Marietta demonstration showcases the small-town effort for racial justice– with no signs of stopping 

As news spread of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May of 2020, people worldwide organized, grieved and demanded justice. Marietta was no exception.   

Attempting to reframe the perception of small towns as ignorant and antiquated in their politics, Marietta residents Hayla Zyla-Dennis, Jaleel Ismail and Kyleah Schaffer organized and took part in a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration last June.    

It was no small feat. The 2010 census reports African Americans make up only 1.3% of the city’s population compared to the 94% of the Caucasian population. Recent estimates show those figures have shifted to 2.2% and 93.3%, respectively.   

Reaching members of the overwhelmingly-white community appeared daunting, as Zyla-Dennis recalled the stress of prioritizing safety and working to dispel fear-mongering rumors of imminent looting and destruction.    

Yet the peaceful demonstration attracted over 1,300 citizens and raised over $780 for the Movement Black Lives fund, coming as a pleasant surprise to most.  

Zyla-Dennis expressed her motivation for organizing the event, though she was adamant that she not receive sole credit.  

Photo by Lucas Martin

“I just wanted to educate people and just start conversations,” Zyla-Dennis says. “I think community in a small town’s really important. If you have this privilege, you can’t be afraid to stand up for other people.”  

Bearing in mind the area’s racial makeup and her own blind spots as a white person, she collaborated with Ismail to include a Black voice in an issue disproportionately affecting people of color.   

The son of Sudanese immigrants, Ismail discussed his experience being Black and Muslim in Marietta. Though he notes the pressure of community organizing, he believes small-town America is not a lost cause.    

“There’s a lot of people in small town America like trying to learn, trying to get better,” Ismail says. “There always is room to grow.”    

“You should continue furthering your knowledge to not only educate people, but to educate yourself.”

Kyleah Schaffer

Schaffer, a sophomore at Marietta High School who spoke about her experience as a biracial resident of Marietta, echoed this sentiment. 

She adopted a newfound pride in her community after the rally’s success, admitting that a year ago she would have told you that small towns are too far gone.   

“I’m starting to see a lot more people who want the change to happen,” Schaffer says. “People actually do care, people actually do want things to change, people are there for you.”  

The three emphasized the theme of starting small, each recognizing that personal circles are harbingers of change.  

Ismail acknowledges there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to discussing racial issues, but he encourages people to start with their families.   

“Start there, you know, start those conversations there with family members that might not completely understand,” Ismail says. “It makes sense to work from within.”   

Noting schools and churches as places where word spreads quickly and civil discussion is fostered, Zyla-Dennis believes “the starting point is your community.”   

Schaffer emphasized the importance of intergenerational education, arguing that reaching the younger generation is just as important as reaching the older.   

A student herself, she called for more accurate lessons in U.S. history, ones that don’t ignore Black culture, prominent Black figures or events. 

“You should continue furthering your knowledge to not only educate people, but to educate yourself,” Schaffer says.  

Zyla-Dennis agreed, though she recognizes that educating oneself can be difficult. She suggested reading books by Black authors and watching documentaries on Black issues as ways to hold accountability and better oneself.  

Though many prefer, or have the privilege, to believe that last summer’s events were confined to news headlines or a trending topic on social media, those devoted to racial equity are attempting to garner reconsideration.   

While Schaffer appreciates those who attended last summer’s event, she stressed that one rally is not enough.   

She believes there should be continued protests, a point that Zyla-Dennis also noted when disclosing her plans on making it an annual event.  

Ismail believes that this past summer was a wake-up call for many, and that things like examinations of white privilege and continual conversations about race are other ways white people can continue the movement’s momentum.    

Spreading information on social media is a way to keep the issues relevant, while concrete action like donating to bail funds or Black Lives Matter chapters and supporting Black-owned businesses are other methods of support.  

“You can tell that people care and want to do something,” Ismail says. “We need to have faith in people.”