From independent political campaigns to grass-roots advocacy, one young genderqueer activist works tirelessly to make Richmond a better place.
Benjamin West | January 25, 2019
Something was brewing in Richmond, Virginia in the autumn of 1800. A shadow hanging over the city.
Their stone eyes still gaze the length of Monument Avenue today, but over two hundred years ago, half a century before the rise of the Confederacy, a young black man named Gabriel Prosser was planning a revolt — an uprising, a movement to fight back against a world advocating for his enslavement and the enslavement of his brothers and sisters. According to a historian-run organization called U.S. History, Prosser’s group was going to ride armed on the state capital, under a banner emblazoned: “Death or Liberty.”
We can’t be certain today what name Prosser was called by his friends and family; the name “Gabriel Prosser” is a reference to the person who owned him. What we do know is that Prosser was a skilled worker. He was literate, and he had mobility. We know his plan, “a well-coordinated attack” to overthrow the institution of slavery and to “to create a more democratic republic in Virginia,” was rained out the night it was supposed to come to fruition, and he was later revealed to the authorities by a traitor to the cause.
We also know Prosser was executed by hanging in what is today Shockoe Bottom.
In late August of 2018, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney read a proclamation, announcing a week celebrating Prosser’s life. Gabriel Week. Among those who gathered in honor of Prosser were young people, grassroots activists working in a variety of advocacy fields to make their city a better place. One of those people was Rebecca Wooden Keel.
“This week wasn’t to celebrate a failure in weather,” Keel said. “It’s to really memorialize a young person seeing and knowing what was going on in their environment, understanding that oppression was real in their lives, and then organizing a whole community to do something about it.”
Over Gabriel Week, Keel took pride. The spirit of their movement shares much with the life of Gabriel Prosser. Challenges. Defeats. But also some victories on the horizon, and a whole generation of young people, inspired and ready to step up and help change the world.
Keel cites a multiplicity of identities guiding their worldview, interests, and actions since childhood. Keel is genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns. They have a visual disability, which requires special accommodations in their daily life. They are African American and have albinism. The lifelong Richmond native recognized early that the system would rarely, if ever, accommodate them. So they spoke up.
“I was probably seen as a bright child, but probably an annoyingly precocious one,” Keel said, tucked into a small table for two at the Front Porch Cafe. With tall, echoey ceilings, the cafe was bustling. The clinking mugs and stacks of muffins on offer serve as the face of a youth-oriented nonprofit operating in the same building. Up at the counter, a jar of buttons represented pay-it-forward meals a patron can buy for anyone who might need one.
In their early years, Keel remembers always trying to do something: to call out injustices and to fix a broken system. “Trying to organize and galvanize folks,” they said. Keel had just entered the 3rd grade when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened. At 8 years old, they rounded up their whole school, Reams Road Elementary, to help the victims’ families pay for funeral costs.
“I think it comes from feeling powerless in my own life around having a disability, always needing an accommodation, always needing help, and for a long time being ashamed of that,” they said. “We minds well be elevated together and get what we need so we can all live our best lives.”
Ever a Richmonder, Keel completed undergrad at Virginia Commonwealth University between 2010 and 2013, before returning after a brief hiatus for graduate school. Studying social work and gender studies with an interest in counseling, Keel tested the waters in 2016 by taking an unpaid internship at Rubicon, a local mental health and drug rehab facility.
“It was really exciting to take off the advocacy cap for a moment and just be that empathetic, compassionate, counseling, helping individual that was needed in that moment,” they said.
Though Keel enjoyed counselling and found it meaningful, it only solidified their previous vision for their future, of working to change the overarching systems we live in.
“I look at the individuals I’m counselling and I’m like, wow, this infrastructure has failed you, this system has failed you” Keel said. ”What if these things were different? How would your life be different?”
Still working at Rubicon, with a full grad school courseload and no car, Keel announced that they would be running for Richmond City Council in the 2016 election. City council members act as the legislative arm of the government. They provide policy, amend it when necessary, and can appoint people to boards and commissions. Any important local issue involving Richmond taxpayers’ money, the City Council has a hand in it.
“This is going into your visceral reality of streets, of schools, or public transportation, your access to food equality,” Keel said.
According to Keel, their campaign’s main goal was to bring transparency and accountability to the council, and well-being to its constituents, who, like Keel, are mostly young people.
“People would oftentimes ask me about my age and where I was from,” they said. “And to that I would say: I want to increase representation on city council, as the 2nd District is predominantly younger folks, people who are transplants to the city. I want to help them feel more established and feel like they actually have someone who represents them and sees them.”
The 2016 summer died off, but the heat bled into autumn. In row houses and bungalows spanning the city, talk of the upcoming election crept into nearly every conversation. To some, the stakes were astronomical, and many young people were taking notice for the first time.
Keel stressed their deep appreciation for a number of peers and mentors, but one stands out in the unique alliance they formed: Montigue Magruder, a 2016 candidate for the neighboring 5th district. Keel and Magruder share similar politics, and they both came onto the 2016 stage fresh and new to the political game. They met for lunch after each announced their plans to run, and formulated a game plan.
Magruder said they canvassed for each other, distributed literature featuring both of them, and had co-op yard signs in places where their districts touched. And they were there for each other, according to Keel — young people after a similar goal, they provided each other with moral support and offered tips for a successful campaign as they learned from experience, learned by doing.
“I think we mentored each other,” Keel said.
Every day, Keel would bike home from a full day of work and school, and head out to canvass, working to get their name into the public consciousness. But as they spoke with everyday Richmonders, Keel said they quickly encountered a state of apathy. TV screens in homes and offices, and thousands of car radios backed up on I-95, were incessantly convincing people that the race between Trump and Clinton should have a monopoly on the public’s limited attention.
“There is so much there,” Keel said about the presidential race of the time. “But there is also so much right in front of you.”
The campaign soon took a turn when another troubling fact came to light. “I quickly realized a lot of people in Richmond aren’t registered to vote at their current addresses,” Keel said. To combat this problem, Keel shifted course, integrating a “mini-campaign” into the larger one called, “Live Here Vote Here,” focusing on getting as many people as possible “engaged in voting.”
“Leave a place better than you found it,” Keel said. “I’m southern, I had to incorporate that.”
The sun set on Nov. 8, 2016, and as volunteers closed down polling stations, the city packed into living rooms and public spaces to witness the outcome. Richmond had faced a ballot for mayor, school board, city council, an important referendum, and of course, the nation’s president.
Keel, 24 years old at the time and taking no corporate donations, raised over $3,000 and received nearly 13 percent of the vote. Not a win, but impressive by almost anybody’s standards. Remembering this time in their life, Keel said they can’t understand how they found the energy to keep going. But even today, they are an advocacy powerhouse. The 2016 election marked a shift in Keel’s future: a focus on macro solutions, a fight for steady, tangible policy change.
Not long after the election, Keel shifted their focus on the issue of youth incarceration. One of a 3-person-team making up the RISE for Youth organization, Keel dug tirelessly through endless documents and attended countless city hall-style conversations. The group is part of a larger coalition, and their work spans the entire commonwealth, taking a big-picture approach for such a small, hardworking team.
“Young people are any community’s greatest asset,” Keel said.
The organization’s primary beliefs and goals are: youth prisons statistically fail to rehabilitate child offenders, the system disproportionately affects people of color, and rehabilitation is most effective when it is put in the hands of the community.
“We believe the juvenile justice system should prioritize the individual therapeutic treatment needs of youth rather than rely on methods that increase the likelihood of future crime and incarceration,” states an online resource on the RISE For Youth website. “The juvenile justice system should strive to keep youth at home with their families with appropriate services and supports, and youth should only be removed from home as a last resort.”
From nearly unpaid prison labor, to the disproportionate amount of people of color incarcerated in the total population, Keel said they view the modern prison system as something analogous to slavery. As policy director for RISE For Youth, Keel’s other roles included community organizing, event planning, and working to make the coalition of organizations and individuals as effective as possible.
“I work[ed] on crafting what the future of juvenile justice care in Virginia can look like,” Keel said.
Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE For Youth, calls the organization “small and mighty.” She said that each member of the team is a leader, and that they push each other and draw the best out of each other.
“The best leader is also a follower,” Slater said.
Slater said she remembers a particularly tense meeting when Keel, recognizing the tension, paused to bring the team back together with an exercise. One of Keel’s exercises includes asking their coworkers to summarize why juvenile justice is important in one word. Keel writes each word down, and quotes it back in a sentence, one at a time to each member. Besides her appreciation of Keel’s advocacy work, Slater said she values Keel’s ability to “bring us back in togetherness.”
In many ways, Keel shares similarities with Gabriel Prosser: young and at the forefront, ready to challenge society when it’s not working for its people. Richmond saw a sharp uptick in political awareness during and after the 2016 election. Keel is less an example of this trend than an important catalyst, and others in the local community are taking notice: not long ago, Keel found out they would be one subject in a mural series by local artist Hamilton Glass, part of a project called ‘RVA Community Makers.’
More young people are running for office, more progressive demonstrations are crossing highways and gathering on bright, manicured lawns. Around VCU’s campus, lamp posts and walls seem all but wallpapered in political literature, and volunteers roam the streets leading up to elections, canvassing and helping people register to vote.
This week, Keel resigned from RISE for Youth. However, they are by no means leaving the local activist scene.
“It feels really good though, because it’s opening up a lot of work that I’ve been so curious to dig in to for so long,” they said. “Like, since I ran for office, or even before that.” That work takes the form of a relationship with Richmond Peace Education Center, along with various freelance and community gigs, Keel said they’ve also directed their energy towards researching southern grassroots political infrastructure.
“Learn and research what people are doing 501 (c) (4)-wise, what people are doing political action committee-wise — and so my little nerd brain is going crazy in the best way possible,” they said. According to Keel, facilitation gigs and community organization will still be their life, and “finding new, creative ways” for direct actions and political education. In a way, it’s nothing new for Keel. But it is a fresh start.
Keel said they’ve seen the people of Richmond “rising into their power” in recent years. They believe everybody has the right and duty to soak up Richmond’s history, both “terrible and wonderful,” and do anything they can to halt oppression when they see it.
“If you are black in the United States and you’re a slave descendant,” Keel said, “then you have a birthright into movement work. If you are a white person that has any inkling of racial injustice in your bones, then you have a birthright into this movement work. If you are Latino, or from any part of the United States, you’re probably here for a reason. That’s your birthright.”
For those who want to help but don’t know where to start, Keel offered up a metaphor they originally heard from a local activist:
“If you’re tasked with cleaning up a whole junkyard, where do you start? You look down and start right where you are.”