A race for change

As a reborn progressive movement sweeps the nation, Seminole County tackles issues of racism on a local level.

Natalia+Alvarez+and+Tania+Sims%2C+members+of+Ready+Set+Reform%2C+speak+before+Oviedo+protestors.+They+led+a+march+in+Oviedo+on+the+Park+to+support+the+Black+Lives+Matter+movement.

Katrina Voorhees

Natalia Alvarez and Tania Sims, members of Ready Set Reform, speak before Oviedo protestors. They led a march in Oviedo on the Park to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

By Lukas Goodwin, Hagerty High School

On June 13, a small group of college students rounded together the voices of Oviedo to march for the Black Lives Matter movement that took the nation by storm following the murder of George Floyd. When University of Central Florida senior Tania Sims, the face of BLM Oviedo which would become known as Ready Set Reform, turned to face the waves of protest attendees as they advanced to the police station down Alexandria Boulevard, she was struck by the overwhelming number of allies rallied behind her.

Seniors John Doe* and Sarah Rifenberg join the rest of the crowd marching down Alexandria Boulevard. Students from Hagerty and Oviedo High attended. (photo by Emily Taylor)

“I just felt like, ‘Wow, all these people are here in support and [solidarity] of a movement about me, about my father, my brother, my sister, my family, people that look like me,’” Sims said. “It was a very proud moment.”

Black Lives Matter is an ongoing social justice movement that gained publicity in 2013 in defense of African Americans, and against racial violence and prejudice. However, after the death of George Floyd in May, and the ensuing deaths of countless others, the pressing issue of police brutality brought itself to the forefront of American minds once more.

As many protests were led nationwide, Sims and her friends felt inspired to do the same in Oviedo. While Sims believes that the population of a neighboring UCF is considerably diverse, she still stresses the need for a predominantly white Oviedo to “[embrace] diversity.”

With the help of university students Kim Ariza, Natalia Alvarez, Paula Rodriguez and Leeann Figueroa, Sims launched the march at Oviedo on the Park, garnering a crowd of roughly 500 supporters, under the title BLM Oviedo. The itinerary consisted of a congregation at the amphitheater, where a few people spoke their thoughts on racism in America and a moment of silence was held. This was followed by a walk to City Hall and back, before more speakers wrapped up the day.

Senior Emily Taylor attended the event, and she appreciated not just the thorough organization of the event, but also the sentiment behind it.

“Oviedo has a long history of silencing Black voices and minorities, so I was happy to see a change,” Taylor said.

Others were less enthused about the way the protest was run. Due to Black Lives Matter’s history of opposition to the law enforcement system, some did not like that the group’s efforts to keep things orderly entailed communications with the Oviedo city manager and police department. Black Lives Matter carries a long record of controversy, between debates over the of law enforcement and whether it excludes other races, so backlash was anticipated.

Many attendees to various Black Lives Matter protests came with homemade signs. These were used to push their message against systematic racism and police brutality. (photo by Ian Dauber)
The five organizers of the Oviedo protest, Natalia Alvarez, Tania Sims, Leeann Figueroa, Paula Rodriguez and Kim Ariza gather on stage. Initially involved in two separate events, the five collaborated to create one large protest. (photo by Katrina Voorhees)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sims, however, affirms that “successful protesting is going to be planned out.” She and the other members of BLM Oviedo worked for weeks preceding the event to ensure everything panned out smoothly, and turnout was successful in their opinions.

Many will attest to the mass approval the Black Lives Matter movement has received all over Central Florida. Outside of Oviedo, several protests were held across Orlando and in surrounding areas for the entirety of June. Senior Bella Wright went to one near UCF on June 9, and continues to be a proud advocate of the movement.

“It made me really glad to know that everyone of every race, gender, and ethnicity was involved,” Wright said. “I will 100 percent be attending future protests.”

Tania Sims, the face of Ready Set Reform (previously known as BLM Oviedo) speaks in front of the Oviedo police department. The protesters marched down to there and City Hall before returning to Oviedo on the Park. (photo by Katrina Voorhees)

Although the rise in protests over the summer has since died down, those who have backed the movement still continue to through other means. Sims’ group rebranded to Ready Set Reform after the march, and they are in the process of becoming a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Their goal is to work alongside elected officials to reach out to the black community locally, and provide opportunities for volunteers.

In addition, the Seminole County School Board is in the process of forming an Equity Advisory Committee. Though it operates on a broader scale than just racial equality, the committee already boasts 29 members and intends to represent students, parents, teachers and the entirety of the community.

“Since the district achieved unitary status many years ago, it is important for us to keep our equitable practices in place for the future,” Superintendent Dr. Walt Griffin said.

Unitary status was granted to Seminole County Public Schools in 2006 by the United States Department of Justice, which entails a more thorough desegregation process within the schools. Griffin has worked with the School Board to ensure that the district’s practices continue to protect and represent the diverse community.

Sims claims, in tandem with this group’s efforts, that there is more to activism than just protests. Even for those who cannot be as vocal, she encourages involvement in politics on all scales, engagement in the community and education on systemic racism.

However, she does not equate this to silence. She still believes that protesting is a loud and attention-grabbing method that works well for movements such as this, and avidly defends Ready Set Reform’s decision to lead the march. When planning where to stage the march, the group had to fight city officials to set it at a more public location in Oviedo on the Park, rather than down Oviedo Boulevard.

“Yes, we want it organized, and yes, we want it safe, but you’re going to see us,” Sims said. “Black Lives Matter supporters are going to see us and people that don’t support [it] are going to see us. Everyone is going to see us because that is what has to happen.”

This story was originally published on Hagerty Journalism Today on September 8, 2020.