As a child, Andrae Holsey listened to his father tell stories of growing up in the 1950s and walking eight miles every day to attend a segregated school. He heard him talk about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Holsey watched with his own eyes as the KKK roamed through the town in Virginia, where he and his family lived for a time.
He started high school here in Altoona as protests over the shootings of Black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown raged across the country.
Andrae Holsey leads the Count Every Vote march in Pittsburgh in Nov. 2020.
Now at 22, Holsey prepares to graduate from college with the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Antwon Rose in his heart.
“My dad always encouraged my siblings and me to go out our door and not only represent ourselves but work to change the world around us in positive ways,” he says.
Holsey is well-positioned to make those changes. Through his parents, he has been connected to action organizations within the community, such as the local chapter of the NAACP; in fact, he was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. scholarship through the organization to attend Penn State Altoona. A political science major, Holsey joined the college’s Black Student Union, the Young Republicans organization, and served as secretary of the Political Science Society. Through these groups, he had many opportunities to interact with campus and community leaders about social justice issues and people of color.
He volunteered with the Alliance for Police Accountability, a large civil rights nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh, and become a full member of the Blair County NAACP. In July 2020, after a peaceful march was held in Altoona to protest George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Holsey and several friends founded Progress for People of Color. Holsey took on the role of political outreach director for the nonprofit organization that informs, engages, and mobilizes citizens to ensure that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is upheld for all, regardless of skin color.
Although Holsey believes that if people of color benefit, everyone benefits, Progress for People of Color doesn’t just advocate for brown and Black community members. “In central Pennsylvania, there are a lot of displaced and marginalized people, so we work for job equity, education, and physical and mental health. When we work to resolve these issues, we make advancements for everyone across the board.”
Through each of the organizations in which he is involved, Holsey networks locally and throughout the state, pushing for change in big cities and small towns alike.
"Activism doesn't have to be shouting through megaphones, and it doesn't have to be marching through the streets. It can be a combination of tactics,” Holsey states.
Holsey waves a Black Lives Matter flag outside of City Council at the Count Every Vote march in Pittsburgh in Nov. 2020.
That’s the approach he and his peers take. They have organized and participated in a 2,000-person protest march in Pittsburgh and a smaller one in Altoona. They carried out a 67,000-signature ballot campaign to ban solitary confinement at the Allegheny County jail. They held a peaceful rally in Newry, a hotspot for the KKK in Blair County.
They are working to create statewide activist coalitions and bring legislative change with some members of the Black Caucus in Congress, the NAACP, and figures like Ed Gainey, a five-term Pennsylvania state representative recently elected the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh.
What is most important to Holsey, though, is what can be done for the local community—his home, where he has chosen to settle with his fiancé and stepdaughter. He’s focused on strategies to improve education, beautification projects, and programs that build and foster a sense of unity and fellowship.
He has already seen some success. Applied pressure from himself and allied citizens helped bring about Altoona’s Prospect Pool's re-opening for this summer.
Other goals are to reinvigorate and bring back the African American Heritage Festival to Altoona and restore the city’s Booker T. Washington Basketball Court to host travel leagues and tournaments. Holsey and his partners also want to support youth organizations like Leaders of Tomorrow, a mentorship program through Scorchin’ Boxing Facility in Altoona, and other similar programs that encourage success in young people.
“The more we build up our communities, the more people living in them will want to stay and contribute to them. The more we invest in the future for our youth, the more we can all progress together.”
Holsey finds the strength and determination to continue his work through various sources. He draws on the energy that infuses him at marches and rallies, especially the 2020 March on Washington, organized by the National Action Network. There on the National Mall, flanked by the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument, Holsey stood next to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. He was just steps away from Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III. He listened to speaker after speaker for eight hours, including members of George Floyd’s family, call for positive long-term change through tempered emotions and peaceful action. “Standing with those people was humbling. To see so many passionate about change and actively working for it was powerful and inspiring.”
But Holsey says his primary motivation is his 6-year-old stepdaughter. “I want to make sure that she has the same opportunities I did and the ones I didn’t. I tell her that things might be harder because she’s brown, and they might be harder because she’s a girl, but that doesn't mean that we should ever stop fighting so that we get our seat at the table.”
Holsey pauses for nine minutes and 29 seconds in remembrance of George Floyd at the Altoona Black Lives Matter March, held on June 6, 2020.
Holsey continues that fight in his new role as president/CEO of Blair County’s NAACP chapter. Elected on May 26, 2021, he made history by becoming the youngest-ever president of the oldest chapter in Pennsylvania, the youngest senior official in the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP, and possibly the youngest senior official in the history of the nation’s largest, oldest civil rights organization.
Holsey references his long-time mentor, the late Don Witherspoon, as a significant source of inspiration for wanting to lead the branch, which has more than 50 members. Witherspoon was president/CEO of Blair County’s NAACP chapter for over three decades. “Don never missed an opportunity to support me growing up. He left a legacy of empathy, communication, and ACTIVE-ism. It is my mission to make sure Don’s fight didn’t end when his life did.”
As chapter leader, Holsey is already investigating two local discrimination cases, rallying activists from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, and working with the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP to implement racial equality initiatives statewide.
Branch executive committee member and long-time community leader Donna Gority is thrilled with Holsey’s election. “Andrae is very clear about advancing the mission of the NAACP in a way that is respectful. With his youthful energy, enthusiasm, and ability to bring his generation to the table, I believe that the organization is in great hands for many years to come.”
Holsey will graduate from Penn State Altoona in December and become a Second Lieutenant in the Army.
With so many sources of motivation and causes to support, doing nothing is never an option for Holsey.
The only way that we're going to get change is if we continue to fight for it. Just watching things trend on Twitter or Facebook for a week or so doesn’t lead to legitimate, long-term change,” he states. “Ultimately, however, this is the people’s movement. Whatever I can do to amplify their voices, protect their rights, and improve their communities, I will. The fight for racial equality continues, and I am just getting started.”