MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - If you haven't heard of Jerome Richardson yet, you probably will soon, and if you follow news in the Twin Cities, you’ve definitely seen his work.
Richardson, who previously went by "Jerome Treadwell" before recently adopting his father’s last name, was one of the co-founders of the nonprofit MN Teen Activists. The student advocacy group was founded in the Spring of 2020, just before the murder of George Floyd. Since then, they have played a critical role in youth activism across Minnesota.
Richardson moved to the East Coast for college in the fall — he’s now a freshman majoring in political science at Temple University in Philadelphia — but he is still the executive director of MN Teen Activist. The group has remained active as an important voice for students. Last month, they called on their more than 43,000-strong Instagram following to raise money for the funeral expenses of two teenagers killed by gunfire — Syoka Siko in Brooklyn Park and Yaseen Johnson in Plymouth.
Earlier this month, the group organized a student walkout at Como Park High in St. Paul over a hallway escort policy that many students of color felt was discriminatory.
Over the last year, Richardson has started to make his mark on a bigger stage, bringing his activism skills to bear on an international issue — helping African students who were studying in Ukrainian universities escape the county in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion. That work eventually caught the eye of State Department officials, and he was invited to speak on youth activism at two high-profile conferences: The Biden Administration’s African Leaders Summit in D.C last week and later this month, AfroChella in Accra, Ghana.
Now Richardson, who has helped promote and organize dozens of online fundraisers in the last few years, has one of his own: a GoFundMe to cover his travel expenses, including the plane ticket, for his trip to Accra for the conference on Dec. 28. He is scheduled to speak on a panel about how young people across the African Diaspora can share stories and collaborate to find solutions for shared problems.
Richardson describes himself as "ambitious," and he carries himself with confidence, but his recent step-up to larger platforms has come with moments of self-doubt.
"It's like this sort of like imposter syndrome or like survivor's remorse that I get. We're like, how did I get out of this situation, out of the hood ... in spite of all the odds that were stacked up against me?" he told FOX 9 in a recent interview.
By now, his work has won him some influential admirers, including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.
"Jerome is a promising young leader. I'm proud of what he's accomplished and excited for what his future holds," Mayor Carter told FOX 9 in a statement.
Richardson grew up as the son of a single mother in a rough part of Frogtown, with his father incarcerated until he was 14 years old.
As a kindergartner, he tested into Capitol Hill, a gifted and talented magnet school in St. Paul. He said many students came from more privileged backgrounds.
"I grew from the hood, so I like I had to code switch where I didn't fit in with the black kids and I didn't fit in with the white kids — I was either too white or too black. So I was really in the middle, having to create my own path," he recalled.
He also had to navigate having a speech disorder — stuttering, also known as stammering. His single-mindedness was evident from an early age — as he recalls it, he gave class presentations on stuttering from third grade through sixth grade, explaining to his classmates how it worked, famous people that had it, and what he was doing to overcome it.
In fifth grade, he produced a documentary on stuttering, part of which he later posted to his Instagram.
Still, he says at times he struggled with aspects of life as a student at Capitol Hill and was often suspended or kicked off the bus. He often felt like he was "projected to fail," but he credits the experience with helping to forge his determination to succeed.
"There was no one there who really understood and could work with me to shape and mold me to be who the person I am today. I don't regret anything… I know everything happens for a reason," he said.
The murder of George Floyd was a personal turning point for Richardson like it was for many of his peers. For him, it happened through music.
Richardson has been playing the saxophone since the fourth grade and has always taken it seriously. By the time he was 16 in 2020, he was performing at his own shows and at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. On Jan. 26 of that year, he was part of a tribute show at the Dakota Jazz Club for legendary local saxophonist Erv Williams, who died in 2019 at the age of 96.
After Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Richardson’s parents didn't want him to join the protests because they were concerned for his safety.
He could see his community was in pain, though, and he wanted to help. He recalled the historical role of music in the African-American experience, from Negro spirituals during the time of slavery to the songs of the Civil Rights Movement, and decided on a course of action.
"Once things died down, I was like, ‘I know my community needs healing.’ So I began with just playing my saxophone in my backyard at night, and I would see people flicker their lights or cheer or clap," he said.
Soon afterward, he was playing at movement events for Floyd in Minneapolis. People began to take notice. In May of 2021, the George Floyd Memorial Foundation invited him to play the Black national anthem, "Lift every voice and sing," at a remembrance service in downtown Minneapolis that marked making the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. Attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton were in attendance.
As he held out the song’s last high note on the pavilion’s stage, he felt connected with the audience — and supported.
"Just having that feeling that there was a celebration of a young Black man, with the hurrah crowd. It was electrifying," he said.
Rise of MN Teen Activists
That year — 2021 — was also when MN Teen Activists rose to prominence, as Richardson and other student organizers began working with more schools across the state.
In April, following the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter, MN Teen Activists organized a walkout to protest racial injustice. Students from 115 schools across Minnesota participated, including in Duluth, Big Lake and Rochester. In February of 2022, the group organized another walkout following the killing of Amir Lock by Minneapolis police.
MN Teen Activists have also sought to address gun violence. In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 of this year, Richardson helped organize a school walk-out in which students presented a list of demands to state representatives.
The group has a voice for students for gun violence that has hit closer to him. One well-known case, among many others, occurred in February when the group organized a benefit concert at the Capri Theater following the killing of North High student Deshaun Hill.
"We've seen a spiral of young people being affected in schools, in their communities, by public safety issues. I can’t tell you how many times my heart has been shattered over the past year," Richardson said.
Africans in Ukraine
The project that put him on the State Department’s radar happened unexpectedly.
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, tens of thousands of people sought to flee the country, including thousands of students from African countries who had been studying in Ukrainian universities.
Richardson became part of a network of volunteer activists from across the world that used WhatsApp and Telegram to help those students get to safety. The campaign was coordinated through The Global Black Coalition, a nonprofit.
The African students reported encountering racism and unequal treatment at every step in their journey. In transit — with videos emerging showing African immigrants denied seats on trains, at the borders, with border guards in Poland refusing to let them cross, and in their destination counties, like Germany, where the students told reporters that authorities treated them differently from refugees with Ukrainian citizenship.
Richardson found himself up at odd hours in the morning using Google Translate to work between English, Russian, Ukrainian and sometimes French. His mother was surprised when she saw the phone bill and asked him about it.
"I was like, ‘Mom, I literally have to do this. This is humanitarian work. People really need me,’" he recalled.
Ukraine, like every other country in Europe, faces challenges in regard to racism and xenophobia, but there were also Ukrainians who played critical roles in helping the African students escape — Richardson credits a man named Vitali, who was later drafted into the Ukrainian army, with being one of the people on the ground who made their work possible.
Meanwhile, Russian operatives tried to seize on the crisis, Richardson remembers.
"Russia utilized the racism that Ukrainians imposed on Africans as some sort of justification, as some sort rationalization as to why they were perpetuating and exacerbating the violence that they were putting upon Ukrainian citizens," he said.
The experience taught Richardson that many of the issues he had confronted in Minnesota were global in ways he had not previously understood.
"People think racism only happens for Black people in America. And that's not true. I really wasn't really exposed to that," he said.
His work helping the African refugees flee Ukraine led him to be in contact with state department officials, which eventually led to the invitations to speak at Afrochella. He hopes he will get to make the trip.
"It's a full circle moment for me. I’ve been dealing with African-American struggles. I dealt with Africans struggling outside of America. And now, I hope to go to Africa and experience new things and continue to grow as an advocate," he said.
Whatever happens in regard to Afrochella, he plans to continue his work. He says he gets regular messages from students saying MN Teen Activist has inspired them to take action in their own communities by doing things like organizing protests, attending school board meetings or organizing walkouts and petition drives.
"That in itself has been the very thing that has kept me moving and motivated, driving and pushing forward," he said.