For 526 seconds, over 300 people in the Alexandria area took a vow of silence for the death of George Floyd on Thursday night at Alexandria Technical and Community College.
Event leaders matched the silence with a beat on a drum and the drop of a rose on top of a Floyd mural. The moment wasn't only powerful, but was also meant to be a step toward equality in Douglas County.
The Inclusion Network hosted a "Time for Change" event in the open field next to the college. Hundreds showed up with lawn chairs and masks to listen to several equality leaders speak about the steps Alexandria's community can take in the fight against racism. For people that couldn't make it to the event, there is a stream on the Inclusion Network's Facebook page. All eight speakers' time on stage is available in its entirety.
"I thought the turnout was incredible," speaker Josette Ciceron said. "It made me feel empowered to see so many people in the community show up for something outside of themselves for something truly greater than themselves. It made me feel at home."
The moment of silence took place in the middle of the event. Speakers and event organizers took part in dropping the roses on the painted picture of Floyd, who died while under police custody on May 25 for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. It was a difficult moment for West Central Area Youth for Christ director Kevin Taylor.
"It was hard for me. You think you process something, but I hadn't processed that moment and how each second was how long George Floyd's neck was being knelt on," Taylor said. "It was hard to hold it together. It was such an emotional thing when you think about the amount of time that knee was on his neck. It's a long time."
Following the moment of silence, two young activists took the stage to share their thoughts about what it's like to play a role in this movement.
Finding friends in the cause
Maddie Bogart and Niki Botzet both graduated from Alexandria Area High School in 2019. While friendly acquaintances, they wouldn't have considered themselves friends. That was until a march happened two weeks ago in Alexandria following Floyd's death.
Boggart is heading into her sophomore year at Concordia College in Moorhead. There she's enrolled in global studies courses and is an active member in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission. While Bogart is active in striving for change, she's relatively new to the game.
"I went through some tough times in middle school and the beginning of high school," Bogart said. "I think that helped me grow in my empathy for other people. I really appreciated it when people spoke up for me in my struggles, and it hurt when people stigmatized me in certain ways. My problems were different than people affected by racism, but it helped me show empathy to people who define themselves by their differences."
Bogart started a non-profit called Change in Motion, where they focus on educating and uplifting diverse cultures in Alexandria and Greater Minnesota. She reached out to Botzet, a black graduate from AAHS in 2019, to be part of the movement.
Botzet joined Change in Motion's first peaceful march on June 3, before being asked to speak at the Time for Change event on Thursday. Botzet spoke about how she's complimented for her hair and skin but recognized that no white person would willingly choose to be black in America. Botzet's time on stage was a moment of empowerment for her.
"When I was in high school, I wasn't very outgoing. I never stood up for myself," she said. "There were always people that would go out of their way to make me feel bad about my culture and who I am. Through Change in Motion and what we are starting to do, I feel like I truly have a voice. I feel like I have so much to say, and having this voice is a new thing for me."
Botzet and Bogart are encouraging young people in Alexandria to use their voices and join them in their movement. Change in Motion is on social media platforms for more information.
Taylor sets a challenge
When Taylor took the stage, he joked about how pastor Hans Dahl and he had much of the same material for their speech. Dahl spoke about how people need to feel the injustice happening in America before they can fix it. He led the crowd in a prayer before sharing his experiences growing up in a small town in North Dakota.
Taylor challenged the gatherers to continue to help long after the Time for Change event finished.
"I am humbled to be invited to this, but if I can be transparent, I am pretty shocked," Taylor said to the crowd. "This is something that's been going on for years. It seems like every couple of years, people get excited and want to be called to action. My challenge for you is, are you here for the Facebook photo, or are you here to last? Are you here to endure?"
Taylor continued by thanking everybody who showed up on Thursday, before asking what they are going to do next. Showing up to listen is the easy part. Now, Taylor wants to make a difference when nobody is watching.
"The biggest thing is not to change your focus when the news cycle changes," Taylor said. "How do we stay focused on what happened and what transpired while paying attention to everything else going on around the world? It's about not walking away when they see injustice happening. There's a great parable in the bible. Don't cross the road like everybody else. Be a good Samaritan and go straight to the problem."
A harrowing story
After Taylor relinquished the stage, one of the more emotional parts of the night followed in Josette Ciceron's time on the microphone.
Ciceron is a Haitian-American woman who has had some tough experiences in Alexandria. She told a story about how a white man and woman wouldn't board an elevator with her and her son. She talked about how her husband was falsely detained in front of her house as the officer had his hand on his gun. But what came next was a question that brought her to her knees.
As she was putting her son to bed a few nights ago, he looked at her and asked if the police were going to kill him too. Ciceron wept as she wasn't sure what to say to her 6-year-old son.
"I stared into his little eyes searching for what to say," she said to the crowd. "His dad came over, sat on the side of the bed and said, 'Hey buddy, as long as you're here with us, you're always safe.’"
Ciceron's chilling story struck the crowd into stunned silence. After she got off the stage, they honored her with a standing ovation. It was a moment Ciceron won't soon forget.
"When I finished, it felt like a huge sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders," she said. "I wanted to be as open and as vulnerable as possible to give people an opportunity to empathize. To see the reaction I got when I was walking off that stage was so moving. It made me feel whole."