The September sun beat down on a crowd marching through the streets of Gainesville just over three years ago.
The school board voted to withdraw the bus route from students in the Lake Terrace area who attended Eastside High School — leaving them with a 2-mile walk every morning.
The assembly of activists walked that route with the hopes that the city would see them — see their sweat, their solidarity and the seldom-heard East side.
Chanae Jackson walked with pride and purpose knowing she had organized a movement for an important cause. After the walk was over, she read the news coverage, but the words that touched her the most were from the people for whom she fought.
“It wasn’t even from the news coverage, it was from the people,” she said. “It riled up enough feathers that we were able to get those students their voice and their bus back.”
Jackson succeeded, and her mark on the Gainesville community has been indelible.
Jackson, a 41-year-old Gainesville native and business owner, has become a prominent community organizer in Alachua County, nicknaming herself “the accidental activist.” She has served on the boards of numerous advocacy and government groups, including Gainesville Parks and Recreation and the Advisory Board for Community Development Block Grant.
She said her start in activism and advocacy came from being a mother. She was involved in the Parent Teacher Association of her children’s schools in Atlanta and Marion County, but her now 21-year-old son’s work in Students Working Against Tobacco inspired her the most.
He had the opportunity to sit on the board of the Tobacco Free Partnership of Marion County with his mother close by his side, she said. It was there that she began to see behind the curtain of local government.
However, the momentum her family had started away from her hometown was put on hold when her Gainesville-based father fell ill in 2016, she said. In a span of four months, he was admitted to the hospital 26 times.
While he still struggles with health issues, Jackson believes coming home for him helped her to find her purpose.
“He does still have major chronic diseases, but he’s been a great deal more stable,” she said. “I believe that the only thing that could have moved me back here would be my dad, taking care of him. I can leave and set our roots, but why not set our roots in Gainesville, which made me who I am.”
She added that growing up in Woodland Park affordable housing gave her an unbreakable connection to the East side. While she knew she could effect change in other localities, her lived experience in Gainesville helps her to better understand the needs of the voices she aims to elevate.
“I understand our people,” she said.
On her return to Gainesville, Jackson began showing up to meetings to see the progress her city had made, she said. From the Women’s March to the city commission, she sat as a silent observer, waiting for her time to speak up.
Jackson noticed a difference in Alachua County politics from other counties, she said. Commissioners and board members would say the right things but rarely follow up on their promises — especially in regards to the East side.
In school board meetings, Jackson realized just how far the echo of a bold voice could carry, she said. She became involved in the campaign of former school board member Tina Certain after they met at a Black on Black Crime Task Force meeting in 2017.
“She was very genuine about the change that she wanted to see, but she kept being told, ‘you can’t do it that way’ because everything is political,” she said. “So it’s like she couldn’t speak up and have a voice to do the right thing for the people because everybody was more worried about a power structure.”
Despite Certain’s efforts to please her constituents, she was painted as an “angry Black woman,” Jackson said.
“She’s not angry, but she had every right to be,” she said.
But Jackson said she was angry — angry, and unafraid.
“I took that angry Black woman persona that they were trying to utilize and weaponize, and I took ownership of it,” she said. “And that’s my story. I am that angry Black woman — I have every reason in the world to be.”
Certain said she and Jackson still joke about the way a Black woman’s passion is commonly labeled as hostility. Despite the false labels the pair received, Certain was impressed by Jackson’s ability to stir up change and to act as a human megaphone for the meek.
“She’s a voice for folks, for citizens who could be shy or don’t know their voice,” she said. “She’s always advocated for not just herself but for the least of us.”
Certain compared Jackson to the Rev. Al Sharpton, an American civil rights activist and the Baptist minister who spoke at George Floyd’s funeral.
In his eulogy, Sharpton said, “People call me to blow up issues that nobody else would deal with.”
When Certain sees Jackson’s influence on Gainesville, she believes her friend holds a similar power.
“That is what her voice is in our community — if there’s something that’s just kind of going on, on the low, it can be expressed or communicated by someone who has been impacted negatively by it, and folks will ignore them,” she said. “But if that person gets a hold of Chanae, she takes on that cause and quote-on-quote blows it up.”
One of the causes Jackson advocates for with the Education Task Force and members of the school board is educational equity, she said.
The University of Florida 2018 BEBR study on understanding racial inequality in Alachua County is often seen as the peak of data collection, but Jackson believes results-based assessments need to be used to truly understand the disparities present and move forward to fix them.
“What Alachua County needs is, number one, to really tell the truth about how we do things, but, number two, to be inclusive with putting the people who are impacted at the decision-making table,” she said. “All stakeholders need to have a voice and need to be looked at as partners, not someone that they’re trying to save or do something for.”
Another step that needs to be taken is defining what equity really means to close Alachua County’s substantial achievement gap, Jackson said.
“So now everybody is touting inclusion and equity and diversity,” she said. “But what I’m realizing as I’m having more robust conversations, people don’t even know what those words mean.”
Jackson said her role as a community organizer has become even more important in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I know that my role is imperative,” she said. “What people fail to realize is when you go back and look, there were so many examples of police brutality, even with George Floyd and officer Derrek Chauvin, who had all of these complaints that were lodged against him, and there was nothing that was done about it.”
In 2018, Jackson’s son had an uncomfortable interaction with a police officer in Gainesville, marking the moment she knew nothing she could teach her first-born son could protect him from systemic injustice, she said.
Following George Floyd’s death, Jackson released a video of “the Basketball cop,” a lighthearted title given to an Alachua County police officer who shot hoops with a group of boys, slamming a Black teenager onto his car.
Talk of the video reached a national audience when she became the subject of a New York Times article.
After years of working with numerous city organizations, grassroots movements and organizing marches while simultaneously running a business, working as a licensed realtor and supporting a family of three children and two godchildren, Jackson has learned that change takes patience, she said. Even when she feels like she is not being heard, the accidental activist does not give up hope.
“What I’ve learned is that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, and then they fight you,” she said. “I think we’re at the point when they fight you — and the final step is when you win. So going in there and knowing that people are enemies of change, even those that state that they support it, you keep going.”
She said she believes that others who want to use their voice like she has need to possess courage, humility and accountability. Jackson added that it’s okay to feel anxious about the political state of the world, and the city, county and country can move forward together.
“Enjoy the wins,” Jackson said. “Even if you set forth and had a goal, and you fall just short of that goal, you have to learn to enjoy the wins, whatever they are. Because the wins help get you through to the next one.”