BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Emerging Tennessee Voices

“You always have to tell your story whether you think they’re listening or not.” — Brandon Thomas Photo by Matt Ferry

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

For Black History month, we profile three young people who are taking active roles in their communities. Meet Brandon Thomas, Kierra Perkins and Andre Canty.

By Ashley Benkarski

BRANDON THOMAS

Brandon Thomas, 31, is a Rutherford County native who’s made headlines during his campaigns for Tennessee House of Representatives District 49.

Thomas twice challenged Republican incumbent Mike Sparks for the solidly red district seat, with the second run being too close to call the night of the election.

Though he lost both bids, he hasn’t let it slow him down. As a Black, gay man in the Deep South, Thomas knows how to persevere in the face of discrimination. It followed him into his political life when his opponent attempted to use his sexuality against him with voters in a whisper campaign.

He finds strength in his husband, Michael, and their son, Ezra, a bright toddler whose smile is adorned with dimples.

“As far as the future, I’m not throwing away my shot,” he said, referencing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”

“If the opportunity comes I’ll look at it and see if it will work. It’s not just me running, it’s my family running too.”

A 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Thomas has engaged in political activism much of his life, visiting Washington, D.C. with the Service Employees International Union’s ‘Change That Works’ campaign to lobby congress to pass the Affordable Care Act while attending school as a freshman at MTSU, all the while working and taking care of his grandmother.

In college he got involved with the Student Government Association and MT Lambda and was the opinion editor for the college’s paper, “Sidelines.”

In 2015 Thomas moved to Iowa to work on an issues campaign and practiced the skills he learned there during his own campaigns.

He’s also held office as the Tennessee Democratic Party’s State Executive Committeeman for Senate District 13 and was Tennessee Equality Project’s State Preemption and LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Coordinator. 

Right now, he’s taking time to be a dad to a “precocious three-year-old” who’s being bumped up to preschool while preparing for a campaign manager track through Arena Academy, an institution started by Stacey Abrams to train people in finding candidates to run local races.

For young people looking to get involved in local races, Thomas advised turning to runforsomething.net.

“Activism is very important right now, it’s young people that make the changes and speak truth to power, so it’s important they get involved in any way they can, especially locally,” he said.

“If you don’t see yourself represented in any form of government, you need to run for office because it’s vitally important that we get these perspectives. Anybody that wants change has to get up and do it.”

KIERRA PERKINS/CEO of Kandles by Kierra

Kierra Perkins is a freshman at Wilson Central High School. Like most teens, she enjoys friends, family and having fun. She races a blue Spider-Man dragster car and before the pandemic she was a cheerleader, ran track, and played volleyball. The pandemic has thrown her routine in disarray, but she’s had no problem being a

“A young creative mind can grow a business and you do not have to wait until you’re an adult to achieve your goals.” — Keirra Perkins

successful entrepreneur– She’s just released two new Kandles, Citrus Mango Smoothie and Pineapple Explosion.

What most of her classmates and teachers don’t know is that she’s been the CEO of her own business, Kandles by Kierra, since she was 11 years old.

The young entrepreneur may be shy, but she’s got big goals and the motivation to move mountains. She’s set on graduating from college with a degree in business and finance, which she hopes to use to open her own brick-and-mortar store. To prepare, she’ll be taking a business path at her school.

She’s recently been certified as a woman-owned business by the Women’s Business Enterprise Council, giving her access to bigger corporations she wasn’t privy to before, said Michelle Perkins, Kierra’s mom. These bigger retail entities have been trending toward putting local businesses on their shelves.

Kierra was awarded the Who’s Who in Nashville distinction by Dr. Bobby Jones and received the Entrepreneur on the Rise Award by Hustle N Heels, an organization that focuses on women’s issues. She was nominated by the nonprofit last year for the Women Who Rock Nashville Award.

“You must love what you do,” she advised emerging entrepreneurs. “Believe in your own ideas, and don’t just do it for the money.”

Last winter, Kierra partnered with fellow young entrepreneur Ta’Liyah Franklin, CEO of natural cosmetic company Liyah’s Lips, to provide over 100 baskets with hygienic products, hats and scarves to homeless communities in Nashville. She also passed out chili and water to the people that were huddling under Jefferson Street Bridge during the brutal winter months. “It was a very humbling experience,” she said. “So many people were out there near the metal trash barrels trying to stay warm.

She plans to organize more community-focused drives and hopes to connect with other entrepreneurs for needed items and invited anyone looking to help to contact her.

To learn more about Kierra, visit kandlesbykierra.com. To get involved with her charity efforts, email [email protected]

ANDRE CANTY

Andre Canty is only 35 but he’s seasoned in the activism of the Civil Rights Movement.

His maternal great-grandfather was part of the desegregation effort of public spaces in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and two of his great-uncles and a great-aunt were the first to integrate Oak Ridge High School. His parental

“You don’t have to be the voice. Just be a voice” — Andre Cant

great-grandmother coined the name for the historically Black “Riverview” community in Kingsport. 

“Every single movement that addressed this country was because of young people and they were supported by the elders … The generation now should study the movements before them and study not just the victories but the losses,” he said.

He attended Middle Tennessee State University, getting his start in activism protesting the college’s Forrest Hall, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general known for his slaughter of soldiers at Fort Pillow and being first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

He wrote for MTSU’s student newspaper, Sidelines, penning a letter to the editor on why the school shouldn’t honor Forrest. “We were paying tuition and we shouldn’t be putting [up] our money to uplift that person,” he said.

He left Murfreesboro to attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, graduating with a degree in English Literature. Meanwhile the emerging youth movement in the city began rising around the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, Canty said. 

He threw his energy into youth organizing and movement-building, getting involved with the Beck Cultural Change Center under the mentorship of Knoxville Civil Rights legend Avon Rollins, a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and mentee of Marion Barry. He was also a community columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Before Rollins passed in 2016 he saw Canty give a speech to mentees and sent him a Facebook message telling him he was proud.

In 2012 he left the Beck Center to work with the Highlander Research and Education Center in Development and Communications, fundraising, speaking about social movement issues, getting money to grassroots movements and leading social justice workshops.

When his mentee, Zaevion, was killed by gun violence in 2015 Canty became co-chair of disparities and educational outcomes committee for Knox County schools to “reduce disparity [of kids of color] in suspensions, expulsions, and arrests,” adding differently-abled children are also casualties of these disparities. He was also co-founder of the Stop the School Pushout movement and ran for Knox County School Board.

He lost that race but continued on. 

Now he works with Cities United, an organization that works with city leaders and mayors to address the epidemic of homicides and shootings of young Black men and boys.

Canty was a member of Collegiate 100 Black Men recharter and served as President of 100 Black Men in Knoxville at age 27. In 2019he was a 40 Under 40 in Knoxville honoree.

Through the years he’s expanded his definition of victory. “It’s not always policy related. When people are transformed, a community is transformed. When a community is transformed, the narrative is transformed.”

 

Police Officer’s Faith Serves Him, Metro

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Metro Police Officer James Wells Jr. is one of the Nashville Six first responders at the Christmas morning bombing, but mostly, he’s a man of faith.

Faith led him to wed. Those vows led him here after college, experience in Chicago, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Ga. and recently, Goodlettsville. That followed conversation when a Goodlettsville officer pulled him over.

“God moments” — his phrase — define Wells. Parental advice and a yearning for change led him to police work.

Police “talked down” to his father “on traffic stops … because of what he looked like.” Wells Senior was afraid.

Metro Nashville Police Officer James Wells Jr. has had “God Moments” for decades. One of them saved his life, recently. MNPD photo

Wells Junior felt fear when police drove by his white-boy friends walking on train tracks, but stopped him, his brother and cousin. “‘If you want that to change, you need to become that,’” his father said.

Now, “I can help the community … by being an officer.” Wells said.

Bottles were thrown at him after a peaceful demonstration against George Floyd’s death.“I understand … the frustration,” knowing how Blacks are treated. It’s a “tough” balance. “Because I am African-American, and an officer, people try to separate the two, but I’m one in the same.”

His Morehouse College psychology degree helps. He’s been a behavioral health vocational counsellor for high functioning bi-polar schizophrenics. A co-worker kept giving him police job notices. God moment.

By then, he’d married Mariah Arnell of Nashville and Clark Atlanta University. Wells was using his degree. They met at a Christian camp for high schoolers. Their paths crossed. He felt her distress, reached out, they prayed. God moment.

In 2012, he became a Clayton County, Ga. policeman, advanced to detective, resisted moving to Nashville, but on a family vacation he realized split holidays in Chicago and Nashville were impractical. Prayer led to Ephesians: “…love your wife as Christ loved the church…” He declined a promotion and federal police work. They moved in 2016. Patricia and Edward “Dad” Arnell anchor Wells’ family here.

His parents are Willette Crumb and James Wells Sr. of Chicago. Years ago, a Sunday school teacher paid $5 if students remembered Bible verse. They didn’t, so $25 was offered. Wells remembered “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust,” and won. He laughs, recalling he read the Book of James and continued.

Quitting as a Goodlettsville detective, Wells was paid less as a night patrolman, but he’s with his children during the day. Metro’s better compensation includes “more room for growth,” he said, noting “amazing” training and “good” people.

Three deputy police chiefs stayed with Wells when he felt “all kinds of emotions” after the bombing. “That helped so much.” He nearly walked into the explosion. Metro’s behavior health department and peer supporters helped.

Wells returned to work the day Trump wsupporters went to state capitols, but his shift is later. “We all agreed,” Wells said. “I’m ready.”

Wells says he was just doing his job Christmas morning with Officers Brenna Hosey, Tyler Luellen, Michael Sipos, Amanda Topping and Sgt. Timothy Miller. They’re called heroes. So were officers, including Wells, responding to machete attacks May 17. It’s the job.

Wells will “put in my time and be able to take opportunities that will be there when they are open,” he said.

Still, Wells has a psychology degree, wants a masters in counseling, but there’s time to find well-priced classes. He’d focus on teenagers, but would learn to counsel officers. He and Mariah served church camp teens. They attend Mt. Nebo Baptist Church where Pastor Theodore Bryson says, “James helps with youth counseling, teaches and works with young couples.” Bryson agrees; Wells can de-escalate situations.

“In April,” Wells said, “it will be nine years for me” in police work. “I’ve only been in two fights … because … I’ve been able to talk myself out of fights. The two were in Clayton County. Those dudes didn’t want to go to jail.”

Wells’ faith and education guide his community policing. He says “‘A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.’”