Recent Garfield County transplant brings Black activist perspective to fight for equality locally and across the country
Marie Huntley knew there was a purpose in her somehow landing in the Roaring Fork Valley last year after leaving the Black neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where she grew up, raised a family and became a community activist and organizer.
Clarity came to that purpose in mid-June when she was invited to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally in Aspen, organized by Roaring Fork Show Up, following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
As she looked around at the many white faces of those who did show up that day — and who were showing up at Black Lives Matter protests across the country — she had a message.
Black Lives Matter is about perspective, she said, and understanding what it’s like having been there — as she has.
“I think it’s great that I see a lot of white folks involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Their empathy is not disregarded,” Huntley said in a recent interview, in which she shared her own experiences and what she believes she’s been called to do here in western Colorado.
“You can march with us, but you have to feel that pain and the hurt that some of us have had to go through,” Huntley said.
“I’m not talking about our ancestors; we know what our ancestors went through …
“I’m talking about what’s happening now. The brutality to colored people that’s still being justified. That Black folks are being ignored, and being shot down and killed for no reason.
“It’s about the inequality that we’re seeing in all of our communities, whether you’re Black, white, poor, underprivileged, bullied for being different … all of that.”
Huntley, 43, a.k.a. “Ms. Peaches,” moved to Glenwood Springs in August 2019 after her then-fiance relocated to the Valley for a job. Though they’ve since broken it off, she observed something about the social dynamic here and decided to stay.
An ordained minister, though not currently leading a church, Huntley said she heard a calling.
“I believe God has a sense of humor, and sometimes he sets us up,” she said. “I see a greater purpose here for the platform I helped to build in Florida. I’m not so worried about followers. What I want is for people to hear a message, and that they’ll pass it on.”
She has since relocated to Rifle, and now works as a group home manager for Mountain Valley Developmental Services in Glenwood Springs.
Huntley has observed that the Roaring Fork Valley and Garfield County aren’t home to a lot of African Americans.
According to the latest population estimates, Garfield County, with 60,000 people, has a Black/African American population of about 1.3%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Pitkin County, with a population of about 17,700, it’s about 1.1%.
“There are Black people in this valley who are afraid to come out and say something, because they feel like this is just a place where they live and work,” Huntley said. “If you migrate somewhere and make it your home, then the business of that place is yours, and you need to be involved.”
An “activist at heart,” she said she wants to help bring that voice out and, where possible, work with the area’s Latino community to talk about some of the common experiences their cultures share.
Living the Black life
Her own story is very personal, coming from the perspective of a single mother trying to raise two boys and two girls in Fort Lauderdale’s Sistrunk community.
She was also raised there, and would often witness as her brothers, her ex-husband and then her own sons were victims of police harassment and brutality.
“I was the type of mother who, when I saw something happening to my boys, I would stand up in the middle of it and say, ‘no, this won’t happen tonight,’” Huntley said.
One “scary situation” was when she pulled up in her truck after her son had been detained by police. As she exited the vehicle, “all the guns went on me, and they told me to get back in the truck.
“I said, OK, but I’m going to be watching everything you all are doing,” she said.
Later, “I told the officer, ‘I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m a Black woman, and I’ve had to go through a whole lot of Black s— to raise four Black children in this cruel and unusual world where white folks seem to think that we are less than them.
“I also said, if I die being an activist, then I just die in it. But you’re going to hear my voice…”
By then, she had already begun to build connections within the community because of her activism and work to organize efforts around helping poor Black women get a leg up financially, and building support for underprivileged youth.
She ran for a city commission seat, but lost the election.
Huntley’s children are all grown now, ranging in age from 20 to 25, but they’ve also begun to use their voice to make change, she said.
One of her sons would later share with others about his mother’s run for political office, saying she lost the seat, but “won the office.”
“That office is the community,” Huntley said.
One of her daughters experienced bullying when she was growing up, and has now started a program called Dif’rent Buti, inviting young people to celebrate and understand their differences.
Huntley herself helped develop two nonprofit organizations based in Fort Lauderdale.
She’s the sole founder of On-Call Leadership, which works to match adult mentors with disadvantaged youth ages 9-17.
And, she co-founded the Center for Sustainable Healthy Equitable Communities, or C•SHE•C, where Huntley co-created what’s called the SHE Lens, providing a platform for communities to make meaningful, durable, place-based change.
“People are the heartbeat of the community, but if all voices, every culture, is not involved in a community’s decision-making, it’s not sustainable,” Huntley said.
That also means getting elected officials and organizational leaders out of what she calls the “privileged mindset.”
‘The truth stands’
Huntley has also written a book, “Nothing Less Than the Truth — Pushing Back, but Not Held Back,” and has her own website, mspeaches.com, where she shares more about her spiritual journey.
“My mom would ask me, ‘you walk in the spirit of excellence, and you love people for no reason. Why?’” Huntley said.
She talks about that in her book, and how she had an unforgiving spirit given all that had happened to her in her life.
“I also explain that I needed for my children to grow up understanding that this world is cruel, but that love covers a multitude of sin … and that we need to love people in spite of their actions. That’s hard to do.”
Reckoning with her own truth has helped Huntley talk more about the broader truth regarding race relations and inequality.
“I’m very transparent,” Huntley said. “I don’t like to deal in facts alone, because facts can change, and that changes our outlook.
“But the truth stands,” she said. “And the truth is there is something wrong going on in this nation.”
That “truth” may not be so evident in the bubble of the Roaring Fork Valley, which Huntley said helps her feel a purpose in sharing her perspective.
One of the ways she does that is through regular testimonials, meditations, inspirational talks, even sermons, that she video records live on her Facebook page.
“It gives me an opportunity to amplify my voice to another level,” she said. “I don’t like to make it a Black and white thing. We can keep calling out racism and institutional bias, but what’s the solution?
“The solution is to get everybody in the same place, one accord, and to have an understanding …
“Don’t call yourself a Christian and talk to me about God if you don’t have love in your heart for all people, regardless of race or class.”
One community organizing effort Huntley helped to facilitate in Fort Lauderdale was called “Sistrunk Soup,” modeled after a similar project in Detroit.
The micro-funding project was part potluck, part pitch event, where people would gather for a potluck meal and make a donation to go into a pot of money.
“We would invite four people to present four proposals on something that could benefit the community that they serve; four minutes each, no technology,” Huntley explained.
At the end, the group would vote, and the pitch winner would take the pot to support their project.
She said she’d like to eventually replicate that locally.
The recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin involving another case of questionable police action dealing with an unarmed Black man, and the resulting riots and killing, show there is much work still to be done, Huntley said.
“It’s a chaotic time all over the world with police,” she said. “We scream, ‘No Justice No Peace,’ and the police scream that not all of them are bad and that they are truly here to protect and serve.
“That’s a fine line. In the case of Jacob Blake, I can understand you questioning or wanting to take him in because of the warrant; what I cannot understand, for the love of God, is why this man was shot in the back seven times. You can’t explain that to me.”
That’s also why she supports the movement to defund police agencies that don’t take the steps to implement meaningful change, such as mental health support for police officers and better de-escalation training.
“Police need to look at every situation through one eye knowing that everyone, no matter of race or color, deserves to be treated like a human being,” Huntley said.
She doesn’t support the rioting that has taken place in some cities where there have been clashes between protestors and police, “but I understand it. They are upset, and they are angry.”
Here in Glenwood Springs and the neighboring communities, Huntley said she also wants to help build a restorative justice infrastructure to begin to make reparations in areas where people feel they have been wronged, or where there is inequality.
This fall, Huntley said a big focus of her efforts is also around the movement to get out the vote in the Nov. 3 elections.
“Everyone needs to vote,” she said. “This election will prove that America is ready for a great change into something new, but only if the numbers surpass the last election.
“Participating in this election will show a sense of togetherness, community, and that action speaks louder than words no matter if it is screaming ‘Black Lives Matter’ or talking about hunger, health care, education, transportation and equity for all in that.”
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