Alana Simmons has dedicated her life to love and tolerance.
It is a path she embarked upon when the 2011 Elizabeth City State University graduate, and 27-year-old Newport News, Virginia native’s life was dramatically changed on June 17, 2015.
On that mid-June day, a young man walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people while they were attending Bible study. One of those victims was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, her grandfather.
It was an act of hate and violence toward the African American community, and it changed the lives of many people that night. And while family, friends and a nation were stricken with grief, Simmons chose to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to teach tolerance and love.
Simmons attended the bond hearing of the accused shooter. She took that opportunity to confront the man who killed her grandfather.
“At the bond hearing of the shooter, I had words with him,” recalled Simmons. “I told him that my grandfather lived in love and preached love, so that hate won’t win.”
Since that time, Simmons founded and has dedicated her life to the Hate Won’t Win Movement, combating hate and intolerance, and making great strides across the country in the name of love, she says.
Simmons and her work were recently honored with the Kay Family Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The Kay Family Award is given by the Anti-defamation League to, “Individuals for extraordinary acts of courage in confronting intolerance and injustice, extremism and terrorism.”
As a high school student, Simmons was recruited to attend ECSU by the late Grady Deese, an admissions counselor, and the former music director, Billy Hines. They convinced Simmons to attend ECSU and study music education.
“You know, ECSU is a small school and that gave me an opportunity to cultivate myself as a leader,” said Simmons.
Her time at ECSU was spent not only in the music department performing with the University Choir, but also working with the National Council of Negro Women, participating in sorority life, and becoming Miss ECSU. That title also led Simmons to becoming the first Miss CIAA from ECSU.
Simmons eventually moved on to Norfolk State University where she earned a Masters in Music Education. She became a music educator working in public schools.
All of these experiences, says Simmons, have worked to cultivate her leadership skills. They are skills that today take her across the country, promoting tolerance and love through the Hate Won’t Win Movement.
Simmons has recently become the youngest member of the ECSU Foundation Board of Directors. She also teaches music part time in Columbia, South Carolina, works in real estate full time, but also runs the non-profit Hate Won’t Win organization full time.
The non-profit came about after a meeting with Pres. Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. It was during a conversation with them that she realized it was time to spread this message of love and tolerance.
It is a labor of love that Simmons says brings communities together to discuss racial tensions and other issues of tolerance that are plaguing communities today. During roundtable discussions dubbed, “Courageous Community Conversations,” Simmons says community members talk about issues relating to prejudice, hatred, “and anything in that realm.”
“From that point on, they come up with a plan of action, whatever they can do to change the dynamic,” she said.
Simmons has been working with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, monitoring hate crimes across the country. Since the 2008 election of Pres. Obama, the nation’s first African American president, hate crimes have been on the rise, she says. Hate crimes are weighing on America’s communities.
“It has a daily effect on communities,” says Simmons. “So we are advocating through demonstrations of love. Discuss the issues. Bring awareness to the problems and create solutions together.”
The need for love and tolerance, says Simmons, is greater now than any time in recent history.