Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sasha Gough and protester Brandon Pesicek speak to counter-protesters in downtown Garrettsville in August. (Michael Indriolo/The Portager)

A conversation with Sasha Gough, who organized the Black Lives Matter protests in Garrettsville

‘Kids are going to grow up in this town like I did, and I want to create a community for them where they’re excited and proud to come home.’


Editor’s note: This interview was mistakenly published from the wrong author account, and Medium does not permit revisions to this once the article is published. The author of this piece is correctly identified below.

By Richie Koch

After the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Tayler earlier this summer, Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, placing institutionalized racism at the center of national scrutiny. Major corporations, like Apple and Nike, and organizations, like the NBA and the NFL, have pledged to do more to combat racial injustice.

But many activists believe true progress must trickle up, not down. Racism will not end with a policy change but rather a million small decisions, actions, and conversations during the course of everyday life in our towns and villages.

This is what I had in mind when I spoke with Sasha Gough, who is trying to help her community focus its energy into meaningful change.

Gough is a resident of Garrettsville and the founder of the Free Skool, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to combat ignorance and promote social justice by offering everyone a place to learn, discuss, and build community. The following transcript of our conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

Could you introduce yourself and the Free Skool?

My name is Sasha Gough. I just turned 24, and I have lived in Garrettsville almost my entire life. For three years, I went to Athens and then I came back. I went to Ohio University, but only for a year and a half because activism started to take over my life. So I came back home, and Garrettsville hadn’t changed very much. And after all of this stuff happened, a gentleman started standing at the corner of Main and Center. I asked him if he’d be doing it again. He said he hadn’t thought about it but that yeah, he’d probably be out there every day. And he’s been here ever since.

And so we decided to hold a bit of a bigger protest, and we got the word out. So I was on the phone with the Record-Courier, giving an interview with them, and I gave them the email address for the Free Skool that I had just made. Since then, it’s just slowly but surely become a thing that’s actually happening. And as of Aug. 3, the Free Skool is officially a nonprofit.

And what is the Free Skool’s mission statement?

Our mission is to eradicate ignorance by offering free and affordable education and events on diverse subjects. We aim to build a stronger and more connected community by better understanding each other and where we come from in today’s society.

The thing about the Free Skool is it’s not just about Black Lives Matter. I want to talk about everything, from LGBTQ to different cultures to different religions to different holidays. When different holidays roll around, like Hanukkah, I want to talk about “What is Hanukkah?” and “Why do Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah” or “Why do Black people celebrate Kwanzaa?” Stuff like that. I want to offer fun things like movie viewings, where we watch a movie and then discuss it. Just a bunch of different events that aren’t just lectures, but also, sometimes, in order to understand and appreciate events, we will need to sit in a classroom.

Have you found a receptive audience in Garrettsville?

Yes. For as ugly as it can get, when people drive by — we’ve seen Nazi salutes, people have shouted “white power,” people have called us “n-word lovers,” we get the ugly stuff — for every one bad person, we get three people who give us a thumbs up or a tiny honk. So I think there is a bit of interest. People are kind of scared to speak up because, unfortunately, the uglier voices are a little bit louder. But as soon as we can start to have stuff in town, I think we’re going to have a better reception, just because it’s hard to keep up with stuff like this. A lot of people have shown interest. We have an email list that’s longer than I could have ever expected.

You’ve been in the news a bit the past month. In your own words, could you explain what has happened in Garrettsville?

Six weeks ago, we started to see a small group of people show up with “All Lives Matter” signs and “Trump 2020” signs. The first week it was just a handful of them and a handful of us, but the next week it had doubled, and we started to see a little bit of a police presence. About two weeks ago, we started to see a decline in the counter-protesters that have been showing up. But for those three or four weeks, we were just yelling at each other. After about four weeks of just yelling at each other, pretty much after The Portager article came out, they started to relax. Their numbers went down significantly. We weren’t really yelling at each other much. Two weeks ago, I’d say, was the very first week that was a good week with the counter-protesters. I’m not saying they can’t stand out there and say what they believe. Absolutely, that’s your First Amendment right, just like I’m allowed to. I just don’t want to hear vile slurs and comments and other awful things. So, it’s finally starting to get to a point that I would consider tolerable.

If you ran into one of these counter-protesters in a less fraught situation, what would you try to say to them?

Honestly, I would just ask questions. What don’t you understand? And I don’t mean that in an aggressive way or in a way that implies that you’re stupid. What don’t you understand so I can explain why I am this way. I fully understand where “All Lives Matter” people come from, and that includes the All Lives Matter people who support Trump and the All Lives Matter people who don’t support Trump. I understand where all those people are coming from, and I genuinely feel that people don’t understand where I’m coming from. So, if I had the opportunity, I’d just “What are your concerns? What are your questions? How can I help you understand more?” This is why I started the Free Skool.

You seem to feel connected to Garrettsville. It would have been easy to leave and not come back. And yet you chose to return. What does Garrettsville mean to you, and why do you want to start the Free Skool in Garrettsville specifically?

This community has a lot of really old families, including my own. I think my family showed up in the 1820s, so maybe 20 years after Garrettsville’s inception. We’ve been here for a long time. My entire family has gone through these schools since the Intermediate was the high school and elementary school. I know and love Garrettsville. This community, while it has really made me sad and has disappointed me in a lot of ways, has shown me so much love and educated me and given me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else that have made me the cultured person that I am today. I wouldn’t change anything about living in Garrettsville other than the racism. That’s why I want to bring this to Garrettsville because there are so many students and kids that are going to grow up in this town like I did, and I want to create a community for them where they’re excited and proud to come home.

What does the Free Skool have to do to be successful?

In my head, my ultimate dream is to have a building in Garrettsville that people can come to, ask questions, get resources. I want to be able to employ people and give people the opportunity to do research and then give feedback on that research and get it out to people. My success story would be we have our building, and it’s just constantly full of people who are looking for more information on the next event or “I have a question” or “My kid just came out, what do I do?” I want to make a place where people can find those answers and be comfortable. I almost want it to be a hangout.

If people want to support you and help out the Free Skool, what’s the number one thing they can do?

If you are in Garrettsville, just try to keep up. Events will start to pick up soon. So just keep an eye out on our Facebook page, Instagram feed, and website. Eventually, the biggest thing will be donations. I can’t have a website or make business cards or spread the word without donations. I want to have sets of books for the classes. If you want to come and read How to Be an Antiracist, I want to have at least six of those on hand so I can hand them out. I want to be able to buy the rights to show a movie. I really want to watch Get Out with people. I think it would be such a fun experience to sit and have a discussion about because the first time you watch it, it’s a thriller/scary movie, but the second time you watch it, you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s awful now that I know what I know.”

Thanks for speaking with me. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

I’m not standing out there to tell people that Garrettsville is a bad place. I’m just trying to bring to light that racism exists, and it’s on us to make it more tolerable for everyone. At the end of the day, what’s the harm in making sure that Black people are taken care of? I’m not out to destroy the town. This is my home, and I want it to be comfortable for everyone. Now that we’re at a place where we’re not screaming at each other, please come have a conversation with us.

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