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Columbia rebels with a cause

Three activists promote peace, pot and diversity

October 25, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

History is rife with examples of nonconformists who fought for political and social change. Three Columbians are trying to make local history by dedicating themselves to causes as diverse as their personalities.

Jeffery Frey views activism as a full-time responsibility and partners with local organizations that feed the hungry and give a voice to the marginalized. Nicholas Ramos turned adversity into motivation and is creating a diversity-based fraternity. And nursing student Alexis Lyle educates Missourians about the benefits of legalizing marijuana.

Frey, Ramos and Lyle might not have the majority behind them, but that hasn’t deterred them from envisioning a future in which they’re no longer the outliers.

Three Columbians are trying to make local history by dedicating themselves to causes as diverse as their personalities.

Promoting peace

Flag-waving activist Jeffery Frey donates his time to support more than half a dozen causes.

On a Sunday afternoon, Jeffery Frey knocks on doors for three hours to tell people that their neighborhood might be designated as blighted. A leaf distracts him from his mission for a moment. “Is this mint?” he asks as he puts it to his face to inspect it further. A woman who had just pulled away from her curbside parking spot notices him and says out the window, “What do you need?”

“Blight alert!” Frey yells. “Blight alert!” He takes three great leaps to the car and gives the woman a flier. He’s tall, but he moves fast like a gazelle.

Frey, 33, canvasses for Grass Roots Organizing, a local activist group that shares information about socioeconomic causes. When there’s a time-sensitive issue, such as the proposal to designate sections of Columbia blighted, Frey will spend his afternoons talking up strangers three times a week.

Areas must be blighted before qualifying as an Enhanced Enterprise Zone. Frey says, GRO fears the designation might give the city reason to use eminent domain.

Frey is not your average weekend activist. For him, it is a full-time responsibility. Depending on the season, he gardens and does chores for Centro Latino de Salud, a Latino community resource center that provides health, literacy and educational services.

Every Monday evening he serves vegan meals at Walnut and Ninth streets for Food Not Bombs, an organization that distributes food in protest of war and poverty.

Frey makes appearances and sometimes inadvertently takes on leadership roles for causes such as the Topless Movement that came to Columbia in August. But he is most known for the weekly demonstration with Mid-Missouri Peaceworks at the corner of Providence and Broadway.

The word activist doesn’t seem to mean much on its own. People who write checks, sign petitions and blog can call themselves activists. It can be a hobby.

Not for Frey. He’s the activist who wants to put solar panels on his house to become energy independent. He’s the activist who refuses to be paid for his work because he’d rather move to what he calls a gift-based economy, which means people would give one another goods and services when needed. He makes do, getting paid through landscaping work, and he lives with friends in a house owned by his father.

Frey’s passion for activism began in 2005. He doesn’t watch the clock or use a calendar to count years and days because he prefers to use his internal rhythms. But asked when activism became personal to him, the hesitation in his voice stems from the emotional weight that year put on him. That was the year his girlfriend got pregnant. They thought she was unable to conceive, and she knew Frey didn’t want to be a father.

The uncomfortable position made Frey realize the effect faulty information can have on someone’s life. His son is 6, but Frey has never met him.

Frey has lived in Columbia for his entire adult life. He grew up in New Orleans, the son of two medical professionals. He became a class clown in elementary school because of his pent-up energy. His parents worried that he might have Attention Deficit Disorder, so they gave him medication. He stopped taking it when he was old enough to embrace that energy as a productive aspect of his personality.

For Frey, extra energy is a powerful asset. For two years, he’s helped make the intersection of Providence and Broadway the loudest in Columbia every Wednesday afternoon. Frey waves a green flag with a peace symbol over his head. He hollers and gives peace-sign fist pumps when people honk their horns. The whole time he wears a huge smile. He waves the flag with such vigor that he occasionally has to repair it.

Every Wednesday Jeffery Frey waves a flag he constructed out of cloth and a broomstick as he encourages drivers to honk for peace.

Photograph by Jaime Henry-White

The victories for Peaceworks have been gradual. Mark Haim, who coordinates the demonstration, says after 9/11 there were counter protests. “There were people who only gave us half a peace sign, if you know what I mean,” Haim says.

Despite his enthusiasm, Frey feels like his efforts have not yet brought significant change. “I feel like my lack of success is what drives me to persevere,” he says. “It’s like, I’m not going to give up. I don’t think what I’m doing is wrong.”

Defending diversity

When Greeks mocked Nick Ramos for his Hispanic heritage, he started his own fraternity colony.

People called them jokes. As a freshman planning to rush MU fraternities, Nick Ramos felt singled out by Greeks.

Every offhand comment was a sharp jab under the guise of jest. Snide remarks about cutting grass and heading to Taco Bell or Chipotle for dinner. “My name’s Nick,” Ramos, now a junior, says. “It’s not anything close to anything Hispanic, but sometimes I’d still get called Carlos, ‘Hey Paco.’”

The half-Mexican, half-Puerto Rican student has faced discrimination before, but it has made his pursuit of equality all the more important. Ramos’ bright smile flashes often, even when discussing his experiences with prejudice.

Whenever Ramos hung out with Greeks, he felt the need to repress his heritage. He feared bringing too much of his culture into this new world would be looked down upon. Things such as listening to Hispanic music were out of the question.

In 2010, the Greek community included 5,399 students. Although the number continues to rise each year, Ramos still felt that he didn’t belong.

In September 2011, representatives from Lambda Theta Phi’s Gamma Nu chapter at University of Missouri-Kansas City visited MU. Nationwide, Lambda holds the esteem of being the first nationally recognized Latin fraternity, with more than 120 chapters and colonies.

Ramos and friend Juan Boyd passed the group’s table in the Student Center and were drawn to it. An idea began to form. “(Lambda) clicked, not just because I felt more connected, but because it met certain needs,” Ramos says. “In Lambda Theta Phi, regardless of background, everyone’s a brother. Everyone’s equal.”

Since 2012, Ramos has served as president of Lambda Theta Phi, MU’s only current Latino-based fraternity and the second chapter in Missouri.

MU junior Nicholas Ramos looks for Lambda Theta Phi recruits who embody the fraternity's motto of "Chivalry above self."

Photograph by Jaime Henry-White

There’s no readily available number on student ethnicity within the MU Greek system, and only a handful of chapters were founded on the basis of diversity.

The campus houses three different Greek councils that serve as an umbrella to fraternities and sororities: the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Association. Of MU’s 51 fraternities and sororities, eight are African-American-based chapters. Lambda Theta Phi and Alpha Phi Gamma, an Asian-based sorority, exist outside MU’s Greek councils.

“I do see a division, and I don’t like the label of ‘that’s a black Greek, that’s a white Greek, that’s an Asian Greek’” Ramos says. “Why can’t we just all be Greeks?”

Lambda might be Latino-based, but it welcomes brothers of all backgrounds. The fraternity has African-American and Portuguese members. Diversity is an important part of Lambda’s tenets. It’s important to find members who “don’t just adapt; they don’t just tolerate,” Ramos says. “They accept.”

Before Lambda could call MU home, there were goals to be met. Rules to be followed. Ramos and Boyd began recruiting members and organizing charity and social events. By the time Lambda was recognized as a colony, a kind of Greek trial period that’s required to establish a chapter, it had recruited 11 brothers. It was February 2012, a little more than four months after the day in the Student Center.

The fraternity is on its feet as a colony, but the members still have work to do: meeting Lambda’s requirements before obtaining coveted chapter status and earning chapter letters. During the fraternity’s startup, Ramos spent more than 30 hours a week planning social events, service projects and fundraisers to prove that the group was active on campus.

With no multicultural council to back their brotherhood, the Lambdas have set their sights on the Interfraternity Council, which only accepts fraternities with 10 or more members. Lambda has lost two brothers to financial complications. Nine remain. The 10th will come with time, Ramos says, as will their chapter status, with continued fraternal activities.

He hopes to leave something lasting on MU’s campus, a legacy. For Lambda Theta Phi to become as widely known and accepted as any of MU’s other fraternities.

“I would personally like for us to be integrated within the community to the point where I can come back here in 20 years and see my colony, hopefully a chapter by then,” Ramos says. “Here they are, just flourishing like they’ve always been here.”

The blunt truth

Alexis Lyle dedicates her time outside of nursing school to advocate for marijuana law reform.

Alexis Lyle usually gets up at 5 a.m. for her clinical shifts, pulls on her black scrubs (she calls them ninja scrubs), whips her blond hair into a ponytail and laces up her Nike shoes — the kind necessary for long hours on her feet. During her shifts, the 21-year-old senior in the Sinclair School of Nursing helps treat patients with conditions ranging from the common cold to cancer. For Lyle, one man’s suffering sparked her pursuit of legislation to legalize marijuana.

The patient was diagnosed with abdominal cancer and given six months to live. To help with nausea and lack of appetite due to chemotherapy, he was given Marinol. The capsule pill of synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol contains the active chemical in marijuana. Lyle told a clinical instructor last year that it would be easier to grow and harvest a plant instead of spending millions trying to create something that already exists. “Yeah, that is interesting,” is as far as the conversation went.

In August, Lyle became the president of
MU NORML, the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “If I tell people I’m part of a marijuana law reform organization, I like to hoop dance, and I like to bake, I’m automatically judged,” she says. Now, Lyle is less worried about telling people because she wants to be an example that overturns the stereotype.

After discovering she was involved with NORML, a colleague told her she looked more like a sorority girl or a cheerleader. Lyle wrinkles her nose and shakes her head. Not that she intends to insult anyone. “The biggest thing I want to do is erase that (stereotype) so that people can have an intelligent conversation about it,” she says.

Lyle is a Sinclair Nursing scholar, carries a 3.6 GPA and works 20 hours a week at Tellers, a restaurant downtown.

Between 10 and 20 members of MU NORML meet every Wednesday on campus. Earlier this month, they discussed how to teach others how recreational marijuana can be safer than alcohol.

Lyle and two other students submitted a letter to the Columbia Missourian after charges of possession were brought against three MU football players. “We urge the prosecutor who receives this case to not press charges and choose to use public resources to prosecute crimes of violence and property instead,” the letter, published Oct. 9, reads. “We also demand that MU police cease wasting taxpayer dollars pursuing such harmless and victimless activities.” In November 2004, Columbia passed an ordinance that decriminalizes carrying a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and makes it comparable to a traffic ticket.

MU NORML has also held instructional joint-rolling sessions (with tobacco, of course) and is planning a regional conference next month to educate the community about cannabis and discuss the next step to end marijuana prohibition.

Alexis Lyle is preparing for MU NORML's regional conference on Nov. 3 after attending the national NORML conference Oct.4-6.

Photograph by Kayla Kauffman

For Lyle, petitioning for marijuana law reform goes beyond a college student’s battle against the man. She has been prescribed rizatriptan for her frequent migraines. Sometimes, she says, they are so severe that she throws up, which means she can only take dissolvable pills. “I haven’t refilled (the prescription) because I can’t afford it,” she says, adding that marijuana would be a cheaper alternative.

In 2012, volunteers statewide collected 65,000 signatures, half the amount needed to get an initiative for full legalization on the ballot this November. Lyle and other members of MU NORML helped collect signatures in Columbia and surrounding towns. The initiative would have regulated marijuana similar to alcohol: restricted to adults over 21, and those under its influence wouldn’t be allowed to drive.

Next month, voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will decide whether to legalize marijuana.

Lyle believes an end to prohibition in Missouri is not a question of if, but when. Soon, she says, it will be hard for people to ignore the medicinal benefits of cannabis and industrial uses for hemp, not to mention the enormous amount of tax dollars being used to enforce its ban.

A recent report by the National Cannabis Coalition titled “The Budgetary Implications of Legalizing Marijuana in Missouri” found that legalizing marijuana would save the state about $90 million dollars, money that’s currently spent on enforcing marijuana prohibition, each year.

“If people had more information about what law enforcement is doing to infringe on their basic rights,” Lyle says, “they would be a lot more outraged.”

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