Essential Work: Young Black activists ‘in the middle of history’ confront Covid-19 and racism

Joeff Davis/

GoodKids MadCity organizers China Smith and Miracle Boyd (fourth and fifth from the left) and other youth lead a march down State Street protesting Donald Trump’s visit to Chicago on Oct. 28, 2019.

This marks the debut of “Essential Work.

The new Injustice Watch series uses first-person and multimedia storytelling to explore acts of resilience and resistance by young Black activists in Chicago who are wrestling with the coronavirus pandemic while fighting racial injustice and police violence.

First up: two youth organizers with GoodKids MadCity, China Smith, 18, of Greater Grand Crossing on the South Side, and Miracle Boyd, 18, of Chicago Lawn on the Southwest Side.

They wrote essays reflecting on their experiences since March, when local officials first enacted a stay at home order in response to COVID-19. Injustice Watch edited their narratives, which you can read below, for clarity and length.

You can also listen to China and Miracle share what they’ve learned, and what they strive to do as organizers trying to transform the city of Chicago, in this audio piece produced by Erisa Apantaku of South Side Weekly, with additional editing by Priska Neely.

Stay tuned for more in the “Essential Work” series.


China Smith

Matt Gibson IV/G4 Aperture

China Smith, 18, speaking at a protest in early June 2020.

It was around the middle of March when we heard we’d be out of school for quarantine. There were rumors that it would last two weeks, there were rumors that it would last longer. It didn’t matter; I had mentally checked out anyway. My senior year at King College Prep High School was very harsh. I didn’t think I could handle the rest. I had failed my first semester of physics, suffered from illness, gun violence, and the day-to-day insecurities of being a Black woman.

In February, I performed with my dance team during King’s senior night but started feeling queasy after the event, so my family rushed me to the hospital. The doctors said I was just dehydrated, but I was sick at home for about two weeks.

When I returned to King, the school community was mourning the loss of 2019 King graduate Jaya Beemon. She was killed by gun violence. I began feeling empty because I know how unloved Black women are and how the media overlooks them.

I was comfortable with being in quarantine because I didn’t have to go anywhere; I was able to keep my mind at rest.

But the world got even harsher.

We saw spikes in Black Death. My friends told me about their family members who died of COVID-19. My older sister’s ex-boyfriend Marcus was shot 15 times and killed. He had always fought to improve himself every day. His death was heart-wrenching on a personal level, but I also began to feel as if my efforts as an activist were not enough.


Davon Clark/Injustice Watch

Chicago, IL — Miracle Boyd, an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, speaks at a media conference before GKMC’s “Love March” in the South Side’s Woodlawn neighborhood, Saturday, July 11, 2020.

I’ve been trying to stay focused, doing essential work, as a three-level pandemic rips through my community. I’m talking about the coronavirus that has disproportionately plagued Black and brown lives, and the devastating poverty and anti-Blackness that existed before COVID-19.

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On top of all the madness, I was still obligated to complete online classes and graduate high school last month. My last day at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, in person at least, was in March. The coronavirus peaked, and then came Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s #StayAtHome order.

I found a job at a fast-food restaurant and became an essential worker. I’ve also served families during this pandemic with my organization, GoodKids MadCity. We have raised over $10,000 with our mutual aid campaign, which provides emergency funds to Black and brown youth. We’ve also shopped for older people and families, and delivered groceries to their homes.

I’m a home healthcare worker for my 65-year-old grandmother, too. She contracted COVID-19 in March and had to quarantine for two weeks. When we first suspected she had COVID-19, she was having hot flashes, felt like she had to puke, and had a horrible headache. I called an ambulance, and it took her to an emergency room.

The paramedics did not want us family to ride along, so we stayed back while my aunt followed in her car. Three days later, my grandma called me and told me that she had COVID-19 and that I should get tested. I visited a hospital, but I was not experiencing any symptoms, they said, so they didn’t check me and instead only told me to quarantine.

But the hospital did not keep my grandmother, who is a diabetic, either. She had to recover at home. I was checking on her every day. It was hard to watch and hear her suffer.

“I hurt all over,” she said.

“I feel so lifeless,” she told me.

“My stomach and chest are on fire,” she complained.

My family is blessed that she recovered. But I worry still because she has diabetes and gets sick easily.


Photo courtesy of China Smith

China Smith.

The isolation of quarantine made me think about inner demons I had let rot in my head. I began circling back to my pain as a Black woman.

I always felt that I needed to prove myself in every space.

I saw “why I didn’t report” Tweets reminding me of the many times in my past that I was victim to sexual assault. Seeing men accuse women of lying felt like salt in a wound.

When I addressed a piece of my trauma, there seemed to have been more seeping out. Avoidance became a part of my daily routine. It showed itself through procrastination, stubbornness, sulking, impulsive behavior. I knew that I was growing as a person, but I was so tired of fighting the trauma that I became numb.

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Every day I would look at my Chicago Public Schools laptop and wish the work would do itself. My mom would yell at me to clean my room, and I would have to lecture myself to get up. I would stay in the shower longer because it gave me time to cleanse in isolation.

But COVID-19 had been hitting our neighborhood the most. It is hard to quarantine when you live in food deserts, and do not always have funds to sustain yourself. Aside from the pandemic, America had continued to be a nightmare for Black people. That was enough for me to fall deeper into a world of activism.

I helped pass out groceries. I went to multiple protests and helped organize others. My organization sent out emergency funds. I used social media as a platform to inform my friends and family about COVID-19. Helping my city seemed to be the only proper use of my trauma.

My friends were catalysts, too.

When we weren’t vibing over our other interests like music, poetry, and fashion, I found a home in them to shelter my love for activism. We wanted to see change. We had suffered trauma that didn’t need to be a part of us.


Chicago, IL — Miracle Boyd, an organizer of GoodKids MadCity, addresses participants to kick off GKMC’s Love March in the south side’s Woodlawn neighborhood, Saturday, July 11, 2020.

On Monday, May 25, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes. Paramedics took Floyd to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Floyd’s death sparked outrage across America and the world. Protests and rebellions arose in communities on all sides of Chicago the weekend after he died.

I attended a protest downtown where we held space and took over the bridges by Trump tower. Once the crowds started to move from the bridges, police began to raise the bridges to keep us from crossing.

A few hours later, Mayor Lightfoot ordered a curfew and halted public transportation from Downtown. This trapped many people Downtown without rides who were eventually subject to arrest. When the looting broke out on the South and West sides of Chicago, people called the police. The cops were not even picking up.

People looted a ‘Food 4 Less’ in my community. Now it is boarded up, creating an even deeper food desert. However, community organizations have stepped up to support fellow residents, providing free COVID-19 testings, raising donations for mutual aid, free groceries, and cleaning supplies for families.


Breonna Taylor.

She was a Black woman, murdered by police on March 13. There wasn’t enough outrage for her. The world just kept spinning. A Black woman dying felt as if a part of me died as well. It scared me. It made me want to cradle every Black woman in my arms and protect them.

George Floyd. Murdered by police. This one hurt America even more, as the U.S spun into a wave of protests, rebellion, and pure rage. I have never watched the video of George’s lynching thoroughly. I could not stop crying. I was so tired of seeing the dark side of the Black experience.

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I tossed myself into protests, screaming Breonna Taylor just as loud as George Floyd. Marching to the streets. Dancing with my friends, crying myself to sleep. I took my frustrations out on cops passing by, flipping off every officer. I shouted, “abolish police!” at every cop car I saw. I wanted them to feel as uncomfortable as I did when they glanced at me. My family and friends were worried about me. I went out some days and did not return until late in the night.

I always woke up frozen in place.

I felt like every problem in my life sat on my body.

Every new death hit closer and closer to home.

Oluwatoyin Salau was a year older than me, also Black, also an activist. Sometimes I wondered how soon it would be me who went missing.

My friends and I would protest and throw ourselves into a world of sadness when it was over. We ranted, cried, isolated, and shut down. It seemed like they were the only ones to understand the darkness that ate at me every day.

Fighting for people who look like me gave me purpose. I am willing to sacrifice for the cause. Every day I am ready to find new ways to harvest my love into activism, even if the front lines give me trauma.

How do you know when you’re traumatizing yourself?


Davon Clark/Injustice Watch

Chicago, IL – Members of GoodKids MadCity and Assata’s Daughters lead a march in the South Side’s Woodlawn neighborhood, Saturday, Jul. 11, 2020.

Police beat and wrongfully arrested many protestors when the uprisings began. But the police were not the only ones targeting Black people during the protests.

Soon, Latinx gangs in Pilsen and other communities started to target Black people in their neighborhoods indiscriminately. These times have demonstrated how blatant and frequent racism is against Black people.

I recently debated with a Latinx peer on social media about the usage of the ‘N’ word by non-Black people. It turned into an infuriating argument. She said to me, “idgaf who says it, it’s just a word.” I was so disgusted.

People would still find a way to be racist, despite all the racist events that had transpired. Of course, my friends and others saw the comments and went off. She deleted her comments and unfriended me.

I never wanted to argue.

In the past three months, I’ve been on the frontlines serving communities, helping to feed Black families and elderly folk, and rebelling against racism and police brutality. Many events have transpired that have opened my eyes for the greater good.

Black people everywhere stand in a decisive moment.

We must choose between risking infection by COVID-19 and staying at home as our people fight in the streets against state violence that has left too many of us dead from the guns, hands, and knees of police.


Courtesy of China Smith

Despite a tough senior year at King College Prep High School, China Smith, 18, graduated on Juneteenth and plans to attend Columbia College Chicago.

I am in pain from being in the middle of history.

Yet I am happy to be part of a people who will not let this moment pass by us.

Part of me feels that I can help fix all of the world’s problems. Although I know it isn’t true, that belief inside me is a manifestation of change. That belief is my will to keep going—even if it’s almost too late—even if the night before grades are due, I turn in all my assignments to graduate. Even if I am having an anxiety attack. Even if I am screaming “Black Lives Matter” for the millionth time.

My own will has kept me from falling into a fire pit, clinging on to the small feelings of content. It’s all you have. As soon as you let go, it’s over. My fight will end once I no longer have a pit of fire to hover across. My fight will end once my friends no longer have a pit of fire to hover across. My fight will end once my people no longer have a pit of fire to hover across.

If I can’t change everything at once, I will change one thing at a time and reincarnate until my bloodline has a healthy balance of love and hurt. Had all of my trauma been met with love, I wouldn’t be a hurt 18-year-old. But I wouldn’t be who I am.

I beat a tragic school system.

I beat suicide.

I am overcoming capitalism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, colorism, fatphobia, depression, JUST by deciding to get up every morning. I am a living protest. I am a living rebellion. I am a living revolution!

Editor’s Note: Both China Smith and Miracle Boyd graduated from Chicago Public Schools on Juneteenth. Boyd plans to study accounting at Depaul University. Smith plans to attend Columbia College Chicago to study audio art.

Special thanks to Olivia Obineme for photo editing and additional project management.