Where you find injustice in Lawrence, you may also find Tasha Neal, organizing a resistance.
This local activist is dedicated to making social and political change, and she believes the key to success is by doing it together, as a community.
That’s exactly what she’s doing with her organization Sisters with a Purpose (SWAP), a local nonprofit she founded to fight systemic racism, advocate for wrongfully incarcerated individuals, and provide direct aid to families who face economic and educational disparities.
For Neal, it’s all about action.
“You just have to go. Sometimes it’s not even about planning. While we sit around having meetings and discussions, there are people dying, people doing another day in prison. I don’t have the time,” Neal says. “With SWAP, everything I did was backwards. We just became a nonprofit within the last year, but we’ve been here, doing what needs to be done.”
One of SWAP’s most visible campaigns was the Occupy Mass demonstration last July. Directed alongside other Black women-led groups, the protest drew hundreds of supporters and blocked off Massachusetts Street from North Park to South Park streets.
A key goal of the Occupy Mass demonstration was to advocate for the release of Rontarus Washington Jr., a young Black man who Neal believes was wrongfully incarcerated. They successfully raised enough money for his bail; he had spent five years in the Douglas County jail as a defendant in a drawn-out, and ongoing, murder case.
“I was the first one out there. I stopped the traffic,” Neal said. “It was to get people to pay attention to the injustice that’s going on in Lawrence, Kansas, and to show that we were not going to back down anymore.”
Although Occupy Mass was a highly visible example of community organizing, it speaks to a broader issue, which is one of SWAP’s core missions: ending mass incarceration, a burden that falls disproportionately on people of color. There’s still plenty of work to be done, not only in that arena, but also on the other manifestations of systemic racism.
Redlining was a discriminatory practice that prevented Black Americans from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 largely put an end to it. But owning a home is one of the most important ways to build generational wealth, so the effects of redlining are still very real today, especially in Kansas City, one of the most hyper-segregated cities in the U.S.
To help close that gap, Neal started a business with her children two years ago: 4GW, which stands for “for generational wealth.” They sell clothing and mask sets printed with custom designs.
“I’m hoping to grow that business by doing more education and encouraging more Black entrepreneurship within our community,” Neal said.
Education is a big part of Neal’s work. She’s inspired by one proverb in particular: “Each one, teach one.”
“You just have to spread that. We all have to gather, and I’m not just talking Black people, but all people as a whole,” she said. “Just because you hear a story and it doesn’t affect you, doesn’t mean you can just turn the other way. You should give back. I put myself in the shoes of the people I’m helping: I am that person, I am a victim of the judicial system.”
This lesson in empathy is relevant perhaps now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased feelings of isolation … and misinformation. Neal has enjoyed more time to spend with her children and to think on her next campaign. She just started doing work for Kansas Beats the Virus, a public health initiative to end the pandemic.
“I’ll be putting up flyers downtown so people know where to go for instant testing so they can get their results within an hour, vaccination locations, and just sharing more information about COVID,” Neal said.
Neal doesn’t show any signs of slowing. She has lots of ideas for serving Lawrence’s most vulnerable citizens in new ways, like posting more financial resources for the low-income community, such as jobs and grants.
“People think when you’re out here doing activism work that you’re rich, but no,” Neal said. “I don’t get paid to do what I do. My reward is the smile on the family’s face when their kid is released, or if somebody is elevating their life. That reward is greater than what any money can ever give me.”
Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.