'I'm going to speak, even when I'm afraid' — How our youth honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This past Monday, a morning when most students were still in bed, 25 young people at Project Legacy woke up early to attend the MLK Breakfast and Freedom Rally and March in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ranging from 7th grade students to college students, our youth traded sleeping in for an opportunity to listen to speakers, meet community leaders, and march and sing for freedom.
We ended this special morning by gathering for the dedication of Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Rochester, a moment that was so memorable for all of the youth in our program.
Watching our youth experience this moment, I couldn’t help but reflect on how it all began.
A few months ago, a small group people met with city officials and community leaders to discuss the possibility to name a Rochester street to honor Dr. King. But instead of a street, Parks and Recreation offered us another option.
The possibility of naming a park.
As we thought about the parks and streets in Rochester, one park immediately came to mind: East Park. One of the city’s largest parks located in the Southeast quadrant of the city, it’s a park that has been home to school rallies, basketball tournaments, a meeting space for families and a popular frisbee golf course.
This park holds more than a few special memories for me in the years I’ve done youth outreach. It’s where I was first introduced to a young girl and her siblings, learning the horrendous effects of unhealed child abuse and trauma passed through generations, an interaction that altered the course of my professional career.
It was also where I last saw Trey alive.
Trey was a young man who was never able to leave the draw and pull of the streets. It was here, in the shade of the trees of East Park, on a hot August afternoon during a basketball tournament that Trey and I talked about his future: “I'm gonna change for you, Ma! I am—I'm gonna change for you, I promise!" he shouted, smiling and pointing at me over his shoulder as he ran back to the court.
But he wasn't able to change, and he left the streets the way too many of our young men do. Trey lost his life to gun violence just a week after that hopeful conversation in East Park.
My memories of East Park are strong, evocative, and incredibly painful. They are memories of the youth I have known and loved, youth who I spent many days with, hearing about their hopes, dreams and struggles.
It is with them in mind that I’m truly honored to be able to call this park “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park.”
On Monday, our middle school girls participated in the park’s renaming ceremony. Three of them bravely climbed the steps of the stage and read their remarks, before they were given the honor of pulling the drape to reveal the plaque to everyone in attendance.
Afterwards, a member of the Park Board told me that seeing the expressions on their faces as they unveiled the sign was the best moment of his year.
After the ceremony, one of our girls said to me: "Today taught me that it's important to use my voice for change. I was scared. I wasn't going to speak. I was afraid. But then I heard all of those speakers talking about how Dr. King kept speaking up and working for change even when people tried to hurt him, and I saw how the city listened to us, and I decided right then that I'm going to be a freedom fighter, too. I'm going to speak, even when I'm afraid. I love Project Legacy because I learn how to be brave here.”