It doesn’t matter if it’s law enforcement, Confederate-flag toting White supremacists or an African American protecting their own privilege — Leia Schenk will go toe-to-toe with anyone who threatens Black people’s lives and livelihood. 

Leia Schenk has become a frequent visitor to the state Capitol, marching and protesting against racism and police violence and demanding change for African Americans. She was arrested there in January, countering Donald Trump supporters. (photo by Robert Maryland)

Ms. Schenk is unapologetically entering spaces and changing the dynamic. She’s the founder of the nonprofit EMPACT and fights for the community’s “voiceless and often unseen.” She often is called upon by area families whose loved ones have had deadly interaction with law enforcement.

“They feel like they’re alone and like they have no support because they don’t know who to turn to or talk to, so in many cases it takes an advocate to be able to speak for someone that can’t speak for themselves, because they just don’t know how to put it into words or maybe there’s just so much trauma that has been inflicted upon them to where they don’t have it to give emotionally.

“The faces that you usually see are the ones who are outspoken and super confident about themselves. But what about the ones that are broken down due to systemic racism and oppression and everything else? Those are the ones we like to amplify.”

Ms. Schenk started EMPACT four years ago.

“EMPACT has provided other avenues for people to also be a part of the movement,” Ms. Schenk said. “It’s allowed us to be able to go into spaces that we normally wouldn’t go into.”

EMPACT has been invited by Whites to organize marches in their areas. Whether the fervor of Whites promising to do better lasts, remains to be seen.

“We can’t worry so much about that because we know our intentions are real,” Ms. Schenk said.  We can’t worry about what they do after we leave because that’s on them. We go, do the job and deliver the message that we know the community needs to hear and we just leave it at that. We hope that we get somewhere as far as the fight goes. We hope that.”

Ms. Schenk has fought for prisoners’ rights, sought justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, speaks out against human trafficking, took demands for change directly to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s front door, and stands in solidarity with students facing racism. She also took on supporters of Republican President Donald Trump who threatened violence after he lost his re-election bid. She was arrested Jan. 6 protesting the insurrection against the U.S. Capitol. 

She comes by her backbone honestly, she said, having been raised by strong Black parents.

“All I know is strength and all I know is to fight,” Ms. Schenk said. “That’s what I saw them do. My parents never bowed down. My mother was the one that was up at that school if someone said something to us, when we came home crying and this person teased me, or a teacher said this. She was the one who was up at that school, but she was also the one that was up at the school being room mother and field trip leader and all those other things. I saw the greatness of what a Black woman is supposed to be from birth.”

Ms. Schenk’s first protest was the Rodney King riots at the age of 14. A lot has changed since the world watched King be beaten by White cops 30 years ago. Much remains the same. 

It can be discouraging, Ms. Schenk said.

“There are times when I want to throw in the towel, but I have to remember and remind myself on a constant basis, ‘If I stop, what happens to our community and those that depend on us and look up to us to be able to bring these hard lessons to the surface?’” she said. “If all of us strong leaders go away, then what happens in our community? … We’re already oppressed. We’re already going through so much, so I know first-hand that I have to stay in this fight.”

Her four children are motivators, particularly her 11-year-old son, who is autistic. Having seen how Black people with mental health issues fare with police, Ms. Schenk is working to make a better way for her son.

“I am raising a Black son right now knowing that he can very easily be one of those cases. That’s difficult. Because of that, I can’t stop,” Ms. Schenk said.

She prefers to be in the thick of things.

“I’m on the front line, so I’m in the face of the police. I’m in the face of city officials and I’m in the face of White supremacy,” Ms. Schenk said. “I’m most comfortable on the front line, in faces, on the scene, right in the midst of the chaos.”

That’s where she’s most comfortable, Ms. Schenk said. Such always has been the case and she’s not changing her approach.

“Everything we have by way of Black people came from marching and protesting and boycotting. That’s how we got everything we have now, from voting to being able to walk on the same sidewalk as White people. This is how we got it.”

Calling out wrongs and injustices, however, has placed a bulls-eye squarely on her back. “It’s the price you pay when you do work like this. There’s a lot that comes with it and I understand that,” she said. “I’ve had many, many death threats. I’ve had folks come to my home. I’ve been followed. I’ve been run off the road, I’ve had guns pointed at me. I’ve been assaulted. Everything that you can think of has happened.”

She remains undaunted.

“That just gives me more fuel to say, ‘OK, I’m going to be back at it though,’ because I know how serious this is to our community and I know that what we’re doing is the right thing. And I know I can’t stop this fight.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

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