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Rev. Dawn Riley Duval: An Agent of Defiance

“I have to be with the people, grieving, hurting, loving, planning, knowing, and soon winning...” says Rev. Dawn Riley Duval, an ordained itinerant elder in the AME Church. Photo: Daniel Sauvé. Her life experiences – track star, newspaper reporter, minister, mom, student and community organizer – have prepared her to be a barrier-breaking crisis response activist in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I love being alive in such a time as this,” says Rev. Dawn Riley Duval. “Being a revolutionary during this Black liberation moment is a frightening, transforming and worshipful experience.”  

Dispelling the notion that Black men clergy are the only ones who do frontlines social justice work, comrades in activists’ circles respect her leadership in the streets and some even refer to her as: “Warrior,” “Pastor to the People,” “Revolutionary,” and “Badass.” She may answer to them all, but she will introduce herself as Rev. Dawn.

Aspiring Olympian
Rev. Dawn’s first memory of intersecting faith and activism was on the running track. “I was eight when I joined the Colorado Flyers track team,” she says, “I was clear that the track was my sanctuary. It was open, earthy, holy ground. It was a space where I – a Black girl – was free, free to be unapologetically strong, free to run, free to be fast, free to win.”  

While experiencing freedom, the Denver native also recalls enduring scrutiny. “Soon, I noted the looks of disapproval I received whether I made a technical mistake during the race and lost, or I celebrated after a win, or I spoke about my hopes of being in the Olympics someday. I overheard hurtful statements about my gangly arms and legs, homely face, and coily hair.

Rev. Dawn is often referred to as a “Warrior,” “Pastor to the People,” “Revolutionary” and “Badass.” Photo: William Parson. She adds, “It was as if me simply being myself was an act of defiance. So rather than diminish my shine, I embraced the divine call on my life to hold my truth and to be an agent of defiance.”

Academically disciplined in her defiance, Rev. Dawn is a graduate of Denver East High School, the University of Illinois at Champaign, and University of Colorado at Boulder where she earned a Master’s Degree in print journalism. As a newspaper reporter early in her career, she analyzed the ills of society through the stories she was assigned while working the metro beat at the Rocky Mountain News. Soon she realized that she needed to do more than write. She says, “In interviewing the people on various topics, I’d listen to the powerful stories, some were filled with painful experiences. Then I’d write the story, and I was done. Often I asked myself, ‘Is this all that I’m supposed to do with the people’s precious narratives?  As a person of faith, how should I respond to what I am hearing?’”  

Wrestling with such questions led her to Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee where she earned a Master’s of Divinity degree, was awarded the Umphrey Lee Dean’s Award – the highest prize presented at graduation to the student who most exemplifies the vision and commitments of the divinity school. “Studying at Vanderbilt was a remarkable time in my life,” she says. “Such brilliant, compassionate and righteous people, all hungering for God within and among us, ready to minister to and sacrifice for and with the most marginalized of God’s people. The entire experience emboldened my social justice heart and encouraged me to trust the knowing in my belly.”

Magical Sundays
Her passion for social justice emerged early in her life at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver. “When I was a little one, Shorter A.M.E. Church was a magical space. We were a smaller church so we were like family. The choir sang loud and mellifluous, it was clear to me they were free indeed,” Rev. Dawn recalls. “The mothers of the church – like Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Mrs. Jeweldine Blair, Mrs. Marie Greenwood, Mrs. Patricia Raybon, Rev. Sheila Johnson – spoke into my life loving words of life, power and encouragement. And our pastor, Rev. Jesse Langston Boyd Jr., preached and lived social justice. His sermons were full of love for God, Black love, Black pride, radical hope, and unspeakable joy. Our work in the community was spirit-led, relevant, and appreciated by people in the community. I looked forward to going to church on Sundays.”

Now an ordained itinerant elder in the AME Church, Rev. Dawn spends most of her time ministering in the streets. “In Denver, the names Marvin Booker, Alonzo Ashley, Jennifer Lobato, Ryan Ronquillo, Jessie Hernandez, Naeschylus Carter, Paul Castaway, Michael Marshall, Dion Avila are some of the names that form the canon of the wrongfully dead,” she says. “I have to be with the people, grieving, hurting, loving, planning, knowing, and soon winning, because the people at the bottom are rising up.”

Rev. Dawn Riley Duval at Denver's annual Marade - a march and parade to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo: Armand Genyro. In the midst of the people rising up and speaking out, Rev. Dawn’s children are her foremost concern.  “My Black daughter and my Black son are my gifts from God. They will live and not die. Everything I do is to help create a better world for them and their children and their children’s children. So I love that they’re watching their mama, praying and marching with me, learning from and teaching me. They’re deep in this work with me and will tell our beloveds about the generational Black love, audacity, and courage that courses through our veins.”

Let My People Vote
While Rev. Dawn continues leading in the Black Lives Matter movement, she and business partner Hasira Soul Ashemu, are preparing for a June launch of Let My People Vote – a nonpartisan, Black-led, voter engagement nonprofit. The mission: To build a liberative and just society by increasing the power of the Black voice, vote and dollar through robust and sustained Black political participation.  

“I am excited about Let My People Vote,” she says. “As LMPV completes final details for podcasts, town halls, grassroots voter registration and voter turnout activities, prepare for bold and honest conversations.” A time such as this, calls for no less. 

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.