Brandi Grayson’s cellphone buzzed with back-to-back texts and posts on her Facebook page filled up. Minutes earlier a video was making the rounds. A smug faced, white cop using his knee to crush the life out of a restrained Black man, flooded social media and television air waves like a tsunami.
George Floyd, a burly six-foot-four, father of five, cried out for his deceased mother moments before his body went limp on a Minneapolis street. The recording is indelible, igniting outrage. Grayson was sought to channel that mounting anger into action once again.
This 40-year-old justice warrior is petite in stature with the youthfulness and vigor of a college student. She’s known for calling racism out of hiding and is unapologetic for her abrupt, in-your-face methods. Why? Injustices persist. Black people continue being murdered and brutalized by police with near impunity.
Grayson, founder and CEO of Urban Triage, can rally thousands to descend on Madison Streets with just a phone call or Facebook post. As she begins to speak through a megaphone, the gathered masses are often brought to a hush.
“There’s power in numbers. There’s power when we stand together. Together we are unstoppable. Together we can change the world. We have to commit to change,” says Grayson, pacing before a lengthy Black Lives Matter banner.
Several days of protesting Floyd’s killing culminated into a section of Madison’s John Nolen Drive being shut down for six hours during to a collective effort between Urban Triage, Party for Socialism and Liberation and Freedom Inc. The demonstration was designed to be a disruption to rattle the status quo.
Protestors also took over portions of the Beltline around the city and a “Defund the Police” mural was painted in large bold yellow letters along Martin Luther King Boulevard outside the City Council building. Their presence cannot be missed.
Grayson is becoming a recognized name in many homes across Dane County. UMOJA delves into what causes this spirited community activist to spend countless hours exposing inequities, rallying for overhauls of police departments, and fighting for meaningful systemic change.
Chicago’s Mean Streets
Grayson was born in Chicago. She learned early how to rely on herself for survival. That’s because her mother was abusive and battled mental illness and a crack addiction. Elementary age, Grayson endured abuse from men twice her age.
She swapped the trauma at home for life on the street. Homeless, Grayson joined a street gang ̶ an expected rite of passage for Chicago youth in need of protection and acceptance.
She didn’t choose this life. It was what was handed to her. Destitute, Grayson would pray to God to change her cocoa skin so she could be excepted by others.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew what I didn’t want to be,” Grayson recalls. “I didn’t want to be poor and live in traumatic environments. I didn’t want to have to worry about whether I could buy toilet paper or not.”
Life was day-to-day.
“My focus was on surviving and getting my basic needs met. By 9, everything I had I had to get myself. Clothes, food and a place to sleep. There was nothing consistent or secure in my life,” she said.
Searching for Self
When Grayson’s grandmother passed away, she moved to Madison at age 10 to rejoin her biological mother. Soon after, she was placed in foster care.
Happiness was found in books and expanding her mind while in school. And true love was discovered at age 13 when she cradled her firstborn in her arms. She found stability in her life when she was adopted by Rita Adair, who took Grayson to her first demonstration in Philadelphia called the Million Woman March. There, an estimated 750,000 African American women organized to address pressing issues of interest to them and to Black families.
“It was powerful to see the affection of Blackness in action,” Grayson said of the 1979 march designed for African American women to be self-determined.
Grayson became captain of West High School’s cheerleading squad and was an active member of Ebony Expressions Cultural Awareness Project, a community theater group for young Black performers. She received her diploma and eventually attended University of Wisconsin-Madison. Community activism seeds were planted there as she began using her voice for change as a member of the Black Student Union. Grayson gained a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, while being a single mother on a Section 8 voucher for housing.
Grayson “found herself” and the passion to champion the rights of her people by absorbing the messages taught by Afrocentrism authors, poets, playwrights and theorists.
Community Activism Seeds Planted
In 2014, she and other advocates created Young, Gifted and Black Coalition during national outrage at the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young Black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Shortly after, she founded Urban Triage, which provides psycho-education, trauma-informed care, advocacy, personal development skills, parenting skills, education, and analysis building for Black people to stay engaged and present in the lives of black children while promoting healing and self-sufficiency.
“I started it as a desire to have a group of Black people come together that advocate for other Black people,” said Grayson, who was also working as the YWCA’s director of employment services. “We chose the Sankofa bird as part of our logo because it signified us going back to our past to heal for our future.
“All of our work is based in healing and understanding the context of our existence, to understand where the pain and rage comes from, and the multigenerational levels of it,” she added.
Later this year, Urban Triage is unveiling its Allied Training program for those interested in becoming true conspirators and warriors for the dismantle of white supremacy.
The group’s programs and initiatives have Grayson and her team working on full steam. Additionally, she finds time to balance family life with three biological children and two she adopted. So, when Floyd’s life was taken on Memorial Day, she said she honestly wanted the other community activists to take the fight on. But unforeseen chain of events put Grayson right back on the frontlines for justice.
“Sometimes you have to let God have his way,” she said. “It was almost as if I was forced to be present in this moment.”
How Do You Define Justice?
Black people have been living under the Illusion of freedom, Grayson said. Once that realization is embedded, the process of healing and self-love grows. “What we’ve achieved in our lifetime and where we descend from through our ancestors is nothing but excellence,” she added.
When asked what her ideal of justice resembles Grayson said she has no ideal because she’s never seen or experienced it.
“My vision of justice is a world where humanity is not defined by whiteness. Justice would be rooted in humanness, compassion, empathy, and love with action,” said Grayson, the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Rev. James C. Wright Human Rights Award.
How about peace?
“We can’t have peace without justice. You can’t separate the two. … Our human nature is to fight when we are being abused and violated. Until that violation stops, then we will continue to have this same ol’ same ol’,” Grayson said.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Grayson has been nicknamed “the disrupter.” She has an army of supporters who stand by her approach to bring about racial equality. She likely has just as many who don’t.
At the end of the day, Grayson says she can rest knowing that she uses every fiber of her being in supporting those who can’t support themselves.
“When I look in the mirror, I see a little girl that’s been grieving alone for a long time,” Grayson said. “A little girl who lost her innocence a long time ago immediately upon birth as a result of existing in white supremacy.
“My body has never been seen as something needed to be protected and loved and cared for. I spend time with her every single day to bring her into the now and into the future. The now and the future are healing and creating a world that moves away from complaining into action,” she stressed.
Urban Triage’s vision is to inspire and empower breakthroughs and transformation by way of education and leadership in Black children, Black women, and Black men. Its mission is to foster, develop, and strengthen Black families’ self-sufficiency, community leadership, advocacy, and family success through psychoeducation, community engagement, trauma response, healing, and cultural heritage. To learn more visit urbantriage.org.