2022 Changemaker Seraphia Gravelle (Aguallo): Racial Justice on the Iron Range

Seraphia Gravelle (Aguallo) outside of the VEMA Multicultural Community Center in Chisholm. Photo Sarah Whiting

Seraphia Gravelle (Aguallo) was 17 years old when she moved to Minnesota’s Iron Range from Texas to be close to her mother. The region has about 155,000 residents, more than 40 percent of them over the age of 55, and more than 90 percent of them white.

Gravelle, who is Latina, grew up in rural communities in Texas. “But even in the rural areas that I had been in, there was diversity,” Gravelle explains. “My biggest shock was to not see any other Hispanic people — to not see any other brown people at all.”

“I looked different. I spoke differently. I acted differently than the norm here. I faced a lot of confrontation in high school. After high school [I realized] that nothing was ever done about racism or prejudice. Back then, you know, it was just considered fighting, and I was always labeled as the aggressive one.”

Gravelle describes whitewashing herself to fit in and gain employment after high school. She began going by her middle name, and her last name — Aguallo — changed after she wed her first husband at 19.

“I think that if they couldn’t pronounce the name, then an application wasn’t going far in the hiring process. It took a lot for me to get a job. I got a lot of feedback from people — this is how you are supposed to look when you go into an interview, this is how you should talk,” Gravelle remembers.

“Seraphia Aguallo turned into Monique Clark; they were two completely different people.”

In 2004, Gravelle moved to Hibbing, which had a younger, slightly more diverse population than other parts of the Range. She met more people of color, and those connections helped her begin reclaiming Latine cultural traditions. Monique changed back to Seraphia.

She gave birth to her first son in 2009. “His father is Black. When [my son] started school, that is when we really started to see things in a different way,” Gravelle says. “I understood that I was able to whitewash myself to fit in, [but] my son does not have the ability to do that. That is when I started to get more into anti-racism and educating myself.”

After George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Gravelle saw people in her community becoming bolder in their racism. She decided, “Something needed to be done, and voices needed to be heard. I don’t speak for every person, but for a majority of the community that I am a part of, experiences [with police] are not positive.”

Gravelle helped organize protests across the Iron Range. “People would yell out of their vehicles, ‘Black lives don’t matter,’ and come by with Confederate flags,” she says. “[At] protests going on in other places, most of the confrontation came from the police. Here it came from the community. … It was kind of scary. There was a point when we didn’t want to send our kids out by themselves.”

Later that summer, when the Hibbing chief of police released a statement in support of police, Gravelle and friend Elizabeth Robinson decided to meet with him to explain how his message was dangerous for community members of color. From that meeting emerged VEMA — Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness. Gravelle says it is the only social justice organization on the Range led by people of color.

For the past two years, VEMA members have attended city council meetings, law enforcement meetings, and meetings with government agencies on the Range. VEMA also connects community members with resources to take legal action if they feel their rights have been violated. “We can’t give legal advice, but we walk with them through the process,” Gravelle says. “[We are] going to trust their experiences and believe them — and not automatically believe the police.”

This year, Gravelle became the only person of color on the Chisholm police commission.

“I think it is really important that when people have negative experiences with the police, that is brought to [the commission], because that is part of the reason [that] there is this collective idea that racism does not happen on the Iron Range. But realistically, it is like the Wild West here. People get away with a lot of stuff because no one says anything about it,” Gravelle says, citing incidents of police brutality and stricter sentences for people of color.

In addition to political work, VEMA is focused on creating spaces where people of color can gather and feel safe being their authentic selves. In 2021, the VEMA Multicultural Community Center opened in Chisholm. It includes meeting spaces, a lending library, computers, and free internet access. The center also hosts donation drives, block parties, and celebrations open to everyone.

The Center initially did not have support from city leadership; a full year passed before a member of the city council stepped inside. But Gravelle says the impact on the community of color in the area has been monumental.

“When a person of color walks into this center and they see reflections of themselves
in the art, in the people, in the environment — it is amazing to watch that armor that they carry with them coming off,” Gravelle says.

In September, VEMA hosted a back- to-school hair event and sent more than a dozen kids to school in traditional hairstyles — locs, braids, beads, and bows. Gravelle says many of the kids in attendance had never been part of a large gathering of Black and brown folks. In the new year, the organization will initiate a mentoring program pairing adults with members of the younger generation.

“My hope is that my grandkids don’t have to continue to feel all of these things that myself and the rest of my family have had to feel here — that it won’t be a consistent uphill battle for them to hold on to their heritage, traditions, ethnicity,” Gravelle says. “We chose this place for a reason — the Iron Range is beautiful. We just want to see more of ourselves in it.”

— additional reporting by Savannah Howe

Action = Change

Seraphia Gravelle offers advice for those wanting to make change in their community: “Start with yourself; knowledge is power. Find the people who want the same thing, and listen to the experience of those who are directly affected by that change. That’s where you find the starting point.”