On a recent Sunday morning, 17-year-old Talia Hamilton explained to her mother, Sue, that she had plans for the day.
She was headed to a protest and march to present demands for equity and an end to racism to officials at the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
“Talia, I would rather you not go and be in large crowds right now,” Hamilton told her daughter.
Talia’s response took her mother by surprise: “Mom, I have to go. I organized it.”
True to form, the teenager’s style is understated. With a quiet confidence, she organized a demonstration that attracted an estimated 2,500 people without her parents even knowing.
For Talia, that June 7 accomplishment was undoubtedly the most high-profile moment of her young life. She, along with San Marcos High School classmate Shakir Ahmad, organized the protest, largely through social media.
Thousands of people gathered at the base of Stearns Wharf on the Santa Barbara waterfront, marched up State Street to City Hall, then to school district headquarters before ending up in front of the Santa Barbara police station.
“It was like a whole swarm of butterflies in your stomach,” Talia told Noozhawk. “It was the most nerve-wracking, but high-on-life-type of situation. It was amazing.
“I was not expecting it to be that big.”
The demonstration followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died in police custody while a white officer kneeled on him in a neck hold. The videotaped incident was met with universal condemnation, and sparked protests, marches and rioting against racism and police brutality.
Minnesota prosecutors have charged the officer, Derek Chauvin, with murder, and three other officers are facing other charges in the case. All four were fired.
The Floyd killing inspired Talia to want to make change in her own community.
“Seeing an outcry in the rest of the world when George Floyd was killed, it was definitely a moment of ‘shoot, I want to do something, too,’” she said. “Like little ol’ Santa Barbara. I don’t know if anything is going to happen.”
Talia also was inspired by the two women, Krystle Sieghart and Simone Ruskamp, who organized the first Santa Barbara protest on May 31.
“I thought this was a perfect opportunity to wake up Santa Barbara and show we have voices, too,” she explained.
Talia spent her younger years in predominantly white Williamstown, Massachusetts, a town of 7,000 people in the Berkshire Mountains in the western part of the state. It is “way more white than Santa Barbara is,” she said.
Her dad, Scott, got a data job in Santa Barbara and the family moved. She attended La Colina Junior High School before moving on to San Marcos High.
Talia’s parents adopted her when she was about a year-old, after they fostered her. Her birth mother was 16 at the time, and chose adoption.
“They are super supportive,” Talia said of her parents. “They understand that there are some things they won’t get because they don’t live in my shoes, they are not black. But they are definitely a listening ear. … They definitely try their best.”
She said her parents work hard to understand her activism. She bought her dad a Black Lives Matter T-shirt for Father’s Day.
“I will never pretend that I can see the world through anybody else’s eyes, let alone a black person’s eyes,” Scott Hamilton said. “I don’t pretend to even try. The best we can do is try to appreciate the differences that greatly affect one’s lot in life.”
He said the Floyd incident brought out the inner protester in everyone.
“I am ridiculously proud that she has been able to channel that rage and anger that we all felt into something constructive,” he said. “Talia generally believes that most people are good and wants to have a positive, happy place for as many people as possible.”
Talia sees her role also as one of educator to her parents.
“My parents sometimes don’t know some things because they aren’t exposed to it,” she explained. “Because they have the privilege of being white, they don’t get it.”
Talia started doing theater and singing at La Colina Junior High. In high school, she joined the track team and made varsity as a freshman. She also founded San Marcos’ Black Student Union.
She said racism still exists in 2020 for a variety of reasons, including the fact that “parents share with their kids their beliefs before they can form their own.”
“That puts more weight on the school to try to teach kids at a younger age not to discriminate,” Talia said.
One of the main demands the students delivered to the Santa Barbara Unified School District was more ethnic studies classes.
“We definitely think it is important for people to know a culture other than their own, and be a little more immersed in someone else’s, so you can see how somebody else lives, and it might not be as easy as you,” she said.
Talia is a proponent of police reform.
“The thing is that with the phrase ‘defund the police,’ many people get it twisted and think that it means ‘stop giving money to the police,’” she said. “But it’s reallocating the funds that we are giving to the police.”
Talia wants more training, both physical and in the classroom, to learn how not to racially profile.
She also wants more gun control: “If people are getting killed daily, that’s a problem.”
One of Talia’s goals is to help people understand that they can learn a lot from each other and people of all ages.
“If someone has gone through life experiences that you haven’t, they already have something to teach you,” she said. “It could be a classmate. It could be a teacher. It could be literally anybody …
“It doesn’t matter how old they are. I can definitely look at some of my peers and say ‘they are my mentor.’”
She hopes people speak out when they see racism.
“If you are white, you can use your voice to help people who don’t necessarily have as much of a loud voice as you, and amplify black voices, amplify minority voices,” she said.
Talia, a senior, is planning to apply to UCLA and schools on the East Coast. She wants to major in African-American studies and minor in film. She would like to make movies about black history and black culture.
Talia’s mom, a personal assistant, isn’t surprised by her daughter’s success or ambition.
“We have always encouraged her, but the drive is within her,” she said. “When she was in preschool, going to a parent conference, the teacher said, ‘I think you better keep all of Talia’s work. I have a feeling she is going to be president someday.’”