At City Hall with Trayvon Martin’s Brother, a Rising Community Organizer
In the five years since his brother's murder, Jahvaris Fulton has transformed from a quiet son who stayed largely out of the public eye to a rising force in New York City's local government scene.
Portrait by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Not a day goes by that Jahvaris Fulton doesn't think about his younger brother, Trayvon Martin. Whether it's a guy at church who looks like him at a glance, or someone around Harlem who walks like Trayvon, the memory is inescapable. Even so, Fulton wears a black bracelet on his right wrist. On one side it reads, I AM TRAYVON MARTIN; on the other, YOU ARE TRAYVON MARTIN. It's the second of its kind that he has worn since a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, killed his brother in 2012. The first bracelet snapped after years of daily wear. "It's a reminder of him," the 26-year-old told me, looking down at his arm. "Not to say I'll forget."
In the five years since his brother's murder, Fulton has transformed from a quiet son who stayed largely out of the public eye to a rising force in New York City's local government scene and a voice inspiring young men of color to become involved in their communities. In his job as a special assistant to the NYC Young Men's Initiative (YMI), a public-private partnership with the mayor's office that launched in 2011 to help improve the lives of black and Latino men in the city, Fulton, who is also an active member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, is focused on juvenile justice, health, education, and employment.
When we met earlier this year, he said that, despite being perhaps the most reserved member of the Martin-Fulton family, he has come to recognize the platform he has to tell his story, as well as those of others whose lives have been altered by violence.
"I never would have seen him as a public speaker or as a person who would speak out against things prior to his brother's death," his mother, Sybrina Fulton, told me. "It's the passion and the love he has for his brother that's made him feel compelled to speak out."
Today he feels it's his responsibility "because there are people that aren't given the same opportunity." And, he said, it's a weight he's happy to carry.
One evening this past March, after leaving work around 5 PM, Fulton took the train to Harlem, and we met at a bar, though he told me he had given up alcohol for Lent. He sipped water, and we sat in a corner and talked while Ray Charles classics played in the background.
Fulton is a private person, and the public doesn't know much about him. As we spoke, he told me that he loves swimming and reading, and he's not like he used to be; his emotions flow differently now, and he cries at even the slightest hint of sadness. He's unsure of whether he considers himself an activist; he's someone who just wants to help. Fulton admitted that, before the events of February 26, 2012, he didn't process stories of racism or race-related crimes the same way he does now. He described the past five years as "a complete 180" on how he reacts to these tragedies, understanding that they are not stories but people's lives.
"I, too, was guilty of treating it all as a story," he told me. "It's not until it happens to you that it opens you up, and you pay way more attention. Once your eyes are open, you have to do more." He added, "I feel like people didn't remember that [Trayvon] was a person."
Fulton's road to community work in New York wasn't necessarily planned, though he recounted a trip he and his brother took, when they were 19 and 15 years old, respectively, that cemented his love and excitement of the place. With their mother, they'd visited all the tourist staples—the Empire State Building, Broadway, Times Square—and the boys split off to go to the enormous Regal E-Walk Stadium, to see the Angelina Jolie–fronted action-thriller Salt. Even the everyday moviegoing experience felt larger than life in the two-story theater, he told me, smiling at the thought of a night out with his brother.
His return to New York wasn't for leisure but for the chance to do good work. In 2015, after he graduated as an honor student the year before from Florida International University, with a BS in information technology, Fulton reached out to a family friend, Ifeoma Ike, whom the Martin-Fulton family met while she was working on Capitol Hill as a civil rights counsel on the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Ike worked on the first hearing-style session that reviewed the circumstances of Martin's death. The two developed a sibling-like friendship. During their phone call, she told Fulton about YMI, where she began working in February of that year. He told her he was curious about the work it was doing, and she encouraged him to head to New York to check it out. Weeks later, he bought a plane ticket and visited the YMI office with his mother and joined its team shortly thereafter.
"I think it was important for him to be here in many ways," said Ike, now YMI's deputy executive director. "He's not just Trayvon Martin's brother. He's a millennial, a college graduate, and a Southern boy." Cyrus Garrett, the organization's executive director, told me that Martin's death was actually part of the reason he was with YMI, too. He cited it as one of the reasons why he transitioned from a focus on national security to gun-related issues and community building. Garrett has headed YMI since 2015, and Fulton's personal connection to the work the organization does, and what it means to others, isn't lost on him. Once, the two of them, dressed in suits, attended a youth-group meeting where they were greeted skeptically. But when Fulton told his story and the attendees realized who he was, Garret said that "the whole attitude of the room changed."
"He doesn't want to be defined by his story," Garrett told me. "He wants to make his own way on his own name, but he also doesn't want to forget about the trajectory of how he got here."
"Once your eyes are open, you have to do more."
But Fulton's commitment to community improvement began before New York, whether he was aware of it or not. In Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, his mother wrote about how both of her sons grew up around her own work, helping displaced residents in Liberty City, arguably the most neglected part of Miami, return to a mixed-income housing development. Sitting inside their mother's office, the boys would see her build rapport with people, asking for their feedback and keeping each of them updated on their new homes. "I wanted my sons to see what my work was about, see how communities were built and sustained," she writes, "and appreciate that they always had a roof over their heads, and a wide extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins who would always care about them."
And since coming to New York, he has played an important part in shepherding the debut of the NYC Youth Mentoring Initiative, a program that aims to "increase mentoring opportunities for high school youth across the five boroughs," according to the mayor's office. The program, which began in January, hopes to engage "14,000 New Yorkers as volunteer mentors to 40,000 high school students" in 400 city high schools by 2022, said NYC Service, a division of the mayor's office.
And he's finding his voice on the national stage as well. Last fall, after a spate of high-profile police-related killings of black men, Fulton was a part of "Black & Engaged," a four-city tour to teach community leaders how to improve local organizing, research, and activism efforts. Ike, who helped organize the tour, told me Fulton has a rare chance to make a difference, both in and out of the office. "We hope that a lot of people see him not as somebody who is stuck in a time that was both so tragic and, in some ways, eye-opening to the realities of so many people in America," she said, "but also as someone who is solution-oriented and a part of how we create different realities for people."
Garrett agreed and said that given the current political climate Fulton's ability to change perceptions is as important as ever. "The narrative now is Donald Trump and that everything is terrible. Jahvaris stands in contrast to that," Garrett said. "He has an opportunity to push back against the negative narratives that marginalize the experiences of young men of color."
The day after meeting Fulton in Harlem, I visited him at his office. It was 3:30 PM, and he was taking his first bite of lunch—it had been that kind of day. We talked about what he might do after his work with YMI and government and community organizing. He told me he doesn't know, but luckily, he has time to figure it out.
He reflected on the people who've supported him and his family over the past five years, understanding that what happened to his brother, and what has happened to young men of color across the US, may not have become a national issue without people who cared.
"I don't think as much could have been accomplished without people," he told me about all of the support he has received, aware of how much other violence and injustice goes unacknowledged. "It couldn't have just been me and my family."
Because of that, he told me, he'd continue to move forward. There is no going back.
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