Roots to Revolution: UNC student’s vision for systemic change

Samuel Scarborough

Samuel Scarborough, a freshman student activist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stands outside Wilson Library. Photo by Pragya Upreti. March 3, 2024.

Friday, March 22, 2024

By Pragya Upreti

He grew up in the south side of Durham, a space he characterizes as the origin of his progressive activism.

Samuel Scarborough, a graduate of Hillside High School—one of the few remaining historically Black high schools in North Carolina—and a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was first drawn to the grassroots organizing movement through his roots in the Durham community. His story unfolds against the backdrop of a community rich in culture, resilience and a deep-rooted sense of identity. Raised in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of the south side, Sam’s childhood was intricately woven into the fabric of “Black Durham,” a community brimming with heritage and history.

His grandfather, who played a pivotal role in the esteemed Scarborough & Hargett Celebration of Life Center, Inc., led Sam to inherit a legacy of honoring the past while cultivating a more just future. But it wasn’t until he was old enough to visualize the long-term effects of the Durham Hayti community’s hardships with urban renewal and income disparities that he found his footing in the work. “A lot of the wealth has dissipated,” he noted. “The community has been devastated and hasn’t recovered since.”

The echoes of Black Wall Street’s legacy in Durham’s Hayti community resounded through Sam’s upbringing, shaping his understanding of community, entrepreneurship, and collective strength. This, coupled with the mass movements that the world witnessed, following the murders of countless Black people at the hands of police, created a new sense of urgency for Sam.

“Seeing the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of police, the murder of George Floyd, and more recently watching what’s unfolding in Gaza right now have all radicalized my thinking. Centering Durham’s position in the political landscape in a global context has forced me to become more imaginative—seeing how this society is failing a lot of folks who aren’t connected to imperial forces.”

“All of this has made me think about how I can change things locally to make an impact globally,” he added.

Sam’s upbringing was further enriched by the idea that many of the issues that activists organize around are preventable—that there are means by which systemic injustices can be addressed, communities can be empowered and positive change can be realized.

“A lot of the movements we see on a global scale start local. These grandiose issues are actually things we can put our hands on and work towards fixing,” he vocalized.

Drawing from the networks and experiences of his upbringing, Sam began his journey of political advocacy at UNC-Chapel Hill, driven by a desire to build more equitable and inclusive communities. Before getting involved with the March For Our Lives (MFOL) chapter at UNC, a national movement of students working to end gun violence and build safer communities, his activism started in the environmental justice sector through the Durham Youth Climate Initiative as a high school student. “My work first looked like providing more popular education routes for students to learn about climate justice through an intersectional lens,” he said.

He has since expanded his involvement at the university to examine the political alignments and the absence of policy reforms within the higher administration of the UNC System. “Witnessing the UNC administration’s ongoing inaction following our campus shooting was a significant factor in my decision to engage with March [MFOL],” he explained.

However, in pursuing this endeavor, Sam also noticed the global perspective that often permeates these discussions. Many of UNC’s MFOL organizers hold a global, anti-imperialist viewpoint, which also aligns with his interests, he acknowledged—a noteworthy observation since the broader gun violence prevention movement typically lacks such a perspective.

“It only takes a few inquiries to delve into the heart of the issue. When you trace back the gun supply chain and discover that U.S. weapon manufacturers are also supplying guns to Israel and the Rwandan military, it becomes evident that this is a global issue.”

He elaborated that in spearheading divestment campaigns or advocating for firearm industry regulations, one must recognize their interconnectedness with other societal issues that are often compartmentalized. Sam continues to dedicate his efforts to addressing issues of criminal justice, abolition, and anti-racism through the Campus Y, as well as collaborating with the Jackson Center, which provides history workshops to young individuals that underscore the significance of the civil rights movement, foster its revival, and challenge prevailing notions about Chapel Hill.

“Empowering a new generation of leaders begins with making this information more accessible,” he said.

His roots in Durham’s vibrant tapestry of culture and activism serve as the foundation for his commitment to creating positive change, embodying the spirit of resilience and solidarity that defines a city he believes began it all.

In reflecting on his journey, Sam draws inspiration from a variety of sources, with his family and fellow youth activists standing at the forefront. “Seeing other young people do this work inspires me to keep going,” he reflected, acknowledging the profound impact of his peers’ dedication and resilience.

He also finds inspiration in the legacies of iconic figures such as Kwame Ture and Assata Shakur, both renowned for their radical activism and unwavering commitment to challenging the status quo. “Seeing the strategies these giants have employed to challenge the status quo in the U.S. inspires me,” he described.

While organizing has often come naturally to Sam, balancing his commitments and managing his time effectively remains an ongoing struggle. 

“Maintaining a connection to Durham still matters to me, despite how much I’m involved in at UNC.”

Ultimately, Sam believes in the power of collective action and the importance of amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. “We have a lot more power than we like to think we have,” he asserted, urging others to invest in the insights of young people and to challenge the systems of oppression that perpetuate inequality. 

“Sometimes this work calls for talking to folks who are diametrically opposed to your existence—which has been very hard for me to understand—and sometimes it’s also knowing when to disengage and pave your own lane.”

Edited by Brianna Hillman.