Zoe-Raven Wianecki was raised to reject her Blackness.
Her mom is Italian and her dad is Black. She spent most of her childhood with her mother’s side of the family in St. Louis, Missouri. She attended 15 schools before reaching college in Missouri and California. As a teenager, Wianecki’s Black classmates would often ask, “What are you?”
“I’m Italian,” she’d respond. “That’s what I am. That’s how I was raised.”
Her classmates would say, “How can you say you’re Italian when the whole world views you as Black?”
That question stuck with Wianecki as she struggled with her identity throughout her teenage years. After passing the California High School Exit Exam in 2012, she earned a diploma at 16 and enrolled at Santiago Canyon College, a community college in Orange. As a member of the college’s speech and debate team, Wianecki was encouraged to dive into Black stories. That’s when things changed.
Local news from across Southern California
Scouring through Black literature, Wianecki came across a description of Black joy that was unlike anything she’d read before.
“Blackness in my community had been almost demonized,” she said. “To see a flipped perspective of people loving their Blackness and celebrating it and diving into their roots was astonishing to me. It made me feel kind of celebratory of my own Blackness for the first time.”
With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others sparking protests against police brutality, the now 23-year-old Wianecki was motivated to join. She’d been protesting, printing flyers and handing out free Black Lives Matter stickers printed from her etsy shop.
“I was just trying to do what I could individually to participate but was really struggling with myself because I wanted to play a larger role in the movement,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly how to do that effectively.”
Luckily for Wianecki, 20-year-olds Megan Santagata and Skylar Shaffer, who are white, were looking for help. On June 1, Santagata and Shaffer started an Instagram account to draw attention to protests happening in Orange County. @OCProtests quickly gained a strong following, amassing nearly 1,000 followers in its first day. But as the account grew, so did its responsibilities.
“It was finals week and I was spending six hours a day running this,” Santagata said.
Both activists and everyday people who wanted to protest reached out to the account, asking Santagata and Shaffer where upcoming protests would be. Direct messages flowed in at a rapid pace. When people told them threats were made against protesters, the two of them felt responsible to investigate. Seeing the account go down an unsustainable path, they sought new leadership.
“We were not well-educated to run this,” Santagata said.
Shaffer added, “I said from the first few days that we wanted to eventually get this in Black hands.”
@OCProtests posted a message, asking young Black activists to reach out. Wianecki and Tatiahna Chrishon, a 20-year-old Black woman, were two of the first to message Santagata and Shaffer. After a few FaceTime meetings, Santagata and Shaffer offered the page to Wianecki on June 4.
She accepted and asked two other Black Orange County women to join her, Chrishon and 23-year-old Alesia Robinson. On June 19, Wianecki announced the addition of two more members: 23-year-old Sarah Sulewski and 29-year-old Latinx woman Alex Michel, forming an executive board. In just over three weeks, the group’s grown the account’s following from 3,000 to 20,200.
Orange County has been home to protesters calling for an end to systemic racism, counter-protesters, and a Huntington Beach-based white nationalist group. June 6 saw police separating protesters and counter-protesters in Huntington Beach on both sides of Pacific Coast Highway. Because of the community's diverse perspectives on social justice issues, Wianecki was surprised by the level of support her and her team quickly gained.
“I was so shocked to see how many people wanted to rally behind the Black community in Orange County,” she said.
Changing the page’s culture was key for Wianecki and her team. Initially, the page supported any and every protest in Orange County. Now, Black-led and centered protests, vigils and demonstrations are highlighted.
The page also features a color coding system that displays which protests are happening for that specific day. The group uses Instagram’s my story highlights feature to post flyers for current protests in cities around Orange County. Wianecki says the cover picture for each story highlight represents a Black person who has lost their life to police brutality or white supremacy.
Wianecki has plans to expand @OCProtests beyond just an Instagram page. On June 18, the group started a GoFundMe page to fund the start-up costs for a nonprofit. The GoFundMe went live the next morning. Within a few hours, the group met its initial goal of $1,500.
By the afternoon of June 19, OC Protests smashed that goal as well. They’ve since raised their goal to $10,000 to help fund the start-up costs for another Black organization’s nonprofit, The Black OC, and a “community coalition.” Wianecki’s calling the nonprofit the “OC Protests Community Coalition.”
“The goal of that fund is to gather money from the community to circulate within our Black communities because, largely, big corporations who are starting and collecting funds aren’t putting money into Orange County,” Wianecki said.
She says the money doesn’t circulate through Black-led organizations and Black-owned businesses.
“Our goal is to get some of the money that we already have in-place here that our community is offering up to Black community members and put it in the hands of leaders, businesses and organizations,” she said.
Meet the @OCProtests Instagram Account's Executive Board
Santagata and Shaffer are ecstatic about the job Wianecki and her team have done since handing the page over.
“It required Zoe-Raven to take it to this point,” Shaffer said.
Along with the success, Wianecki’s faced some complex problems. As her outreach expands, it’s become more difficult to keep organizers and activists in Orange County on the same page.
“We are such a diverse group of people that we also have an incredibly diverse group of ideals and views,” she said. “Figuring out where we meet in the middle as far as when we go to meetings and we’re making demands of our representatives, what that looks like and what exactly we are asking of them has been some work.”
Wianecki’s used to challenges. From struggling to find her identity as a Black woman to putting herself on the frontlines of protests, she’s determined to fight for change. She’s been yelled at. Pushed. Spit on. The adversity makes it clear to Wianecki that she and her team have to push forward.
“Because if [we don’t], our world is going to continue to go round,” she said. “If we’re not out here causing disruption in order to just have our voices heard, nothing’s going to change.”