to the killing of George Floyd, Kiazolu traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota. “May 29th, I will never forget that day. I literally saw everything burn to the ground,” she says, describing it as a scene from The Purge. “I am glad I made it out of there alive.”
However, the uprisings in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 she says, was the most traumatic experience yet.
Kiazolu traveled there to counter-protest the Unite the Right Rally, which occurred from August 11th-12th, 2017. “[I decided] to go down to Charlottesville at 17 years old because the Black community there needed us; they needed bodies on the line,” she explains.
But, she says solemnly, “nobody could have expected what happened that day […].”
Three people were killed during the events.
As TIME reported:
“At one point in the afternoon, a vehicle drove into a crowd of counter-protesters marching through the downtown area before speeding away, resulting in [the death of Heather Heyer] and leaving more than a dozen others injured. State police later reported the crash of a helicopter that was monitoring the events in Charlottesville, killing two troopers.”
“It was literally a war zone in Charlottesville that day,” she says.
She was both verbally and physically assaulted. At one point, she was punched in the back by a white supremacist. Though traumatic, Kiazolu was undeterred by the experience. “A lot of people ask me why I am still an activist today. As crazy as it sounds, Charlottesville pushed me to do more,” she continues. “It showed me how far we have not come with race relations in this country, although America likes to portray itself as this post-racial utopia.”
“Out of That Un-comfortability Comes Progress”
Nupol Kiazolu is focused on changing conversations about racism in America. That starts with “being honest about what racism really is in this country,” she explains.
“The U.S. has purposefully mis-educated millions and millions of people for generations on what racism actually is. We are taught that racism is just a person-to-person thing,” she says.
“But it goes far beyond not liking a person because of their skin color; it’s systemic.”
The word itself is self-explanatory, she says — yet, “Americans have done such a phenomenal job at brainwashing people to not to look at the broader scope of this issue.”
“We need to start having these uncomfortable but necessary conversations about who benefits from racism — and who bears the brunt of it,” she adds. “Out of that uncomfortability comes progress.”
The Generational Divide
As a young activist, Kiazolu says she often experiences agism. “I see this every single day in this movement as a young Black woman.”
“[Older] adults seem to forget that we are capable of articulating our experiences and can speak to what’s going on in this country,” she continues. “They forget to recognize that Gen Z has propelled this movement to be the largest movement in world history […] through our use of our digital resources.”
Gen Z is portrayed as an apathetic generation, says Kiazolu. “But no — there are Gen Z organizers like myself who use social media as a tool to galvanize millions of people from around the world to push this movement forward.”
“It Doesn’t Matter how you Start”
As an activist with an international platform, Kiazolu says she sometimes feels overwhelmed.
That’s why she takes moments of self-care and advocates for mental health.
“[It is] imperative that we open a dialogue in our community [about mental health],” and create safe spaces for open dialogue, she adds. “Especially for young Black organizers because this movement is definitely physically, emotionally and mentally taxing.”
“I hope to be an example that it doesn’t make you weak to express your emotions; it makes you stronger, and it’s empowering to show a sense of openness.”
Kiazolu hopes to be an example for all Americans who dream of success.
“In 2036 I will be running for president […] It means a lot to me because I want to be at a place where I am the epitome that it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s how you finish,” she adds. “I really want to make that a reality for Americans because right now, that is not a reality.”
Although she is proud of her accomplishment so far, she says, “I’m also not proud that I am an anomaly.”
He was Young, Just Like Me
Before his death on July 17th, 2020, Representative John Lewis penned an open letter in New York Times. In it, he passed his legacy to young activists like Kiazolu.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
That letter brought Nupol Kiazolu to tears, she says. “It really reinvigorated this spirit inside me and pushed me to do more because he literally left an entire legacy of service to our community.”
“I will do my best as a young activist and organizer because when he got into this movement, he was young just like me.”
A motto of Black Lives Matter Greater New York is, “protest without strategy is an empty threat.” Accordingly, the organization recently released The Black Act — a detailed list of actions needed to create opportunity for Black and Brown communities.
Visit BlackOpportunities.com for a full layout of the agenda