Sevgi Fernandez: Our Voices Are More Powerful If We Come Together

Sevgi Fernandez is the founder and president of Together We Stand, a non-profit organization that is fighting against racism and police brutality.

In our fight against racial discrimination and police brutality, everyone has a role to play, no matter how small. Like the civil rights movement of the 60s, we all have to come together to create the change we seek. That’s what the national non-profit, Together We Stand aims to champion: us all coming together in any capacity to fight for justice. We caught up with Sevgi Fernandez, the founder and president of the organization to find out what their mission is, who makes up their team, what differentiates them from other Black rights groups, and how each of us can help fight this canker of racial discrimination troubling our society.
Hello Miss Fernandez, we’re so glad to have you with us today to talk to us about the good work you and your team are doing to fight racism and police brutality in this country. Before we start, could you please tell us about yourself and Together We Stand?
Sevgi Fernandez
Sure. My name is Sevgi Fernandez, and I’m the founder and president of Together We Stand. It’s a national non-profit, and our mission is to dismantle racism, discrimination and police brutality through legislation, advocacy and education.
Your father was a member of the Black Panthers. Please tell us a little about him, was he peaceful, did he police the police? What did you learn from him and his activism?
Sevgi Fernandez
Well, my father was part of the Black Panthers out in Boston, Massachusetts, and he was very active during the desegregation of the communities and the schools there. He was one of those on the frontline, he used to actually have to stand in front of homes of the Black families that would move into the white neighborhoods and protect them because they would literally be firebombed and crosses would be burned in their front yards. And so my dad was part of the Black Panther patrols that would literally go to these neighborhoods and protect the families. He’s been a huge part of what I’ve learned growing up, and he has actually written ten books since then and has dedicated his life to working on dismantling racism, particularly in corporate America. He’s basically instilled in me the message that I have to continue to stand up and do something, and that although there’s a place for fear, fear can’t dictate what we do and we just have to keep moving forward.
What makes Together We Stand different from other groups fighting for justice and equality?
Sevgi Fernandez
There are two things that I think make us stand out. One is that we are actively working to build diverse communities of activists and to bridge the gap between Black, brown and red. We have indigenous people in this country who have experienced incredible atrocities at the hands of this government, we have Hispanic and Latino communities that also are targeted and of course, the African American community. And we truly believe that if we can unite our voices, then our ability to affect change will be extremely powerful, and so we work really hard to bring everybody together. The second thing is that we really try to focus on the cases that don’t make the news, that don’t have high powered attorneys going after them for publicity, and the families who are losing their loved ones at the hands of police that don’t have the money to fight the corruptive police departments and our corrupt government. So we really try to offer our support and our help to those that need it the most.
Do you do any kind of collaborations with other groups?
Sevgi Fernandez
We’re open to collaborating with anybody, and we’ve certainly worked with several groups across the country. We’ve worked with Black Lives Matter in standing up for racial justice, with a community in the Bay Area called Open Circle whom we are working with in supporting one of their upcoming rallies. We’re collaborating with the American Indian Movement and several leaders in the Native American community to work with the Standing Rock people and we are actually collecting donations and supplies to donate to those that have been up at the Dakota Pipeline. We have a nationwide movement that we’re going to start next month asking for clemency for Leonard Peltier, who has been falsely imprisoned for 40 years and was a huge part of the American Indian Movement. We’re also working with some other activists to help to free Kevin Cooper who has been wrongfully convicted and is on death row in California right now.
Let’s go to your cases. Could you tell us about some of the cases you’re working on?
Sevgi Fernandez
Absolutely. One of the first cases that we took on was the death of Marcus Anthony Merritt, Sr. He was in a place called Leonville, Louisiana, and we actually have been working with his mother Royce Eckley, she’s a testament to all mothers seeking justice. She has been a one woman show for about three years now. She contacted over 500 people trying to get answers for her son’s death. They ruled it a suicide and yet no pictures were taken of the crime scene or the suicide scene. The chief of police came on scene and there was no autopsy, no toxicology reports, no photos taken, it was ruled a suicide. The coroner never saw the body. It just goes on and on. She fought for three years unsuccessfully, but with everything that she had. We did a national call to action back in March and inundated the Louisiana State Police, the department of justice, the district attorney, the coroner, the chief of police with emails and phone calls and we were able to get the Louisiana State Police to actually exhume his body and finally perform an autopsy. So right now we’re awaiting the results of the autopsy and we’ll be going from there, but it was one of the clearest cases of police misconduct that I have seen yet doing this work and we’re very appreciative that the state police has actually stepped in to conduct a proper investigation on behalf of Marcus and his family, and we certainly hope to see justice in his case. We’re also working with a family in Chicago, Madisyn Wordlow, a young girl who was handcuffed by a security guard in her school and kept in the basement for two hours for supposedly stealing something that actually was hers to begin with, and she’s really gone through a lot, the little girl. No charges were brought and so we’re fighting and helping work with the attorney to try to get charges brought against the security guard and to secure therapy for her. We’re actually going to be working to present her with a special gift just to let her know that there are good people in this world that do care about what happened to her and are trying to put a good memory with what’s going on for her. So those are a couple of them.
With all the work you are doing, we are interested in knowing who makes up your team. How many people do you work with?
Sevgi Fernandez
We have a five-member board of directors right now. We’re only about a year old and we’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit in our short period of time here. My father, Dr. John Fernandez, is on the board of directors, and Carol Laborde, she is our outreach director and she also works a lot on domestic violence cases and sex trafficking. And then we have Dr. Kimberly Bateman, she is out of Minnesota and she’s a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in working with children. Then we have a sister down in Los Angeles, her name is Rhonda Leath, she’s a community activist and she’s been along the ride with me since the get go. We have a team of four interns that work with us in various capacities. We’ve also got chapters starting in several states across the country just because we want to be able to help more people and also get legislation changing on a state level when it comes to the policies and requirements with police brutality and community policing. And we’ve got about 1,800 people so far in our members list that help us with our petitions and our calls to action.
So do you organize events like rallies, marches and protests to get the support of the people?
Sevgi Fernandez
We do. In July, we actually organized nationwide vigils in remembrance of all those lost to police violence, particularly, what spurred it was the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. So we on July 15th, had ten cities across the country organized and one in Canada, we had people meet at the local city halls and we had an amazing turnout. We had about 600 people out in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Northtown in Minnesota as well, Ontario, Canada, Chicago, Florida, Portland, Rhode Island, Albuquerque and out here in the Bay Area. We had a lot of people involved, and it was really amazing to see everybody come together to do something on a national level like that. We are supporting different rallies out here in the Bay Area coming up in the next couple of weeks.
How has activism has changed your life? What do you expect from your activism, and is it possible for you to return to normal life without any activism, without anything to fight for?
Sevgi Fernandez
No. I have three sons who are Black children in this society and I just couldn’t sit back and watch other people’s babies just die and do nothing, so it’s changed my life in every way. I don’t think that people have any idea how corrupt our law enforcement system is until they start to do this work. If you would’ve spoken to me a little over a year ago, I knew it was bad but I had no idea how bad. It’s frightening, and every time I see somebody die, every time I read a police report and every time I read an autopsy of a parent who’s lost their child, it makes me more determined than ever. I won’t stop and we can’t stop. And I just really want to appeal to the masses out there who get on Facebook and Twitter everyday and talk about these issues to actually do something. It’s great that you’re talking about it, great that it’s being examined but we need each and every one of those people to stand up and actually take some sort of an action if we’re going to make this system change. And no, I can’t ever go back. There’s no possible way to see what I’ve seen and walk away and do nothing. It’s just not a possibility.
How’s support from friends and family?
Sevgi Fernandez
It’s great. I think having my dad be who he is has been an amazing support to me. I always have him to turn to for advice and emotional support. It’s difficult to do this work, to actually see the result of the violence and to look at somebody’s baby not alive anymore and the brutality that took their lives. And my team at TWS is an incredible support, the people that I work with are absolutely amazing. We’re all volunteers, not one person gets paid ever and we certainly hope that over the next couple of months we’ll be able to get some grants and do more things, but this is a completely volunteer-ran organization and people do it because it’s in their hearts to do. We have a great support system and when people join our organization, we welcome them to the family because it is a family of people that have never met one another across this country and all over the world. Literally, we feel like we know one another because we share so much on such a deep level, over things that are really difficult to deal with so it’s certainly a closely-knit community.
Before you go, would you like to say anything to our readers?
Sevgi Fernandez
I think if I could promote anything it would be action. Even if it’s something small, just get involved. There are so many different ways that people can help. On our website, we have a volunteer button and people can click it, and there are all these different things that you can do sitting in your house in five minutes’ time that might make a difference in whether somebody who’s wrongfully imprisoned gets out or might actually add enough signatures to something to get the attention of the legislation to make a difference. I also want to encourage people to try to bridge the racial gap. Certainly we’re not going to change the minds of most of the racists in this country, but there are so many people who might be around that just don’t have a clue, and we have to keep attempting to start a dialogue and get people informed. Because once you become informed, and you get out of your bottle of daily life, it spurs people to movement. And I just want us to break down the walls between the communities of color, because ultimately we’re all experiencing the same oppression and discrimination on some level and we need to come together. Our voices are so much more powerful if we come together. They want us to be divided. Long as we divide ourselves, we’re weakening our voices and our power and doing their work for them.
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