Residence: Cobb County
Community work: Works with The People’s Uprising, a metro Atlanta coalition of organizers as well as ProtectTheVoteGa, a coalition of grassroots organizations in Georgia fighting to stop voter suppression.
The weekend after the March 13, 2020, police-shooting death of a young black medical worker named Breonna Taylor, Cobb County resident Shelby Swan headed to Louisville, Ky., as part of a Freedom Ride contingent.
“I went to march in solidarity with our Louisville brothers and sisters who were protesting Breonna Taylor’s death, Swan told Atlanta Civic Circle. “The march really lit a fire in me. It got me more engaged and involved in community organizing as an effort to speak up for those who can’t or may be afraid to.”
The news and events of the last year — protests, police brutality, and killings — and organizing in the streets and in communities has given Swan an unvarnished view of life in America for people of color.
“It’s shown me that there needs to be a much larger conversation around white allies showing up and standing up for our communities,” said Swan, a 27-year-old white woman whose family immigrated from England to the United States when she was five years old. “I’m in spaces oftentimes where I personally don’t feel like there’s enough diversity.”
There are opportunities, she says, for more white people to become involved in causes.
“There’s a lot of work to do. A lot of these issues don’t immediately affect them or the people they care about so there are privileges that we have to talk about as white people. We have to recognize our privilege and recognize ways we can come together and support all Americans, not just people who look and think like us.”
The photo of Gov. Brian Kemp signing Senate Bill 202 into law as six white Republican lawmakers looked on underneath a painting of an antebellum plantation was unsettling for Swan.
“We’re very much witnessing white supremacy’s last stand. I would go as far as to say white people in power whose only interest is self-serving are scared.”
Swan has taken some bold steps in her first year as a community activist. She is co-leading efforts to keep former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue from becoming chancellor of the University System of Georgia, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities and is one of the most influential jobs in state government. Perdue is said to be under consideration for the $500,000-plus post, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The chancellor oversees 26 institutions and their budgets.
“There’s so much going on in Georgia,” Swan said. “While we were out organizing and trying to get the word out about voter suppression bills, behind closed doors, other seats of power were being assumed by people who are completely unqualified.”
Swan, a 2016 graduate of Kennesaw State University, said this cause is “personal to me.”
”I was able to go to school because I had access to the HOPE scholarship and financial aid,” said Swan, who works as a marketing professional.
Swan vividly recalls the two-term Republican governor voting “against expanding financial aid to the University System of Georgia.” More troubling is the fact that Perdue has no experience for the job, Swan said.
“His background is in agriculture and veterinary medicine,” she said. “The biggest alarm here is that this is a political appointment for a position that affects the education and future opportunities of thousands of Georgians.”
“When we talk about coming back from a pandemic and rebuilding our economy, our communities and leveraging education to support younger generations,” Swan said. “We have to be mindful of who’s in charge and who is the gatekeeper accepting affordable education in Georgia.”
The work is difficult, though. much of community organizing is fueled by volunteers.
“Community members are really passionate about getting involved and are well-equipped to fill in the gap where lawmakers and legislators have failed us,” Swan said. “We have one or multiple jobs we do on the side to pay for this. I feel a personal sense of urgency to build a stronger and more equitable community and thus a stronger and more equitable country.”
Swan’s commitment grew even stronger after seeing the arrest of State Rep. Park Cannon. Cannon was arrested after knocking on Kemp’s office while he was signing the state’s new controversial election reform law. Charges have since been dropped.
Even after her ordeal, Swan noted Cannon vowed to “keep knocking.”
Like Cannon, Swan said, “I will continue to keep knocking, knowing that I am supported and encouraged by other community members who will do the same.”
In the short time she’s been an organizer, Swan said it has motivated her to continue down the path of community activism. She also envisions herself arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court one day or as one friend said “you can be on the Supreme Court.”
In any case, she said, “The fire has been lit.”
Know someone who is engaged in civic activities or causes and has an interesting story to tell? Let us know. Send their name and contact information to Tammy Joyner.