Mekyah Davis: building Black leaders in Appalachia

Updated: Feb 23

Mekyah Davis is not an activist.


“I like to think of myself not as an activist, but as a community organizer,” said Davis. “Activism can sometimes seem very individualistic.”


Davis says he is using his community organizing skills to try to make a difference for young Black people throughout Appalachia.


Davis is one of the founding members and coordinators of Black Appalachian Young and Rising, a program Davis said he created to address the lack of Black youth leadership in Appalachia. The program is relatively new and held its first official gathering in November 2019.


Davis began putting the idea for BAYR together after being selected for the steering committee of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project. According to its website, The STAY Project is “a network of young people, aged 14-30, who are committed to supporting one another to make Appalachia a place we can and want to STAY.”


“Most of the founding members of Black Appalachian Young and Rising were actually members of STAY or became members of STAY,” said Sydney Underwood, a founding member of BAYR.


Davis joined The STAY Project in 2018 after attending the STAY Summer Institute, a yearly gathering held by the STAY Project, after being asked to come by STAY Project Coordinator Lou Murrey.


“I was like, ‘I will literally pay your way. Come.’ Because I saw that he was super passionate,” said Murrey.


After attending the STAY Summer Institute, Davis knew he belonged in the STAY project.


“It was a truly transformative experience for me,” said Davis. “Like, just being in that type of space for the first time.”


After attending the STAY Summer Institute, Davis signed up and was chosen to be part of The STAY Project’s steering committee and began in 2019. Davis said that is when the pieces for BAYR began to fall into place.


“I was talking to Lou about how there weren't any other young Black people in positions of leadership in the different spaces we had been occupying, and whenever Lou started serving as STAY’s coordinator, one of their commitments was to uplift and flank Black youth leadership.”


Murrey put Davis in contact with the right people and eventually Davis’ idea of BAYR was brought to life in November 2019 when BAYR had its first gathering.


“It was a whole weekend and we actually brought together over 40 youths throughout Appalachia, which is something I really appreciate about the organization and the advisory committee is we’re all based in different states, really,” said Sydney Underwood, another founding member of BAYR. “We have people from Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina. We have a lot of people throughout the states.”


While the main goal of BAYR is to get more Black youth in leadership positions across the region, Davis says another key part of the meeting was to celebrate the joy of being together.


“Part of that joy is celebrating overcoming the physical and psychological isolation that young Black folks all too often face in this region and then also to discuss and examine what does it mean to be a young Black person in Appalachia,” said Davis. “What is the Black Appalachian identity to us?”


The creation of BAYR was not the end of Davis’ involvement with The STAY Project.


In August 2020, the STAY Project announced Davis as their new co-coordinator. Murrey said they came up with an application and hiring process but scrapped it last minute in favor of hiring Davis during a steering committee meeting. Turns out, the process they scrapped in exchange for Davis was a very big success for them.


“We came up with this whole hiring process, and then at some point one of us was just like ‘I'm going to be honest,’” said Murrey. “‘I think it should be Mekyah.’ And everyone kind of like had this release of ‘Oh, me too.’”


The STAY Project’s age range of 14-30 includes the staff, which is why 29-year-old Murrey says they plan to work alongside Davis for a year before transitioning out. After Murrey’s transition, Davis will become the coordinator of The STAY Project. Alongside his work with BAYR and The STAY Project, Davis also takes part in organizing community events in his hometown of Big Stone Gap, Virginia.


“I got together with a couple folks from within the community and organized a candlelight vigil demonstration in response to the state sanctioned murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the violence against Ahmaud Arbery and many others,” said Davis.


Davis said they marched roughly three blocks, and had several people give speeches prior to the candle lighting. Davis said the vigil was met with counter protest, and that he reached out to some of the organizers of the counter protest, but none of them replied.


Currently, Davis is working on organizing a People’s Movement Assembly in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The movement’s statement of intent says the purpose of the movement is to “build a shared political analysis to make actionable steps toward change in our community.”


Whether Davis is organizing with BAYR, The STAY Project or just in his hometown, he says he is always working toward his end goal of increasing Black youth leadership in Appalachia.


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