WSU student and Winona community activist Tova Raylan Strange ‘23 found her platform and her voice this summer amid the outrage following the murder of George Floyd, and she has been taking action ever since as an outspoken advocate and grass roots organizer for all the marginalized populations in her hometown of Winona.
A sophomore majoring in psychology and double minoring in communications and criminal justice, Strange is no stranger to social justice issues or taking practical steps to build social equity. She remembers always questioning authority and pre-existing ideals, even as a child, when she was known to be “fairly assertive and independent in [her] my thinking.”
Calling out the bullies in middle school, Strange confronted them with angry words, such as the time when a classmate was verbally abusing another boy who had autism, calling him the “r” word. Tova’s loud voice of protest brought multiple teachers out of their classrooms and into the halls, suspecting an altercation. That bullying ceased permanently. In 8th grade, one of her friends was “smacked on the butt” in a sexual way, which elicited Tova pinning the perpetrator up against the locker in verbal confrontation. It never happened again. Standing up for the victims of social injustice, she recalls, “I have always caused trouble for the troublemakers.”
Adopted, Strange grew up knowing that her birth mother was “mixed race (black presenting)” and her father was white, rendering the tag ‘French-Creole’. She shares that she also grew up second guessing her place; the lightness of her skin caused a disconnect from her black roots. Although she possessed the social skills to hang out with students across the arching spectrum of skin pigments, she never experienced feeling a true belonging anywhere (amid black, white, or brown students). She explains this as “internalized colorism”, something she says she is still working through. Her insecurity during her teen years may have kept her from “being a better version of [herself] myself”, it also served as a catalyst to rise up and strive to create an equal playing-field for all persons in her community.
Just before the heightened activism exploded across America this summer, Strange learned more about her biological roots, another springboard to her next steps. Her birth mother’s father was “a black man and a Black Panther Party member, a consistent rule bender.” His cultural roots lay in France and Puerto Rico.
With an ever-heightening sense of connection to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Tova attended and spoke at a protest organized in Winona for justice for George Floyd and was surprised and delighted to see so many Winona community members turn out for the event. Unable to attend protests in the Twin Cities, Strange realized “there is a lot that needs to be done right here in Winona.” She got to work, raising funds for a short-lived BLM Facebook page and then joining the WAPS Diversity and Equity Committee.
She is currently engaging with community adults in a prison abolition study group and attending/speaking at meetings with the city manager, council members, and community sheriffs to “shift how we utilize policing in Winona.” In addition, Strange is collaborating with a community network that includes professors and local philanthropists to create “a paid internship program for people in Winona to sit on non-profit boards to get experience and encourage community involvement.” This program is in its infancy.
Undaunted by the sometimes “vicious and belittling name calling” she encounters on her social media platforms pertaining to her community work, Strange says she is learning a lot about herself even as her life’s work has shifted towards something larger than herself, something of even more importance, “I have seen and experienced the power of community mobilization. I feel empowered to continue on.” Realizing the power of willingness to be wrong and grow from it, Tova’s BLM message provokes deep consideration,
“Good intent does not change a negative impact. Be mindful of how you are asserting your whiteness in everyday life. We were all raised in a racist society within institutions normalizing white supremacy-we must unlearn this. We need to listen to and amplify black and brown voices to express what they want and need right now while avoiding white saviorism.”
Looking to the immediate future, Strange encourages young people to become involved, hopes for people of all ages to embrace feeling uncomfortable about social change and social equality, and calls for holistic organization to move beyond majority silent knowing.
“The power of the people united is far stronger than that of the people in power.”