I came to the John Lewis Fellowship looking for something I couldn’t really put into words. The particular sensations and interactions that I was seeking resist sentimental packaging on the page. You have to be there, ready to feel these moments electrifying the space, shifting the dynamic. One night, as we sat chatted over glasses of hot peach tea, my friend Seung-Hyun captured it. “It’s that feeling of coming alive, isn’t it?”
I came to the John Lewis Fellowship looking for something I couldn’t really put into words.
Coming alive. It’s a phrase I first discovered in my social justice community at college but almost forgotten in the post-graduation haze and pressure to get busy with ‘legitimate’ adult life. There’s a special potency to those words, that idea of ‘coming alive.’ Picture the moments when you felt at home in an organizing space or a classroom. To feel alive in a learning community, I’m looking for a circle where all of us are free to wrestle with brokenness while sharing the wholeness of our identities and deeply human experiences. I guess I think of human rights spaces the way some folks view the theater or an art gallery. I’m looking for places where ‘magic’ happens—a sacred space where we are free to reflect, struggle, and rediscover what it means to be human.
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I’ve been privileged to experience communities in which education through human rights is not only possible, but tangibly real and humanizing. But these spaces are far from the normative reality. The deep disparities hit me when Attorney Mawuli Davis reminded me and other fellows that the police are not the only perpetrators killing black and brown youth. In reality, our whitewashed system is just as capable of inflicting violence and denying personhood in a crowded room of school desks. When questioning what it means to systematically kill marginalized youth, Attorney Davis concluded that it begins “when you refuse to speak life into a young person.”
It takes far more than restorative justice to demand the dignity and rights of young people within our educational system.
What does restorative justice look like for these students? How do we translate the transformational moments of this program to a system that refuses to let marginalized voices ‘come alive’? What would it look like to create and defend human rights spaces within schools and our communities? I would argue that it takes far more than restorative justice to demand the dignity and rights of young people within our educational system. I’m looking for what Dr. Hooker describes as transformative justice—“transforming systems and narratives to create a world in which all can thrive.”
I don’t hold the answers for this process, nor am I fully convinced that it’s even possible. But what I do know is that transformational justice would require us—all of us—to refashion and regenerate our relationships. In this battle, we are not only dismantling systems and seeking their transformation, but questioning our relationship with ourselves, our communities, and those we had deemed ‘the Other.’ This inner work, the rewiring and reweaving of relationships, goes where policies alone can’t take us. The John Lewis Fellowship left me with three praxes to engage when I leave, three tools to begin this transformation in myself and the systems to which I am intimately bound. Retell. Build roots. Reimagine. If we are to fight for spaces of dignity and human rights for young people, these tools are integral to creating relationships that spark change from the inside out.
Students of all grades and backgrounds not only need access to uncomfortably accurate materials about their history, but educators must create opportunities to connect these histories to students’ own experiences.
After a month immersed in Atlanta’s civil rights history and current activist struggles, I left with a renewed understanding of the struggle to transform public narratives in the South. The city’s acknowledgment of slavery, segregation, and state-sponsored violence against communities of color remains as damningly absent and desperately urgent as equitable transportation, public health access, or criminal justice reform. When we demand humanizing, vibrant learning communities for ourselves and other young people, it proves impossible to craft a liberating classroom that is divorced from these larger realities. By excavating the true narratives of the South’s everyday apartheid and their connection to today’s structures of oppression, we empower ourselves and others to claim space and affirm dignity through retelling. Students of all grades and backgrounds not only need access to uncomfortably accurate materials about their history, but educators must create opportunities to connect these histories to students’ own experiences. By describing daily realities in their own words, students prove their power to center their communities’ histories while shaping a larger arc narrative of human rights struggles in the South.
The praxis of retelling requires us to interrogate our relationships to place—both physical space and ideological groundings—as well as our relationships to our communities. However, transforming spaces for young people requires activists, educators, and youth to question our own identities, refashioning our relationship with the self even as we seek liberatory spaces for ourselves and others. This process of retelling personally proved one of the most powerful elements of the John Lewis Fellowship, as it encouraged me to deconstruct my identity as a white, middle-class cisgender woman within activist-educational spaces. While I entered our learning community with a growing awareness of these privileges, my peers gave me the courage to weave a personal process of acknowledgment into our work of narrative shifting.
“White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively” (3)
If I am to encourage, protect, or seek transformation in human rights spaces for young people, I must persistently acknowledge the everyday violence that my community inflicts on marginalized ‘others,’ the mechanisms by which this structure benefits me, and work to undo these systems of privilege and othering.
As I reflect on transformational justice grounded in relationships, I realize that ‘retelling’ also means grappling with my own story and questioning my roots, while acknowledging my experience of whiteness in relationship to human rights spaces. Dr. Carol Anderson sparked these reflections through her book White Rage, in which she argues, “What was really at work [in our country] was white rage…White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies.” Anderson concludes, “White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively” (3). While I find it tempting to confine discussion of ‘white rage’ to our national government, criminal justice systems, and other institutions of white power, this same rage—often cast as fear, apathy, or ‘a way of life’—is just as alive in my home community and family circles. If I am to encourage, protect, or seek transformation in human rights spaces for young people, I must persistently acknowledge the everyday violence that my community inflicts on marginalized ‘others,’ the mechanisms by which this structure benefits me, and work to undo these systems of privilege and othering. For me, this will mean actively educating, organizing, and mentoring white folks to connect to social justice. As we learn to retell and recognize accurate narratives that hold us accountable to marginalized communities, we create a space for dialogue, restorative action, and even transformation as we go from defensive to offensive players in the struggle for racial equity. In his 1965 article for Ebony magazine, James Baldwin deftly captures the need for white Americans to grapple with the realities of retelling. “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.” As Baldwin concludes, “it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this…In great pain and terror because…one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating.” By refashioning our relationships with our communities, place, and even ourselves, we make a path to chase for transformation.
This fellowship reminded me that we all have starting points, a grounding in particular communities, places, and identities. However, our experience in Atlanta showed me that these roots must grow integrally connected with the activism and narratives of others if we are to transform human rights spaces. We seek an ecosystem of resistance with roots so deep, so entangled that they can outlive the forest fire of systematic racism raging above them. To me, this ‘root system’ was breathtakingly captured during our panel with both the original and new authors of “An Appeal for Human Rights.” As I watched civil rights legends like Dr. Roslyn Pope, Lonnie King, and Charles Black dialogue and joke alongside university students and undocumented activists, I saw ‘foot soldiers’—old and young—creating continuity in the movement. To build roots means seeking relationships beyond the fault-lines of age, ethnicity, race and other identities to create struggles that can survive, rebound, and sometimes win. Andalib Malit Samandari, a young black activist from Morehouse College, put it well when he explained “we’ve got to keep these spaces going.” Looking around the inter-generational panel and delighting in the vibrant energy that filled our room, I caught their passion to develop activist ecosystems back in my own city and challenged myself to seek intergenerational mentors. If we seek transformation in human rights spaces, it will be through a process of relationship with others that deepens our roots and resistance in this earth.
As I continue to fight for human rights education and activist spaces for young people, I look forward to seeing the way that my relationship to transformative justice and ‘the impossible’ grows, even as my dual vision blurs.
Lastly, the final praxis that I learned from the John Lewis Fellowship was the power of re-imagining. As we empower ourselves and other young people to fashion human rights spaces, the question of possibility almost inevitably confronts us. What does it mean to retell the past, engaging the oppressive realities we breathe in, and struggle to build activist communities —all while believing in something better? Here, transformation through relationships grows more undefined and more risky, for we are no longer just interrogating our relationship with structures, communities, and ourselves. Instead, we are engaging our relationship with justice itself, a relationship to something we haven’t quite seen. In her lecture on settler colonialism and ‘seeing beyond’ this system, Dr. Saito introduced me to the idea of dual vision or a multi-consciousness. She claimed that reimagining must involve a recognition of the normative realities that surround us, while leaving space and longing for another world. Our resistance, our search for something beyond our mere survival, creates a space of possibility. As I continue to fight for human rights education and activist spaces for young people, I look forward to seeing the way that my relationship to transformative justice and ‘the impossible’ grows, even as my dual vision blurs. In her book War Talk, Indian author Arundhati Roy offers a glimpse of this reimagining. “Our strategy should not only be to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness— and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’ve been brainwashed to believe.” Roy ends with defiance, hinting at a transformation that is already alive in us. “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
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It takes a community where we can be safe while dismantling borders and biases, holding tension while empathizing and daring radically.
“It’s about coming alive, isn’t it?” My friend and I smile and remember the moments on this program when we felt fully alive and the people who invited us to share this joy rooted in struggle. To move from guilt and despair to meaningful, informed action, it takes all of us. It takes a community where we can be safe while dismantling borders and biases, holding tension while empathizing and daring radically. It’s the spaces where young people are in the driver’s seat, taking authority and responsibility over the way we learn together. It’s the long hours spent in dialogue, disagreement, and meaning-making, while creating space for each other to find our voices and experiences of belonging. It is the praxis of transformation, renewing our inmost selves as we seek change in a weary world.
We are the John Lewis Fellows. We are human. We are committed to a world in which all are free to come alive, remain alive, and thrive within a mosaic of just relationships.
We are chasing transformation.