The back-to-school event distributed backpacks and other supplies to students in the community.
Jamar Pierre-Louis and Robert Gray pass out supplies to kids. Photo courtsey of Dreamin' Diamonds.
On Saturday, as white supremacists terrorized residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, Americans across the nation watched the news, shocked and stunned by the racially motivated violence. A friend of mine in Los Angeles texted me that maybe we should stay inside just in case anything popped off in Southern California.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Don’t let anybody kill your dream.[/quote]
But only a mile away from the horrific scene, with members of the so-called “alt-right” dispersed across their city, a group of brave African-American volunteers descended on Charlottesville’s Tonsler Park, determined to throw kids in the community a back-to-school block party they’d never forget.
“I wanted the kids to know: Don’t let anybody kill your dream,” says 28-year-old Robert Gray, one of the organizers of the event. Gray, who grew up in neighboring Albemarle County and attended public school in Charlottesville, is the CEO of Dreamin’ Diamonds, a socially conscious clothing line that encourages people to push through adversity to accomplish their goals.
“When we set out to do it, it’s just about doing something positive and making an impact on our community,” says Gray. “If we haven’t done it, who else would have done it? I don’t know of too many other back-to-school drives in Charlottesville.”
Along with being an entrepreneur, Gray is also a teacher at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville. Because just over half of the roughly 500 students at the school come from low-income families, Gray knows firsthand what it’s like for a kid to come to school without a backpack or other supplies they need. “I did a back-to-school drive for the school that I work at as well as the local Boys and Girls Club in Charlottesville,” he says. But after talking to his friend and fellow entrepreneur Jamar Pierre-Louis, the duo decided, “Let’s do this back-to-school event like a block party,” says Gray.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Someone had to take a stand. If something happened to me while we’re doing it, so be it.[/quote]
Given the violence in the city on Saturday, two dance teams that were supposed to perform at the block party canceled, says Gray. A few parents were also nervous to bring their kids, which is understandable given what was happening in Charlottesville. But he and the other organizers decided to continue with the event.
“Of course we were skeptical about doing it, but our people have been living in fear for the past 450 years. I didn’t want to back out just because of everything that was going on,” he says. “Someone had to take a stand. If something happened to me while we’re doing it, so be it.”
Nearly 100 children, mostly elementary and middle-schoolers, showed up to the block party. Along with pencils, notebooks, and backpacks, Gray and his fellow organizers got local barber shops to donate free haircuts, and they collected a few iPads and cellphones to give away. Wes Bellamy, the vice mayor of Charlottesville, donated some school supplies to the block party and gave the event a shout-out on Instagram.
“Today, while it appeared to be chaos throughout the city, for nearly four hours, I witnessed young brothers @dreamin.diamonds @jamar_2turntup@89tillva and a host of others give away nearly 100 book bags filled with supplies to kids and families in need, have games and music for the community, and provide a safe space for everyone to enjoy themselves,” wrote Bellamy. “I am extremely proud of these young men and women, and their commitment to our community. Thanks for being a beacon of light today. Much love and respect.”
Using Dreamin’ Diamonds to serve the community has long been Gray’s goal. “It actually started off as a mentoring program, but I felt like more people would gravitate towards a clothing line and then I could subconsciously hit them with the message,” he says with a laugh. He turned Dreamin’ Diamonds into a clothing line last year, and sales of its merchandise, which feature inspirational black cultural references, have been a success.
“The message that we want to send takes into consideration the time we live in,” says Gray. “I have a T-shirt that says ‘Dreaming While Black.’ If you have a dream, if you have goals, if you have aspirations, you have to work together to make those goals and aspirations happen.”
In turn, Dreamin’ Diamonds funnels the proceeds of its sales back into the community. “We have a $500 scholarship fund for high school graduating seniors going off to college, and we have the back-to-school party,” says Gray.
Meanwhile, school starts on Aug. 23 in Charlottesville, and Gray is busy preparing for the start of his second year in the classroom. “We still have to function in this racist society,” he says. “But our people are resilient.”