Image and quote are taken from a youth justice program in Portland Oregon. Do visit their site and consider supporting their program: http://www.abicommunity.org/programs/youth_program/about_social_justice_youth_program.html
It’s spring in Maine and it is glorious! Green is my new favorite color. It is everywhere. The leaves are beginning to bud with that once a year yellowish green tint. It’s so fleeting and so welcome. The grass is a brilliant and almost blinding green. The green leaves of daffodils are bright. It always amazes me how every year spring feels like we’re seeing all this for the first time as it’s all so encompassing and wonderful.
As I use this time to slowly clean out my classroom and dig up garden soil to plant onions and greens I find myself thinking about the new direction my life is about to take, the lives of those I have have worked with for the past ten years, and the lives I’m about to work with. With a weird surprise I realize they are connected.
Several weeks ago I went “home” to the state where I grew up for the funeral of my brother’s daughter. It was absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been many, many years since I’ve seen the family I grew up with. To say the least, I was nervous. And yet in a series of a few quick moments I was warmly greeted by each family member and felt the joy of being back. We were all reminded that time is fleeting and life can change in an instant. We know this yet we live life like we can outsmart it. We were reminded that we can’t.
Days later I went to see a hero of mine, Dr. Cornell West. I’ve been following this man’s work for almost 30 years. He is brilliant, kind, generous, and a deep thinker. He challenges me. He make me think deeply. The friends I went with to see him have decided we are going to read his book, Race Matters, and discuss it. “Calling for a moral and spiritual awakening,” that’s what’s on the book’s cover. I say it’s time. It’s past time. The moral decay of our country is demonstrated daily, loudly and clearly. I look forward to diving into his words because he speaks and writes eloquently. Each time I encounter his words I enjoy the total absorption I feel. His thoughts and words are deeply thought out, so caring in nature, and consistent in thought.
A few days ago I visited the school where I will be working as a summer and after school care teacher assistant. It’s is beautiful. The playground is on a green lawn and is surrounded by trees. You see cows and horses in the distance. The classrooms are large, open, spacious, and neatly organized. Each beautiful classroom has large windows (that open) at the children’s height and a variety of well taken care of small animals and plants. The food the children eat is healthy and fresh. The teachers organize the learning of each child to match their individual work plans and the children are happy and actively engaged in their work. They work and are encouraged to solve conflicts independently. Their work is done with thought and thoroughness. The staff and children greeted me warmly and made me feel very welcome. The children are mostly white and from homes that care deeply about education.
These experiences have taken over my heart. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my niece Kelly, her parents and brothers, and the heartache they are enduring. I think about the adults and children I work with and the new ones that will soon take a central place in my heart. As I think about these events, places, and people I also think about Cornel West’s words. The one word that keeps coming to the forefront of my thinking is an old one, justice. If the past year has taught me anything it has taught me that I am privileged. I’ll be honest in saying that I never thought of myself as this, even more evidence that I am. With that privilege comes responsibility to work for justice.
A few posts back I spoke about being a protector of the children. That has been and must continue to guide the work I do. It’s a large part of my core being. The word, justice, continues to have deep meaning for me especially if I think about it in the terms of children. They are so often voiceless in our world today. Their voices certainly aren’t being heard by the many who run our country or the greedy organizations that fund them. So this word, justice, must guide the work we do as privileged white people who live in places where we have clean drinking water and enough healthy food to eat. If I am going to be honest I must look at what is tugging so strongly at my heart these days…the injustice of our education system, including right here in Maine. As I left the school I am about to work at I found myself close to tears thinking of the kids I’m leaving behind. This is not the first time I have felt this inequity for them. I had very similar emotions when I left a workshop being held at a school in a wealthy white community in southern Maine a few years ago. I again find myself asking, “Why don’t our kids, in our inadequately funded inner city public school, get this type of school, these types of materials, these same playgrounds, access to these same healthy foods? Why?” Injustice is the only answer I can come up with.
After listening to Cornell West, a young and insightful coworker wrote the following words to help her sum up what she had just listened to. These words are a combination of hers and Cornell West. “Justice is love in public, tenderness is love in private. Be tender! It’s not a sign of weakness but strength and vulnerability. Be kind, be kind, be kind. Being kind in the face of anger is often disarming. You never know what that person is going through or why they’re angry – maybe it’s not even about you. What if I’m tired or feeling angry? Justice isn’t easy in an unjust culture, it’s a muscle we must work out. Complaining because it’s hard means I have privilege to not do justice.” What insight from a young insightful woman. Thank you Ms. Emily. Her words gently demand that we look at and listen to the youth who are about to inherit our country. What a mess we are leaving them. Yet, despite the obscene injustices of our nation our wise youth continue to see through it all and attack it with all their might. And I for one am so grateful for them and their courage and determination to do the work to make the glaring wrongs right.
So where does that leave me? Someone with privilege, in a spot where I unexpectedly see injustice first hand. Certainly no one I work with or am about to work with is purposely making or encouraging this. But yet I see it and I am a part of it. If I am to follow the words and beliefs of the man I so greatly admire, I must speak up. I must address this. I can’t choose which injustice to address especially if one so close to me makes such a glaring appearance. As Emily said, complaining and not addressing means I have privilege others do not have. I find myself looking to the brave youth of Parkland. Children who experienced their friends and siblings being gunned down by a white, young, male terrorist. Really, that is who he is. How can we call him anything else? He created terror in the lives of those who lived it first hand and continues to cause terror in the lives of every family that sends someone they love to school everyday. These young men and woman. Yes, they are now young men and women because of what they have experienced. Their childhoods were stolen. These young men and women from Parkland are showing us elders the way. They are showing us how to use white privilege to help others less privileged. They first do this by pushing fear aside and naming it. Then they yell it and bring those with less voice right square into their spot light forcing us to see and hear them. What inspiration.
God, grant me the strength, the wisdom, and the courage to change the things I think I cannot change.
Work for justice by working for change and giving voice to the voiceless, especially our children.