On June 19, under a blanket of blue sky and midafternoon humidity, hundreds of demonstrators marched from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs to commemorate Juneteenth and denounce systemic racism. A sea of masks and protest signs with phrases such as ‘Say their names,’ ‘I can’t breathe,’ and ‘No justice, no peace’ flooded the streets. Leading the crowd was Graysen Kirk, a rising sophomore at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who orchestrated the event following her June 1 protest at Five Corners. With each step Graysen took, hundreds behind her followed. Only 15 years old, Graysen says her work as an activist is nowhere close to finished.
Graysen’s activism began when she was in kindergarten. After her small New Hampshire hometown voted to reduce school funding and divide their K through 5 programming into two separate schools, Graysen’s parents organized a rally for students, educators, and family members to protest the decision. Graysen, too young to make her own protest sign, remembers scribbling with her friend on the blank placards her parents had provided. “Activism was some of my earliest memories,” she said. “That was really the first protest I went to, a protest for my own education.”
Growing up, Graysen said, her rural New Hampshire community was nearly entirely white — a lack of diversity so poignant she now calls it poisonous. While her town did not demand she be aware of racial issues, Graysen’s father, Jerimiah Miller, said her family did, educating her about equality and systemic racism. As she got older, Graysen said she started to learn more about our nation’s battle with racism — both past and present — and was disillusioned by how discrimination and prejudice persisted throughout the country. “I could never grasp or understand the concept of treating someone differently because of the color of their skin, or treating someone differently despite any bias,” Graysen said. Despite her young age, Graysen said, she became passionate about solving racial disparities.
As a middle schooler, Graysen became aware of more complex social justice issues, and started attending rallies and protests. When she was in sixth grade, Graysen attended the Women’s March in Philadelphia with her family. Miller carried Graysen on his shoulders as they marched, and said she was not intimidated by the size of the crowd in the slightest. Instead, she saw how large a voice people can have when they come together, Miller said. She also joined the March for Our Lives demonstration in D.C., and took part in a climate change march in Boston. Graysen dedicated many of her formative years to understanding and challenging injustices, wherever she encountered them.
After learning about the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American who was shot and killed by a volunteer neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., in 2012, Graysen said she took it upon herself to learn about police brutality and mass incarceration. She began reading books that explained the issue from the perspective of black Americans, such as “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone, and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and for an argumentative essay her freshman year, she chose to investigate America’s racialized prison systems.
For Graysen, racism and police brutality are also incredibly personal. She now has a 6-year-old step-brother who is biracial. “I hope that I can change something by the time he grows up,” she said.
The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were a tipping point for Graysen, who decided to organize a protest on Five Corners in Vineyard Haven on June 1. “We are such an isolated community, sometimes we don’t have the same opportunities,” Graysen said. “I wanted to give people a platform and make them remember that this is our problem as well. We are no exception from the rest of the country.” The event was planned only two days in advance, and was organized over social media. Graysen admitted she was nervous, and thought it would only be her and her sign on the corner that day. Over 300 Vineyarders protested alongside her.
“It was really inspiring to see so many people enraged by this,” Graysen said. “I think the difference in these rallies is that there’s so much more unity, so many more people coming together.”
The day after the Five Corners protest, Graysen had the idea for a Juneteenth demonstration. Keeping momentum, she said, was paramount to the Black Lives Matter movement. “People tend to fall back into their comfort spots, especially if they’re white,” Graysen said. “But it’s something people need to stay aware of.”
The Juneteenth demonstration required weeks of planning, as Graysen negotiated with local police and found speakers who could address the crowd afterward. The demonstration’s main objective, Graysen said, was inspiring others to educate themselves on systemic racism and unlearn their own prejudices. “Truthfully, everyone still has backward ideas, and it’s our job to dismantle them and educate ourselves to the best of our abilities,” she said. When the time came, Graysen led more than 400 demonstrators from Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven to Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.
“As a father, it is a very fulfilling and amazing feeling to look up to your child as they’re still growing,” Miller said. “She is her own person, but she’s still my little girl, and she’s still growing up and becoming who she is. I have found myself proud and inspired by her.”
Graysen says her activism on Martha’s Vineyard is far from over, as she looks toward planning more events in support of Black Lives Matter. Looking toward the future, she believes activism will always be part of her life, and hopefully, her career. She intends to graduate from law school to become a civil rights lawyer: “Getting justice for the oppressed and for people who don’t have a voice — that’s what I intend to do.”