Like many ioby Leaders, Samaria Rice didn’t always think of herself as an activist. Until a few years ago, she was a busy single mom, taking care of her kids and studying to start a career in real estate in her native Cleveland. “I was living in a bubble,” she says.
Then, on November 22, 2014, Ms. Rice’s 12-year-old son Tamir was shot and killed by Cleveland police while playing with a pellet gun outside the Cudell Recreation Center.
“I didn’t realize about police brutality,” she says. “I saw Michael Brown, I saw Eric Garner… but then I saw Tamir Rice. I was thrown into this position and decided that I was not going to let my son die in vain. I never thought I would be an activist, but this is what God wanted from me, so I’m dealing with it in grace. I’m changing my pain into some power. I just want to invest in the children in the city of Cleveland.”
Ms. Rice’s ioby campaign, Building Tamir’s Legacy, is raising money to renovate the building that will become The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center, a youth center she’s founding and hopes to open in 2019. The Center will be housed in a two-story brick building on Cleveland’s East Side which for decades printed a Slovenian newspaper; she purchased it this past March. Her campaign is also crowdfunding to host a Sweet Sixteen party for Tamir at the Cleveland Museum of Art on June 14. Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter; Pages Matam, Director of Poetry Events for Busboys and Poets; and Cleveland-based band Mourning [A] BLKstar are among those currently set to perform and present.
The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center will provide a range of offerings for young Clevelanders ages 10 to 19, including music, theater, dance, visual arts, and LGBTQ-focused programming, as well as mentoring, help with homework, and field trips. Ms. Rice stresses that education about politics and government will also figure largely in the mix, “so the kids can learn how to be the mayor, how to be the governor. I want to teach these children how to vote, where city council comes from, how a prosecutor gets there. I didn’t know about all this until my son was murdered. I had to learn the hard way. I’m not going to deny another child.”
Addressing broad needs locally
Born and raised on Cleveland’s East Side, Ms. Rice is founding the Center in the neighborhood of St. Clair, though she says it could have started anywhere in the city. “Whether it was the East or the West Side, it didn’t really matter. I was just looking for a building. Being for Cleveland period, the Center could fit anywhere—especially the inner city. The children out here are not getting the recognition they deserve. The school system is poorly done; there’s a lack of after-school programs. If you want to come [to the Center], we want to love you, we want to guide you, we want you to be all you can be. I took parenting classes and other classes that bettered me. You have to be able to take suggestions that can better your life.”
Since she lost her son, Ms. Rice has become a passionate advocate for honesty and compassion in education. “The children are going to be leading us up out of here, so we need to invest in them!” she says. “The adults obviously can’t get it together. America has told a lot of lies. I was told Columbus discovered America, but he didn’t—American Indians were already here! We need to let our kids make their own way based on the real truth. America is messed up right now. Our children in the inner city don’t have hope; I want to give them hope. I want to try to change the dynamics to make sure we tell our children the truth.”
Facing hostility together
Unbelievably, Ms. Rice has encountered some opposition to her plans in her home city. She says “one or two” elected officials support her efforts, but otherwise, her city and state government are “not in my favor.” Some of her neighbors have also been less than welcoming: recently, she learned that all the locks on the Center’s building had been filled with super glue.
Thankfully, Ms. Rice has found a few strong local champions. She met artist Molly Nagin through The Butterfly Project, a multifaceted community healing initiative based at the Cudell Recreation Center. Nagin encouraged Ms. Rice to meet the activist, artist, and ioby Leader Amanda King. King’s organization Shooting Without Bullets had successfully crowdfunded for a youth photography exhibition in 2016 (and they’re currently funding for their 2018 campaign). “Eventually I met Amanda and she was just as sweet as pie,” Samaria says. “She’s helped me with a lot of things—things I didn’t quite understand about social activism, since I was just thrown into this.”
Finding crowdfunding—and crowd-resourcing
“Crowdfunding was suggested to me,” Ms. Rice explains. “I didn’t really want to do it, I didn’t want to ask people for money, but Amanda said, ‘You need to do it.’ I’m in this for the kids, but I know you need to raise money to do it!”
“When I first heard of ioby, I said, ‘What does that mean?’ They said ‘in our backyards,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I like that.’ I looked at the folks on [the website] and they look peaceful, they look like they’re making change. I said, ‘This is legit.’ I can feel if something is real or not, and when I met [Indigo Bishop, ioby’s Cleveland Action Strategist], I knew she was the purest. We had a beautiful meeting. She answered all my questions.”
Ms. Rice has also been talking with artists in Cleveland about painting a mural on the Center’s building, and with others who want to make in-kind donations of materials like desks and iPads. “I’m willing to work with anybody if they right,” she says. “If I work with the right people in the city of Cleveland, we’ll be able to help people better themselves.”
What’s in a name? Power and magic
“We just want to teach the children where we come from. We’re powerful and we’re magical. I know what Tamir was all about, and he was powerful, and he was magical. I want them to know that it is power that lies within them.” – Ms. Samaria Rice
When it came time to choose a name for the youth center, Ms. Rice says The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center just fit.
“We know that Black and Brown people are getting killed in America every day,” she says. “[The name is] about being empowered with your Blackness and who you are. There’s nothing wrong with being Black. You need to love the skin that you’re in; you need to be comfortable. It’s not about discrimination. If the white man or the Asian man wants to come in and learn, we will teach them. We just want to teach the children where we come from. We’re powerful and we’re magical, so we just wanted to put that name in there. I know what Tamir was all about, and he was powerful, and he was magical. I want them to know that it is power that lies within them. That can be for anybody, but I put that on there because Tamir was a Black American.”
“They want me to just take the money and be quiet,” Ms. Rice says of the settlement Tamir’s estate was paid by the city for his untimely death. “[But] I have a platform now. I don’t have to be quiet about police brutality and community violence. I can try to hold these folks accountable with the support that’s come my way.”
“I will probably be in this activist business until the day I die,” she says. “I’m just waiting to see how this project goes, to see if we can make sure everything is good over here. If we succeed, which I know we will, we will probably open another center on the West Side, probably be in the next three years or so. The way we designed this program, [the kids] can’t lose.”
Encouragement for other new social justice activists
Making the shift from living a relatively quiet life to being thrust into the international spotlight has been the journey of a lifetime for Ms. Rice. “It’s not always easy, I promise you,” she says. “I will never be complete. As much pain as I’m in, I just put on my armor every day and do what I have to do for the country and for Tamir.” Every day, she is finding her way, and gaining momentum.
“Get up and go do it!” she advises others starting on their own path to activism. “If you know the chain of command and the process, it’s really not that hard. Get involved: start with your community. See what’s going on at the city council. Go and hold them accountable. Check to make sure they’re doing the work. Double-check the organizations in your community. Ask them questions; ask for a meeting. That’s your governor there: why can’t you have a meeting with him and tell him what you think? It starts there.”
“I suggest people come together as one; everybody needs to be on board,” she says. “If more Americans can start loving each other—whether you’re Black, white, Asian, whatever—then when we say, ‘This is what we want for our city,’ it can be done.”
Building Tamir’s Legacy is currently funding on ioby. If Samaria Rice’s story touched you, please consider making a donation to her campaign. If you live in the Cleveland area, you can also show your support—and celebrate Tamir Rice’s life and legacy—by buying a ticket to his Sweet Sixteen party at the Cleveland Museum of Art on June 14.
If you have an idea to make positive change where you live, we can help you bring it to life. Tell us about it at ioby.org/idea.