Fall 2015: Gerald Mitchell's Response to "Justice for All" Essay Winners

Gerald Mitchell responds to the winners of the Fall 2015 "Justice for All" writing competition.
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Photo by Rocío Pichon Rivière. 

Dear Amani, Cate, Elizabeth, Karen, and Naomi:

You give me hope. And I want to say thank you.

I was in Paris during the November attacks. Similar to the inspiration for “I Can’t Breathe Until We All Can Breathe,” walking past the actual sites of the attacks in Paris made it impossible to escape the hurt.

Coming home to read your stories provided light. I believe that honesty and vulnerability is where change starts. And Karen, your openness about your earlier struggles is moving. Don’t beat yourself up. Your earlier struggles are certainly not “shameful.” They quite likely are a necessary process to become the ambassador for understanding, mindfulness and love that you now strive to be. One thing I really wanted to make clear in “I Can’t Breathe...”, was that I believe only by changing ourselves and our actions can we then begin to change our communities to be more just. We all need to do this. You provide a great example.

Amani, I didn’t have your courage to make my voice heard in high school. I’m impressed by your desire to amplify your voice in order to avoid, as you call it, the “deafening silence.” The MLK quote you referenced is one of my favorites, as it challenges all of us, as good people, to realize that indifference is in fact an action, one that ends up consenting to and supporting injustice.

Speaking of silence, Elizabeth, I loved the dueling ideas that you put forth—silence representing tolerance and consent which we must do away with, but also stillness and presence, that we must seek more of. And not just as a way to feel the pain as I did in response to Eric Garner being killed. But also, as you say, “being present to the richness we have available to us” in order to be connected to others.

You then go on to ask yourself if you are overestimating your ability to make change. In fact, in my opinion, most of us underrate our impact, which keeps us from doing anything. But Cate and Naomi, both of you seemingly don’t have that problem at all! You are each wonderful examples of “doing.”

Who fundraises for tuition and supplies to help girls in Kenya attend school? And at age 12? That is truly admirable, Cate. I was more worried about video games. The fearlessness of your words and the audacity of your hope is something which all of us could benefit from. Your desire to achieve awareness, to think globally and act locally reminded me of one of my favorite Robert F. Kennedy quotes:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

But he was wrong in one respect. It doesn’t take a man to make ripples. A teenage girl like yourself is equally capable. We all are.

You make that very clear, Naomi. Your goal of speaking truth to power is...powerful. The project you started is exciting and mirrors many of my goals of the project that I’m working on. People are not always aware of their behavior, their biases, their impact on others. Perhaps you can influence your friends, peers, elders and the rest of your community to do so, not only to help yourself and others like you to no longer be the targets of discrimination, but to help those that are discriminating too. Because they are harmed as well by their lack of awareness. In the words of Zora Neal Hurston:

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.

I want to end by saying it’s been an honor to have the opportunity to hear your responses to what I wrote almost a year ago. As I started with, you give me hope because while you all are striving to make the world a better place, all of you are evidence that we are indeed progressing. As several of you wrote, you are just one person.

You’re right Amani, you “can’t do it alone.” And you’re right Cate, “one person can’t send 66 million girls to school.“ I frequently feel like I am trying to navigate this world alone too. But as you have reminded me, we are all walking the same path. And there are many more like us, even if we don’t see them. Enjoy the journey. You’ve got a great start and unbounded potential and have inspired me tremendously.

Together you—we—can create a better world.

 

Gerald Mitchell

 

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