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2020 Speaker Series focuses on racial justice

By Staff | Sep 9, 2020

Bat Yam Temple of the Islands most recent speaker in its 2020 Speaker Series on racial justice was Chantel Rhodes.

Born and raised in Fort Myers, Rhodes graduated from North Fort Myers High School and went on to earn her undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida in the field of criminal justice. She earned her graduate degree in social work at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Rhodes has visited 33 countries fostering the success of children through education in Kenya, Malaysia and China, where for two years she taught English.

While living in Atlanta, she became active in the Black Lives Matter movement. Most recently, Rhodes has helped to organize peaceful protests in Southwest Florida taking a firm stand against police brutality.

“It is an American issue that needs attention,” she said.

Together with several colleagues, Rhodes formed the Peaceful Protest of Lee County movement. It highlights an awareness of racial disparities locally. Her grassroots group has highlighted violence, police relations and voting initiatives for residents. Rhodes attributes her motivation to her desire to be a voice for those who feel they have no voice. She attributes her activism, tenacity and spirit of patriotism to her family background, especially her grandmother, who set an example for her.

“She passed the torch to my mother, who passed it to me,” Rhodes said.

Spurred by George Floyd’s death, she and her group organized 16 nights of peaceful protest in Fort Myers, including a conversation with Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno and Fort Myers Police Chief Derrick Diggs. Rhodes said activism can be approached many different ways: peaceful protests, involvement with issues which highlight problems across the board, the need to get involved in advocating for legislation.

Volunteering, she explained, is a form of resisting. Helping to teach schoolchildren empowers them. Many blacks grow up feeling detached as they become aware of systematic oppression in prisons, education and economics. They lack the motivation to vote because they feel candidates’ promises will not trickle down to them after voting is over.

Growing up, Rhodes had not known of a black person in a leadership position in Fort Myers. She was happy to see more blacks coming into these positions, such as her friend Gwynetta Gittens, the District 5 school board member for the Lee County School District.

Speaking to an all-white audience, Rhodes suggested how they can support her and her colleagues’ peaceful protest movement. Show up to encourage voters, tell them black votes matter. Give water to those protesting, wear shirts with supportive logos. It is a grass roots movement. All are welcome.

“You keep up the energy when you realize there’s a lot of work to do,” Rhodes said of how she keeps going. “I keep having conversations, which lead to other conversations, which could lead to changes.”