Roaring Fork Show Up rally focuses on empowering women, kids | AspenTimes.com
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Roaring Fork Show Up rally focuses on empowering women, kids

There was a slight shift in focus of the sixth Aspen rally against systemic, anti-black racism and in support of the current Black Lives Matter movement Sunday. 

Instead of chanting things like “I can’t breathe,” organizers asked participants to use phrases like “We can breathe,” aiming to create a more positive, change-driven demonstration. 

“Rather than saying things that are words of oppression, rather than assuming positions that are physically oppressive, i.e. ‘I can’t breathe’ … those (words) are speaking truth to power,” said Aspen resident Jenelle Figgins, one of the rally organizers. “We don’t want to speak truth to power, we’re trying to change that truth.” 

For the third weekend in a row, dozens of Roaring Fork Valley locals met at Wagner Park, joining the protests that have been taking place nationally and worldwide in response to the death of George Floyd, the black man who died May 25 after being pinned to the concrete by a now-former Minneapolis police officer, knee to neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. 

But at this most recent Aspen rally, leaders Figgins and Sajari Simmons talked specifically about supporting black women and children — and about how through their newly formed Roaring Fork Show Up advocacy group, they intend to start helping empower and shape the lives of all people of color in tangible ways.

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“Some individuals are worried that once the publicity dies down that so too will this mission,” Simmons said to the rally participants Sunday. “We’d like to go on record and say this is long term and we do have initiatives and programs we’re developing for this community, … so just kind of keep in mind that this is bigger than just protests in the same way that systemic oppression is deeper than just in one institution.” 

To kick off Sunday’s rally, Figgins read from a notebook with her own words on the oppression of black women in America, despite the essential services and roles they’ve had in this country for decades. 

She specifically referred to Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951 and treated by Johns Hopkins University. At the time, a doctor took some of Lacks’ cervical cancer cells without telling her or her family — cells he discovered could not only be kept alive but that also multiplied indefinitely, as reported by NPR

Lacks died in 1951, but her cells live on, now known as “HeLa” cells that have allowed researchers to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans for more than 60 years, according to a John Hopkins Medicine webpage dedicated to Lacks

The webpage acknowledges that there was no established practice for informing or obtaining consent from cell or tissue donors in the 1950s and that “racial discrimination was often unacceptably a part of day to day interaction.” 

Today, two members of Lacks’ family are on the committee that helps decide who can use HeLa cells in National Institute of Health-funded research, the webpage says. However, as reported by NPR and in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Lacks’ cells have been commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profits for medical researchers over the years — cells her family didn’t even know were being used this way until more than 20 years after her death in 1951. 

“Her life is an example of how America treats black women,” Figgins said to the rally participants Sunday. “Why are we so disposable but essential? Why do you love our essence but not on us?”

Figgins then read the names of 63 black women who have recently died at the hands of police, asking rally participants to sit in silence as she did so, and helped lead a march along Mill, Bleeker and Main streets to Paepcke Park, where the group of roughly 150 people gathered to learn more about Roaring Fork Show Up’s mission and in-progress initiatives. 

As explained by Figgins and Simmons on Sunday, the women created Roaring Fork Show Up to give a voice to the oppressed in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond. 

They hope the initiatives and programs created through the advocacy group will work to achieve a number of “bridging gap” goals, like create financial equity and opportunity, demand access to influential positions that advance systemic change and develop safe spaces through thought-provoking dialogue for all people of color, according to the group’s website. 

To help achieve these goals, Figgins and Simmons said it will take continued community support and opportunity for the voices of the black community and all people of color to be heard.

At Paepcke Park on Sunday, both women thanked a handful of local news organizations who they feel have helped get their voices heard and who have reported on the recent Black Lives Matter protests and rallies in Aspen. However, the women also told the crowd Sunday that they would not support The Aspen Times because they feel the newspaper has misrepresented them and ignored their voices.

Beyond their broader Roaring Fork Show Up mission, both Figgins and Simmons each have more specific goals they hope to achieve as well. 

For Simmons, a Chicago native, she said Sunday she hopes to extend her help beyond the Roaring Fork Valley to the inner city of Chicago and all of the areas around the world “where justice needs to be served” through her Melanin Passport Initiative. 

The initiative aims to give freedom to inner city black children by helping them obtain passports, travel and be exposed to opportunities beyond their neighborhoods, as explained on the Roaring Fork Show Up website. 

For Figgins, a professional dancer with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she aims to empower young black aspiring artists through her in-the-works “The Goal Achievement Program for Black Excellence in the Arts” mentorship program.

The program will help foster the talent of these young artists by pairing them with an accomplished visual, musical, performance or culinary art professional, the website says. 

Both women emphasized to the rally crowd that while their programming and initiatives are still taking shape, they hope to create meaningful, lasting change and opportunity for all people of color, starting with women and children.

“We are definitely focusing on women and children for our first go-round. I feel like children are our future and if we start there we can start to shape their lives in ways that are very impactful,” Simmons said. “We’re pretty much doing this from our heart and from our lived experience.” 

Both Figgins and Simmons said the Black Lives Matter demonstrations will continue next Saturday and Sunday at Wagner Park starting at 10 a.m. For more information about Roaring Fork Show Up, visit roaringforkshowup.org

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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