USA TODAY Network reporters and photographers spent time this summer listening to protest leaders in 12 small- to mid-sized cities. For each leader, spring and summer have become an unexpected journey of discovery – about their cities’ painful histories of racial oppression, about present-day inequality and about their own potential to inspire and lead.


Their stories reveal how ordinary people can become empowered to do extraordinary things.


Alayssia Townsell has heard the trauma of racial injustice in the worried voice of her younger brother.


The 19-year-old Stockton native and University of California, Los Angeles sophomore became a social justice activist in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, but the issue is very personal to her. She said she thinks often about a heartbreaking conversation with her 9-year-old brother, a fourth-grader who fears the injustices facing people of color.


"My Black brother wishes that he could change the color of his skin just so that he doesn’t have to worry about going outside and being killed," Townsell said at a recent protest in downtown Stockton, one of the most diverse cities in America. "This is what I’m doing this for. I’m doing it for the generations after us."


She has also witnessed prejudice firsthand. She spoke of the indignation she felt when she saw a Black person at a company where she was assigned as a security guard treated badly by a white person – she said the man spit in his food after he sat down next to him. After she mentioned the incident to management, she was removed from the site and later dismissed.


George Floyd: A need for action


One of her first thoughts when she heard about Floyd’s death on May 25 was how disturbingly routine such tragedies have become. But Townsell, who works as an intern at Stockton’s City Hall, felt she needed to act. She and a group of friends were determined to get people in their age group involved.


"In truth, his death was no different than all the other Black lives we lost to police brutality. But that was the issue — it was becoming normalized in society," Townsell said. "You had Ahmaud Arbery, then Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, back to back to back. It was becoming almost normal, like these people are dying for no reason, and it keeps getting brushed off."


A few days after Floyd’s death, Townsell’s friend, Angela Estrada, called and said they had to do something. They decided to hold a protest in downtown Stockton, near City Hall. Together, Townsell and Estrada composed an email and sent the message out to as many community members, leaders and organizers as they could think of. Townsell hoped to generate enough interest to draw 200 people. They underestimated their efforts.


"I was surprised. When I was marching, I looked back and I couldn’t see the end of the crowd," Townsell said. "There was at least 1,000 people there. I was surprised how many people — young people like us — we were able to bring together."


Continuing the work


The group that came together to organize the protest continues their community efforts and is part of the Stockton Coalition for Shared Safety. Some of the members, including Townsell, have a standing meeting with San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar every two weeks to discuss racial equality and social issues.


Townsell is set to head back to Los Angeles next month, with UCLA scheduled to resume classes Sept. 29. Students will work virtually from their laptops, and she will serve as assistant resident at her dormitory. The upcoming school year will not slow down her drive for justice.


Her internship at City Hall is set to end this summer, but she hopes to extend it working on the issues important to her.


"Although the internship is for the summer if you are working on a project, you can keep going," Townsell said. "So I plan to propose an idea for something that I could keep working on that involves racial injustices."


Townsell also plans to organize a youth town hall in the next month or two, so that young people can come together and discuss issues, and she plans to expand her own knowledge about racial justice in communities by becoming involved in the African Student Union at UCLA.


She also plans to continue work with the group which she helped organize in the wake of George Floyd’s death — whether she’s in Stockton or somewhere else.


Contact reporter Scott Linesburgh at (209) 546-8282 or slinesburgh@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter@ScottLinesburgh.