‘Will you be brave? Will you be a voice?’ — A Statement From our Executive Director
I've been pondering how to respond to the tragic shootings that occurred in Texas and Ohio this past week. I’ve been working with youth of color for more than 40 years and have never seen the level of racism that I’ve witnessed in the past four years. Each week, we see more and more racist attacks culminating as they did last week in El Paso.
In our most recent Circle, our young people described feeling afraid to go to school, to walk down the street, to go to the mall or even a park. They are afraid for their lives. They wonder if there will be an ICE raid and whether or not they can trust their friends, employers or teachers. While all of our children share some of these concerns, are youth of color are being targeted by racists.
I keep thinking of the words of a friend of mine, just 19 years old, who crossed the border in order to have a chance at a life free of the violence and poverty where he lived in Mexico.
"Why do they call us criminals? Why does Trump say we are murderers and rapists and drug dealers? We just want to live our life and go to work and get an education and build a home. That's all we want — a peaceful and happy life."
As a nonprofit, we cannot endorse a political candidate nor can we work to elect candidates. But as people who are deeply committed to social justice and anti-racism work, we also cannot turn away from the responsibilities we have to our youth of color who are terrified of walking down Broadway in Rochester after a car full of white men yelled at them to “Go back to where you came from, N____.”
We cannot ignore the reality of the increasing numbers of taunts our youth endure in their public school classrooms; students who lean across the aisle in the back of the room and whisper, “Better hurry, your boat back to Africa is waiting,” or “Build that wall.”
In Rochester, we know about the discipline disparities in our schools. We have read these numbers have actually worsened in some schools since originally reported 6 years ago. Combine this with the hate speech our youth experience on a regular basis, and I am afraid for all of our children — not just those in Project Legacy’s programs.
When our children are afraid of going to school, afraid to walk down the streets, and afraid to go to their places of worship they are being denied the right to one of our American values, the pursuit of happiness. How can our youth of color pursue happiness and prepare for their future if they are constantly living in fear of racist attacks?
In addition to the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, Toni Morrison died this week. Her books can all be found on our bookshelves at Project Legacy, where we read passages from her writing for openings and closings to Circle. In last week’s Circle we read these two poignant passages:
“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble."
“It's important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn't shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
What do we do in Project Legacy? We create opportunities and we remove barriers. But today in the USA, the greatest barriers we face are systemic and overt racism. People have become emboldened by a President who asks a crowd in Florida, “How do you stop these people (Mexicans?) You can’t.” Before continuing, he was interrupted by a woman who yelled “Shoot them!”
Rather than disavowing this sentiment or stopping her violent remarks, our president responded with a joke.
Now more than ever, it’s important for us to remember that words matter.
We teach our children this, yet words are still used to joke about violence towards immigrants and asylum-seekers and communities of color.
Many of the children of those frightened people sit around in Circle every week, often frightened themselves. They experience hate speech, disparities and systemic poverty, all as they continue to press on for a better life and peaceful future where the lights aren’t shut off due to an unpaid bill, where they play on sports teams and graduate from high school and go to college. They want to grow up to have a career, a family and provide for their children. Instead, their dreams are often interrupted by fear.
We cannot allow our children to lose hope in exchange for fear.
At Project Legacy, we refuse to close our eyes and bury our heads while our children cry tears of pain and confusion and fear. We are looking for our sisters and brothers to speak up against injustice and hate. We are listening for our elected officials to speak up against the hate and complicit approvals of violence. This is racism and there are no excuses.
We must say the words and speak the truth, calling this what it is.
Our children are afraid, their parents are afraid, I am afraid. This is how racism works.
So today, we look to you. Will you be brave? Will you be a voice? Will you be a person of action? Because our children need you.
Please listen to John Edmonds interview with KAAL to learn more about systemic racism.