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'I feel the fire in my chest’: Roanoke woman joins movement of young people fighting for racial equality

Rivera’s drive is not just rooted in racism, but also in tragedy

ROANOKE, Va. – 2020 has been a year of change for many college students, including Tenysia Rivera. She started her junior year of college virtually in Roanoke instead of on-campus at Howard University.

Far more has changed for Rivera this year than just COVID-19.

“I feel the fire in my chest and how much I want to make that change,” Rivera said.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Rivera turned her anger into activism, taking to the streets to protest and using her voice to make a difference.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of racial injustice and inequality and the overall socioeconomic inequality within our minority communities that have allowed us to fall a lot further than we ever should have been, but we’re doing the best that we can and right now is a time that we’re not going to give up,” said Rivera.

Seeking justice is a drive her aunt, Nicole Ross, said Rivera has had her whole life.

“I think if anybody can get it done, she can,” said Ross.

Both women are driven by the racism they encountered for as long as they can remember.

“It did something to me that I didn’t realize until I was an adult. It made me feel like I was inferior,” explained Ross.

Ross hoped her niece wouldn’t have to experience those same feelings, but Rivera still faces the problems to this day.

“She was like, ‘Hey, can you press your hair for this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ What about my hair, I know it’s spirally and it’s curly, but what about it is so unprofessional?” Rivera said.

Rivera’s drive is not just rooted in racism, but also in tragedy.

“Honestly it’s kind of like a fever dream,” Rivera said.

Her father was shot and killed in Roanoke when she was just 8 years old.

“He was killed because he was breaking up a domestic dispute. He was helping someone that he didn’t even know. That’s the type of person he was,” Ross said.

His murder brought their family unimaginable pain, but from that came purpose.

“I’ve learned that it’s okay to be upset but if you’re going to be upset, you need to be upset now,” said Rivera.

“She learned how to endure and she learned how to press on and she learned at a young age that life isn’t fair and what she’s trying to do is level the playing field make it a little more fair and make it a little more just for others,” Ross said.

Carrying the memory of her father and the inequities she’s faced in her own life, Rivera is fighting, adding her voice to a movement that’s gaining momentum because of young people.

“What they have to say matters. Not only do they matter, what they have to say matters,” Ross said.

“I feel like my generation is maybe the foundation to greater change,” Rivera said.

Rivera plans to be part of the change she’s seeking right now by speaking out and by making sure other kids can grow up in a world different than the one she grew up in in the long-run.

“I hope that they feel something is being done, that at the end of the day when they go home and lay their head to rest, that they know they’ll see another day and that someone else won’t take that from them,” Rivera said.

Rivera said she knows the race will be long, but she’s ready to run it.

“I think this is a lot bigger than a broken bone. This is like a disease that has ran through and really made its mark on every aspect of the country and really the world, so instead of treating it like a fracture and trying to set it and let it heal, we need to find out where the disease started. As soon as we can get the right medication, I believe that maybe we could start to heal ourselves,” Rivera said.


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