Personal Essay: Activists and Heroes are Human Too

headshot of Arkansas activist Dawn Jeffrey
Photo courtesy of Joshua Asante.

When I think back to being an elementary school student learning about Black History Month and civil rights activists, I have faint memories of coloring pages of important people with their quotes stylized in a speech bubble next to them. As children, when we are educated about historical activists, we are given a fictionalized version of their life’s work. We are encouraged to believe they were heroes. Folks who were willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good.



People we should look up to and try to be like when we get older. Their statues are put on literal pedestals and parts of their stories are fictionalized. These activists aren’t painted as ordinary humans — they are described as sacred and the chosen ones. And while some of these beliefs may be true, they only highlight part of the whole person. 

In Indigenous African spirituality there is a belief that there is no separation between the sacred and the everyday or mundane. Yet, for some reason in the United States mainstream culture, the everyday isn’t seen as sacred and the ordinary human isn’t treated as so. Hence, when we are told stories about our activists, the narrative tends to erase their human complexity and likens them to fictional heroes.

Historical fiction births a separation between the sacred and everyday person. If you believe in God or you’re spiritual, wouldn’t it mean that we are all sacred, capable of creating change that could impact our everyday life in a significant way? That, however, would awaken the inner activist in everyone, which is not what people in positions of power want, ever. 

Although activists do create much needed change for society and sacrifice a lot, we aren’t usually given their full story. The story should encompass the challenges activists endure while they are experiencing it, the threats they receive from people in power, the isolation that comes with working towards a better vision for tomorrow. I believe we do a disservice to our youth by teaching them whitewashed history and historical fiction. Our human rights activists, like everyone else, are human. They have fears, they have regrets, they have victories and they make mistakes. They have to make hard decisions, they fall in love, they disappoint, they are whole. 

When historical fiction activists speak truth to people in positions of power, they are remembered as brave, courageous and glorified for their sacrifice. However, when everyday human activists speak truth to power, they are labeled as threats to democracy, their stories are silenced and they are shunned to the margins of society. A few examples are Assata Shakur (read her book), Bayard Rustin and Fannie Lou Hamer. The year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he had a 75 percent disapproval rating, but that’s not ever a part of the narrative on MLK Day. 

Today I come to talk about Dawn Jeffrey, an everyday human who morphed into an activist because she found purpose and beauty in uplifting Black people. She found purpose in creating a support system for Black folks targeted by the “Injustice System,” as she likes to call it. Our paths crossed in the most Millennial type of way — I slid into her Facebook Messenger DMs introducing myself and asked if we could connect. 

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In the fall of 2020, I moved back to my hometown of Little Rock from Baltimore, Md. This was a very significant moment in my 28-year-old life considering I hadn’t lived in Arkansas for the past 10 years. While living in Baltimore, I somehow found myself within the local activists, artists, healers and community organizers world. Engulfed by their passion to heal and evolve their city, I also dedicated my energy there to trying to do the same. After I took some much-needed rest, I realized I missed being involved with freedom fighting folks. 

I stumbled across the Black Lives Matter Little Rock chapter and informed them I was looking to get involved. They said the best place to start was with Nayborhood Activists and one of their leaders, Dawn Jeffrey. I reached out to Dawn explaining my move back to Little Rock and my new project, The Black Warrior Series, which is dedicated to shining light on the everyday human activists who fight for freedom in the 21st century. 

“Of course I am willing to make time for what is important,” she said. “Now more than ever we need Black-led platforms to shed light on the corruption taking place in Arkansas.” 

Little did I know at that time how important her words would become for her own story.

Dawn Jeffrey is one of the founders and lead organizer of the Little Rock Freedom Fund, founder of Nayborhood Activists and organizer of the 2021 Juneteenth Freedom Day Bailout, which successfully raised funds used to pay the bail of 13 Black women and men and free them from jails across Arkansas. Dawn isn’t afraid of the laborious effort it takes to obtain freedom. Similar to Harriet Tubman, her sheer willpower will pull anyone in her aura closer to it. 

Born in San Diego, Dawn moved to Arkansas later on in life. As a kid, she described herself as someone who was always sticking up for others who were bullied or treated unfairly. She was the friend that would fight for you, especially if you weren’t ready to fight for yourself. 

Dawn feels her activism was sparked by her own mother’s humanitarian spirit. Her mother was the type of woman who found it important to take her children with her to feed the unhoused and other community volunteer work. Through her actions, she taught Dawn at a very young age the importance of caring for others. Dawn and her mother both found a way to express their inner humanitarian and activist, leading Dawn to accept the belief that humanitarian work and activism go hand in hand. Dawn cares for people by using her voice and even sometimes her own body to stand up against injustice done against others. 

As an adult, Dawn Jeffrey has made a positive impact in the city of Little Rock by hosting community clean-ups, backpack drives, Know Your Rights workshops and organizing and leading protests. Her organizations, Nayborhood Activists and The Little Rock Freedom Fund, have also had fruitful collaborations with Reinvest in Conway for their Collective Voice Collective Hope Commemoration of George Floyd and the Juneteenth Freedom Day Bailout. 

illustration of Arkansas Dawn Jeffrey with yellow background and red lettering reading #FREEDAWN

After all her beautiful movement work, Dawn found herself on the other side of the wall. On June 25, 2021, Dawn’s bond was revoked for previous charges. Dawn was detained at the Greene County Detention Center, imprisoned by the system that she sought to release others from. The system swallowed her, revoked her chance for freedom by snatching her bond and weaving her in its web of anti-Blackness, attempting to silence her story. 

Dawn demanded that Black folks be treated fairly. 

She demanded that the police be defunded. 

She demanded that Black folks be free. 

She demanded change. 

Under our surveillance culture, her demands weren’t seen as glorious or courageous by people in power. Her demands were seen as a threat to the state’s power, a.k.a. the Little Rock Police Department’s power. This is the double-edged sword of recognizing your own sacredness. Once one is aware of it, how could you not begin to demand to be treated as so? And historically, when the people rise up, those in power quickly try to squash their momentum and dismantle their leaders. 

Imagine how threatening a self-aware, freedom-fighting Black woman is in a society that is riddled with anti-Blackness and misogyny, and believes in law and order over people’s health and wellbeing. How more threatening is it when that same Black woman manages to organize enough people and money to bail out 13 Black people in one month? The Injustice System’s use of bail functions to hold people behind bars because they don’t have the capital to pay their bail. 

This functionality creates wealth-biased incarceration resulting in the majority of people in detention centers and jails being detained not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they can’t afford to leave and must wait in the detention center or jail until their trial. Think about it. If you were detained tomorrow, would you have an extra $10,000+ to pay to leave?

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Dawn’s story and her work are a part of our history, a part of Arkansas history, a part of Black history. She was previously charged with five counts in relation to case No. 4.20CR00288-DPM. The charges date back to 2020’s Summer of Resistance when a Little Rock Police Department car was set on fire. 

Dawn was being held in relation to taking prescribed medical marijuana even though she has been ordered by a licensed physician to use it for her mental health to treat her PTSD and to partake in mental health counseling. However, when Dawn tested positive for THC and the allegations were made, her bond was revoked

Two appeals have been filed on her behalf and were denied. Her original September 2021 trial date has been pushed to May 2022. Dawn has pleaded not guilty to all counts. As of Oct. 1, no evidence had been reviewed or presented to Dawn in relation to her case, according to a GoFundMe page raising funds for Dawn’s legal representation.

Some may argue that she should have went about her activism differently, or she should have followed the guidelines set in her bond, or she shouldn’t have been there or whatever some may say. Yet, these are the complexities of what it means to be sacred, what it means to be a modern day activist, what it means to be human, what it means to be whole. 

The question remains, what happens now? 

I can’t tell you what the right answer is. What I can tell you is in order for things to change it’s going to take more than just one person writing a story or one person donating to a cause or even one activist making a statement. It’s going to take all of us to remember that our everyday is sacred. That we will become future ancestors one day and that we all have the opportunity to demand our freedom today or have it taken from us tomorrow. 

What side of history will you be on? How do you want your story to be remembered? It’s never too late to invoke action. Let’s remember the facts and help others to their freedom as we help ourselves. Dawn’s story isn’t over. Donations are being taken via GoFundMe to support the cost of her $250,000 legal fees. There is a hashtag #freedawn circulating and if we learned anything from 2020, it is that social media can work for our good, too. 

Protest isn’t something that just happens on the streets — protest is small actions that create waves of change. Let’s do our children a favor and give them accurate history, history that we remember because we were an active participant in making it.

Olive Vine
Olive Vine

Olive Vine is an Arkansas-based storyteller and tradition keeper. Inspired by the courage of her ancestors to be truth tellers, she hopes her writing embodies the spirit of honesty and invokes heart-centered action. Olive's storytelling aims to center the voices of BIPOC and Queer folxs as their past and present day stories fight against systemic erasure. It is her mission to reflect the impacts that oppressive systems have on people, the earth and society through her writing. She is also a mixed media painter under the name arkansawblk, moonchild and urban farmer.