Deon Osborne took his place at the podium at a Norman city council meeting Oct. 24. Backed by a team of allies holding signs around the outskirts of the room, the young activist and OU student delivered his bold message with poise and firmness: Norman has a race issue that must be confronted. DeBarr Avenue, a street named after Ku Klux Klan member Edwin DeBarr, must be renamed.
The message was heard loud and clear — the council voted unanimously that night to change the street name by June 1, 2018.
For Osborne, the night marked a victory not only for the entire city of Norman, but an important turning point for his own blossoming role as a prominent community activist.
“He found his voice,” said George Henderson, a long-time Norman activist who considers Osborne a friend and mentee. “When and where I don’t know, but he found his voice in terms of social justice.”
Osborne is one of a new generation of young activists nationwide whose political involvement was largely sparked by President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Osborne said he thinks Trump’s victory created a group of individuals bent on upholding the rights of marginalized minorities.
“If Hillary would have won, would we be facing some of the issues we’re facing now? No. But would we be shedding light on a lot of the issues we’re shedding light on now? No,” Osborne said. “Because Trump won, he’s created an entire group of people who says we’re not going to let you decide what America becomes — we’re going to decide what America becomes.”
Keith Gaddie, chair of OU’s political science department, said there has been an intensification of political activism, both across the country and among students since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Activism today is shaped by the competing voices of many identity groups each demanding fair and equal treatment, he said.
“That’s what this round of protests is about—it’s about dignity, it’s about human dignity, and the right to be treated with dignity and not bullied…that’s where people find common ground,” Gaddie said. “And that’s where the sophistication of modern activism comes from. It’s about a broader concept of justice that’s invested in a deeper understanding of human rights and human dignity.”
With an eye and ear trained closely on his community, Osborne is a social justice advocate for countless groups he considers allies. He has collected friends from every underrepresented group — Native Americans, environmentalists, Latinos and Latinas, LGBTQ+ individuals and more.
That’s one way in which activism has shifted over the years, Henderson said.
“He’s a broker between cultures,” Henderson said. “The DeBarr (issue) is just symbolic of what he does: he finds an issue, he finds allies. If more of us could do that, we would solve more of our problems around here, and it would be not just one group advocating for one another, but all of us advocating for one another.”
Henderson recalls a time when the issues were black and white, literally. Other minorities were forgotten, left behind in the intensely narrow focus of the civil rights movement, he said.
“I focused on race, just black or white, and I forgot about the Hispanics, the Latinos. I forgot about the white allies. I forgot about the Asians. I forgot about the Native Americans. I forgot about those people because for me, I had a narrow vision,” Henderson said. “His is a broad vision. And that comes with the kind of maturity that most of us didn’t have.”
Osborne said he believes power lies at the intersection of movements. When groups with various interests come together, each is able to learn from the others’ perspectives, while also gaining more traction as a team, he said.
“It builds power and it builds legitimacy,” Osborne said.
With this mentality in mind, Osborne this fall helped found the Norman Citizens for Racial Justice group, a loose coalition of allies across various social justice movements whose mission is to educate and advocate for a variety of social justice issues in Norman.
“A lot of times activists and politicians will feel good about themselves because they got something done and they’ll let that go to their heads and think, ‘OK, I’m the champion of this, and if anyone wants to work on this issue, you have to go through me,’” Osborne said. “That’s the opposite of what we want to do. We want to empower students to become their own leaders and to become their own agents of change.”
Beyond the current political climate, Osborne’s commitment to social justice is rooted in his upbringing and past experiences. Growing up in the small town of Lawton, Oklahoma, he had the n-word and bottles tossed at him at the age of 10. In Norman, he’s been called the n-word walking to work as a server at a restaurant, especially on game days, he said.
“I’ve had enough happen to me and enough happen to my family to know that this is an epidemic that we can’t just sweep under the rug any more,” Osborne said.
But he doesn’t like to focus on his own struggles. Brushing aside his own experiences, he is focused on being a representative for others, through social media campaigns advocating for various causes and a video production business he uses to shine a light on suppressed voices.
“Even though I’m an African-American, bisexual, there’s still a lot of privilege that I have, especially now, having the council’s ear, and I want to use that privilege to help those who’ve had worse experiences than me,” Osborne said.
Although Osborne first became involved in campus protests by filming and documenting them, he has gradually shifted to a more vocal leadership role. He regularly attends rallies and engages in community conversations via social media, even though he said he is naturally a quiet person who would rather stay home.
Still, he has a lot to fight for and plenty of reasons to continue advocating.
“This is a dark time right now and we need to show people in the nation who are scared to walk out of their doors, there’s people who will walk out of those doors for you,” Osborne said. “We will go to those city council meetings for you. We will protest for you if you don’t want to come. We’re not going to let them scare us into staying inside — not anymore.”
Looking at Osborne today, Henderson sees himself reflected in the energetic, committed young leader.
“There are very few individuals who I honestly believe were born and given the gift of being the honest brokers of justice,” Henderson said. “He’s one of them.”