Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Person of the Week

Helping Guilford Racial Equality Project Raise Awareness in the Community


The young organizers of grassroots Guilford Racial Equality Project (GREP), including Co-president Yanenash Ayele Munoz, are ready to bring GREP’s first awareness-raising event to town, Drive-In for Justice on Monday, Aug. 10, at 8:15 p.m. behind St. George’s Catholic Church. Photo courtesy of Yanenash Ayele Munoz

The young organizers of grassroots Guilford Racial Equality Project (GREP), including Co-president Yanenash Ayele Munoz, are ready to bring GREP’s first awareness-raising event to town, Drive-In for Justice on Monday, Aug. 10, at 8:15 p.m. behind St. George’s Catholic Church. (Photo courtesy of Yanenash Ayele Munoz)

The young organizers of grassroots Guilford Racial Equality Project (GREP) are ready to bring the group’s first awareness-raising event to town, Drive-In for Justice. On Monday, Aug. 10, at 8:15 p.m., a drive-in movie screen set up behind St. George’s Catholic Church will light up for a free viewing of the award-winning 2019 film Just Mercy, based on the life work of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson.

“At the end of the day, we have one goal, which is to spread awareness on racial equality. And we’re doing this by hosting events in our community,” says GREP Co-president Yanenash Ayele Munoz.

The lifelong Guilford resident and member of the Guilford High School (GHS) Class of 2019 formed up GREP with her GHS classmate and GREP Co-president Mariam Kish.

“Mariam reached out to me in the first week of June and said she wanted to do this event, a drive-in movie based on Black Lives Matter, because of all the protesting going on at the time after the death of George Floyd,” says Yanenash.

From that idea, GREP was born.

“That first month we spent gathering people, and making sure our message across our organization was those of minorities from Guilford High School students and graduates,” says Yanenash.

The group of about 35 is mostly made up of recently graduated GHS alumni as well as some Clinton and Madison members, all who share the desire to raise awareness about the injustices and impacts of racism and help bring change for a better world.

“We see everything going on,” says Yanenash, 18. “We’re the future, and we want to change what we’re seeing right now that’s affecting everyone, and affecting minorities, and affecting the world in general and the way we live.”

GREP’s membership makeup is “very diverse,” Yanenash adds.

“We have a lot of African Americans, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caucasian, so we have a wide group of people,” she says.

One of the first decisions made by the group was that any funds raised by GREP will be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund. While Drive-In for Justice is a free event, donations will be gratefully accepted that night. The drive-in event will follow COVID-19 protocols which include viewers staying in vehicles for the duration of the movie.

St. George Catholic Church has kindly allowed GREP the use of the church’s rear Whitfield Street parking lot for the program, notes Yanenash. She adds that local businesses have been showing support as word of GREP gets out. The group developed a brochure, which is available at Naples Pizza and the Guilford Greenery with a Drive In for Justice collection jar at both businesses. In addition, The Marketplace at Guilford Food Center has dedicated its August Change for Charity collection to GREP.

The group’s Facebook page (@Guilford.R.E.P.) and Instagram (@guilfordreps) have been up and running since June and a website is expected to launch this week (check GREP social media for website launch announcement and link).

Yanenash says she’s thankful for Lauren Mizelfelt and Karina Campos, GREP members and print designers of the brochure, flyers, and informational pieces, and also to her sister, Sanay, for coming up with the event name for Drive-In for Justice.

Learning to Unlearn

As a child of parents who are Ethiopian and Guatemalan, Yanenash says being a person of color in today’s world means navigating a place where racism exists daily, even in small actions or in comments or jokes that those who are not of color may not recognize as hurtful and wrong.

“Every minority experiences it in some way... that’s why we have this platform,” says Yanenash. “This organization is for the youth of Guilford and this platform is for the minorities and any people who want to help spread awareness.”

To help develop awareness, one of the first actions of GREP was to develop a slogan, “Learn to Unlearn,” she explains.

“Learn to Unlearn is dedicated to offensive languages, and basically it talks about learn the history of the offensive language [and] then you unlearn it,” as well as refuse to use it, and treat those affected by it in the past and present with respect, Yanenash explains.

“For example, the N-word,” she says. “Acknowledge how it’s affected people of color, African Americans, in the past and how it is still present today. Once you realize that history and how it harms African Americans and people of color, then you unlearn it by respecting the people of color of today and in the past, by not saying it. It can go for any offensive language.”

To help raise money to bring the message of “Drive-In For Justice” to the community, GREP has established a GoFundMe fundraising page (www.gofundme.com; search “guilford racial equality”) with a goal of raising $1,000 to help defray costs of the event. The group was about halfway to its goal at press time.

The Warner Bros. movie Just Mercy tells a powerful story about racism through the work of Stevenson, who graduated from Harvard and brought his expertise to Alabama to defend the wrongly condemned and those unable to afford representation. It follows Stevenson’s years of effort — and the racism, legal and political hurdles he encounters — in his fight for the life of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl despite overwhelming evidence proving McMillian’s innocence.

While “Drive-In for Justice” focuses on support for the message of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, future GREP programs will also help to raise awareness about issues faced by minorities of many backgrounds, Yanenash notes.

“Our organization is to spread racial equality for marginalized groups,” she says. “So our first event is for the Black Lives Matter movement, but for the next event, we’re going to expand it [so] we can do a variety. We’re always open for marginalized groups; we’re not just focusing on one.”

Yanenash adds she feels there is support in the Guilford community for the concept of raising awareness about racial equality, especially in the wake of recent BLM rallies nationwide. She says BLM support in town, including that shown on signs on lawns and in windows of homes and business, are signs of hope.

“Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement started, and I’m driving with my family and I see those signs, that gives me hope,” she says.

Yanenash and the GREP leader group is also hoping that the momentum that’s starting to take hold for this organization will continue while she and many of the other founding members are back at college. Yanenash will be a sophomore this year at UConn in Storrs.

She says some GHS underclassmen have already contacted GREP about getting involved.

“I’ve had sophomores and juniors from the high school who have contacted me and want to participate, which is awesome, because when we’re in college they can be doing things,” says Yanenash.

Remarkably, helping to organize and run GREP is Yanenash’s first effort as an organizational leader. She thanks Rev. Michael Giannitelli of her family’s church, St. Mary Church of the Visitation in Clinton, for helping her rise to the challenge.

“Father Michael gave me some wise words on how to work as a group,” she says. “I never started an organization before. It’s [been an] awesome experience because now I know I have to power to run an organization with other leaders.”

Yanenash adds she’s proud to be a part of a generation of young people who are actively and peacefully seeking ways to bring about needed change in the world.

“I feel like our generation is very motivated and very positive,” she says. “I really see that our generation is going to make a change and stay positive and help others. That’s why I feel very fortunate and happy to be a part of this generation.”

Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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