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App State Student Mary Lyons Quickly Steps Into Leadership Role as Powerful Community Organizer

ASU student Mary Lyons speaks to those who came out to support the "ASU in Solidarity" protests. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach
ASU student Mary Lyons speaks to those who came out to support the “ASU in Solidarity” protests. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 9, 2014. A day before a grand jury last week declined to indict an NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, Appalachian State University student Mary Lyons, 21, created the “ASU in Solidarity” Facebook page.

In her first post, Lyons, a Charlotte native and junior art education major, described the platform as a “sounding board and strategic discourse around [ASU] students, staff, faculty and communities attempts to end our overaggressive policing culture.”

It soon grew to more than 350 members and became the online home base for the local “Black Lives Matter Solidarity Demonstrations” that took place on the college campus this past Friday and Monday.

ASU student Mary Lyons leads “ASU in Solidarity” demonstrators in a call-and-response march on the college campus. Photo by Ken Ketchie

“I organized the first demonstration out of self care. I was so frustrated and scared and felt very alone and I couldn’t imagine there weren’t other people who felt that way, too,” Lyons said.

The protestors held “die-ins,” where they spent four and a half minutes on the ground, one minute for each hour that Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Mo., lay motionless on the street after being shot by a police officer.

The protestors covered their mouths with white tape, representing, as Lyons said, “White Silence=White Consent” of racism. With a bullhorn, Lyons also led call-and-response chants: “No Justice. No Peace … Hands Up. Don’t Shoot…”

The protestors held these demonstrations in the Belk Library, Central Dining Hall, Plemmons Student Union and B.B. Dougherty Hall, an administration building on the campus.

While the demonstrations were held to stand in solidarity with ongoing protests in communities in Ferguson, New York and other parts of country, Lyons said she wanted to shine a spotlight on local issues.

“There’s a tendency at Appalachian and within Boone to forget that people of color exist, and we are concerned with racial profiling and racism on the college campus,” Lyons said, adding that she felt the need for people of color and their “allies” to come together and voice concerns they feel should be addressed by campus officials.

While she acknowledged the recent statement from ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts, which stated “we must and will hold one another accountable for instances of ignorance and cruelty” and spoke of the “great work” by Bindu Jayne, Appalachian’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Compliance and the new Title IX Coordinator for Appalachian, Lyons said that professors have been “allowed to get away with racist and sexist acts in the past” and that the “student body is allowed to be racist without any fear of censorship or punishment at all.”

Lyons said the reaction from the community has been mixed. She said while it’s been a “unifying experience for people of color and our allies on campus,” Lyons noted that “very upsetting and disturbing” things, which include threats to harm and defile demonstrators and derogatory comments about blacks, have been written on a popular app with college students called Yik Yak, which is anonymous and allows users to create and view posts within a 10-mile radius.

Interim Watauga NCAAP President Mary Lyons with former President Cathy Hopkins, MFS Organizer Jessica Injejikian, and Canvassing Volunteer Connor Boyle.
Interim Watauga NCAAP President Mary Lyons (left) with former President Cathy Hopkins, MFS Organizer Jessica Injejikian, and Canvassing Volunteer Connor Boyle.

The next step, Lyons said, is education and awareness. She said that “a lot of people don’t know how harmful their views our and don’t understand” the impact those views have on society. Lyons mentioned that she is planning a series of forums to take place on campus at the beginning of next semester.

While the “ASU in Solidarity” protest on the campus is Lyons’ first foray into community organizing as a leader, she’s been involved in a number of social justice issues in the High Country while a college student.

Cathy Hopkins, a former president of the Watauga NAACP, said she’s been impressed with Lyons, who took over as the interim president when Hopkins had to step down due to medical reason.

“I’ve just been very pleased with her ability to organize and inspire people to get involved. She’s carrying a full load with all of her courses and has been involved in a number of social justice organizations,” Hopkins said. “She really has an ability to help people see things from a different perspective, and I feel like she’s really doing wonderful work at helping people come together to work for justice.”

In addition to Hopkins noting that Lyons is acting as interim president of the Watauga NAACP, Hopkins said that Lyons’ roles include being president of the campus-based Appalachian Educators of Social Justice.

As for Lyons and her work organizing the “ASU in Solidarity” protests, Hopkins said, “This has been her first chance to really have a public leadership role where she was the lead person in the actual event. I think it’s been a really big deal that she has stepped out into such powerful demonstrations so quickly.”

While Lyons mentioned that she is focused on her education and doesn’t have any plans solidified for life after college, she intends to continue advocating for causes she believes in and acting as a community organizer in the future.

“Absolutely,” Lyons said.

Here are some photos of Monday’s demonstration by Sarah Weiffenbach.

To see video of the protests, click here.