For seniors Aliah Lawson and Anaiya Manuel, racial injustices are both lived experiences and a topic of their studies at Case Western Reserve University. And earlier this year when protests were held across the country to challenge these systemic injustices—following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans—Lawson and Manuel drew from both experiences in joining the movement.
Lawson and Manuel attended protests in Greater Cleveland and were inspired to organize their own event in University Heights, Lawson’s hometown. The June 23 protest drew approximately 250 participants, on a march from Wiley Middle School to University Heights City Hall that featured voter registration opportunities and a demonstration to draw attention to privilege, which they used to show that racial justice is a systemic issue that encompasses various aspects of everyday life. While their protest was independent of the Black Lives Matter organization, Lawson said their intentions are aligned with and in support of the movement.
“If I don’t do it, who will?” said Lawson, who is double-majoring in political science and psychology on a pre-law track.
They consider the protest to have been a success and were asked to host similar events in the future.
“That’s led to the realization that this work is not done,” said Manuel, a Cleveland native who is majoring in political science with a social work minor. “You can’t just really go at it and have a rally one day. You still have to have all of these other meetings behind the scenes. You have to talk to your local officials. Everyone agreed [our protest] was a good thing, but it’s not over yet.”
Lawson and Manuel remain actively engaged in conversations surrounding racial justice, both on and off campus.
Lawson, who previously served as president of the Black Student Union and remains an advisor to the group, is a co-chair of the Racial Justice Committee of For a Better CWRU: A Student-Led Task Force, an initiative launched to make progress on several issues of concern to the campus community. She also is part of a committee convened by University Heights Mayor Michael Brennan to review use-of-force and community interaction policies for the city’s police force.
Manuel has accepted positions on three of the task force’s committees on racial justice, mental health and sexual assault. Additionally, Manuel is working with the CWRU chapter of the Ohio Student Association, an organization that engages individuals at universities and in communities and seeks to push for reform and policy changes as they relate to equity.
Lawson and Manuel hope they will be able to help make actionable changes.
“I don’t want to get stuck in a vortex of conversations,” said Lawson. “I want to make sure that even if it’s small, that we do work that’ll change how our lives here are on campus and on the surrounding community.”
Manuel noted that being a leader in pushing for change is “draining, but necessary,” adding: “You constantly have these conversations about racial inequality and segregation and oppression, and people are constantly asking ‘what can we do to make this better?’ and there is no simple solution. It’s a constant battle, but at the end of the day, it’s very, very, very worth it.”
Lawson said she hopes others will carry the momentum to make progress on racial justice forward.
“This isn’t a trend, especially to us. This is our lives. This is our families’ lives, our friends’ lives,” she said. “We just want people to understand that we’re very serious about this and for this to ever work, everyone has to be on board. Everyone has to give a little. Everyone has to be uncomfortable to actually make this change. Where we’re at right now is not where we’re meant to be.”
Get to know them both better in this week’s five questions.
1. What was the last book you read?
Lawson: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Manuel: Buffettology by Mary Buffet and David Clark
2. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Lawson: I actually wanted to be a lawyer because my last name is Lawson, and it all came full circle.
3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
4. Who has had the greatest influence on you?
Lawson: My mother had the greatest influence on me. She gives her all to take care of me and my younger siblings and always made me feel like I could do anything I put my mind to.
Manuel: My great grandmother has had the greatest influence on me. Regardless of what someone does, never let it change how you view yourself or how you treat others. I have always watched her open her arms with kindness, and even to those who did not deserve it.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
Lawson:The people. To be around and able to learn about different cultures and different parts of the world has been very valuable.Manuel: Also the people. Many of the people here have taught me lessons that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. They’ve provided a family when I felt like I’ve had none and ultimately taught me to embrace who I am, rather than shy away as a result of stereotypes.