I’m nearing the end of my time in Atlanta as a John Lewis fellow. I am writing to you as a way to make sense of my experience here – to parse through my thoughts, pose questions, and tell stories. We share the same upbringing – the same parents, schools, home, traditions – and we share many identities – both operating in the world as white, cisgender, culturally Jewish women who come from socio-economic privilege. As friends, we hold common interests, commitments and values. As confidants, I can be honest in my reflections with you and resist my urge to retreat to the space where I feel comfortable and intellectualize my experiences. As my role model, you guide me to question my assumptions, inspire me to think critically, and hold me accountable in my actions. Through speaking candidly to you, I can speak candidly to myself.
In effort to center feelings and acknowledge emotional response as a form of reflection, an archive in it of itself, I want to mention that I am tired and a bit overwhelmed. Our days have been full. We have learned about the challenging and painful histories that the United States is built upon and the ways in which systems of oppression continue to manifest today. I am unsure how to hold this pain. I am afraid of becoming desensitized to it. I am afraid of taking up emotional space that is not mine to take. But, I know that I feel its heaviness – in my shoulders, where I carry tension; in my mind, where I think deeply; in my heart, where I will not let it overpower deep love; and in my gut, where my reactions feel most raw – I think right now it is okay to just feel.
I feel anxious, as writing causes me anxiety.
I feel hopeless at times. As I think of all the layers that have to be deconstructed and reconstructed in effort to make a just world, I doubt that the “masters tools can dismantle the masters house.”
Yet, I feel hopeful, because I must. It is a privilege to give in to hopelessness. We must be motivated to continue to do the work by the belief that the world can someday look different. Today, a toddler died from the conditions of an ICE detention center. Today, the city of Atlanta made $80 for each person caged in an ICE detention center. There is not time to be hopeless.
I feel inspired when I meet people who dedicate themselves to a fight for liberation and who continue to laugh and smile and dance.
I feel connected to and grounded by a group of people who have each, in their own ways, given generously and who have reminded me that this work must be rooted in love and in community. I have begun to find a sense of spirituality that I was resistant to say I wanted or needed.
This past month, I learned from activists, academics, community organizers, lawyers, educators, fighters and dreamers who shared their experiences and beliefs with us. Grounded in place – in the Atlanta of yesterday, today and our hopes for tomorrow – I learned from and with a group of 25 strong, young people and three committed facilitators. I am humbled by their dedication and work. I learned from my mistakes (and there have been many), from my conversations with others, and from my reflection on our experiences. Zoe, as someone who values education deeply and who thinks crit- ically about access to quality and liberation inspired education, I know you understand the meaning of this. It is a true privilege, and not just during the Trump Administration, to have the opportunity and ability to prioritize learning for an entire month.
I also remind myself that I had the opportunity to be a John Lewis Fellow and to devote this month to learning not because of my hard work alone, but also because of the family and body into which I was born. We have college educated parents, grew up in a house full of books, attended private school, and live in a world that works to protect and uphold the color of our skin.
I thought of you when professor-lawyer-psychologist-mediator-facilitator, Dr. Hooker taught us:
Knowledge is the manifestation of power. Power regimes decide which interpretations get passed down as truth and which are disregarded.
I am a student. I know you also strongly identify as a student. We have been taught how to be students. We were told from a young age that we are students, reaffirmed by report cards, teacher re- marks and leadership opportunities. We were taught the language of power – how to read, write, speak and think in ways deemed valuable by power regimes. Thank you for constantly reminding me that the way we learn and the truths we are told are constructed by power structures. The “science” behind the eugenics movement, which I learned about in the documentary A Dangerous Idea, is a glaring example of this.
You have taught me by example, by constantly reflecting on Oakwood and striving to make it a more accessible and inclusive place, that we must reflect inward on the spaces we occupy and the places in which we operate.
As I find myself raising my hand, uncomfortable with moments of silence or missing what others say as I think through how to phrase my question in the most
“intellectual” way, I am reminded that I have much to unlearn. I thank the other Fellows for reminding me that the ways in which we process and intellectualize ideas can (intentionally or not) silence others.
As we walk by Georgia State’s privatized police force, through security and up to our law school classroom, we must ask ourselves, “who is not in this space?”
While our group is diverse in many ways, we are lacking in others. The second day of the program, we drove by the campuses of Morehouse, Spellman and Morris Brown. We learned about the significant roles these schools, attended by many of our speakers, played during the Civil Rights Movements, yet no members of the 2018 John Lewis Fellowship attend(ed) HBCUs. Very few members of our group grew up in metro Atlanta, the space acting as our classroom. We acknowledge that we occupy Creek and Cherokee land and participate in the ongoing project that is settler colonialism, yet there are no Native American students in our cohort.
All 26 of us are, at the very least, college educated, with some holding master’s degrees. What of those who did not have access to college education, who had to work, whose school pushed them out, or who chose to learn from other spaces? What about people who, stigmatized by a criminal record, experience the effects of the Prison Industrial Complex every day?
Sometimes, because you are part of a class of people, you lack testimonial authority, said Professor Hooker.
We must name who is not in the space to begin to recognize whose narratives we fail to make room for, who have been denied testimonial authority to the point they are unable to gain access to (or perhaps, even know about) the Fellowship.
I say this not to discredit the Fellowship, which, I feel privileged to have been a part of, but in effort to interrogate my place, to acknowledge the ways in which we replicate the hierarchies we attempt to dismantle, and to question the sentiment that we have heard over and over again this month:
you are the future.
If we are the future, who is not?
Dr. Hooker posed the question,
In the world we say we want, none of us can be who we are right now – what do we have to give up?
Fellowships are, in many ways, built on exclusivity. The network is powerful, because only some have access to it. So, what do spaces like Humanity in Action, like Brown University (where I – and soon we – spend a lot of time), look like in the world we are collectively un-building and building? I think we must approach programs such as Humanity in Action and institutions such as Brown in the same way that Professor Kinnison, lawyer and advocate for Indigenous rights and sovereignty, approaches the law.
They provide us with tools to fight for liberation; they are not tools for liberation. Professor of American Indian Studies and lifelong activist Ward Churchill expanded: Liberation is refusing to accept the paradigm, but we can still use it.
We must refuse to accept a paradigm that requires a “Humanity in Action,” an exclusive Fellowship that people are a part of to gain tools of resistance, to learn an honest history, to build community – knowledge that all should have access to through the public-school system.
Thus, I would like to push back on Dr. Goldstein’s sentiment that “Humanity in Action is not a training ground for activists.” I believe HIA must be and is a training ground for activists. Thinking and critiquing are forms of activism, but, as we have discussed, thinking and critiquing cannot be the end of our work. It must be a training ground for activists that allows us to gain tools to fight for worlds that look different. What will HIA look like in the world we are fighting for? What would an inclusive, accessible place for learning about resistance look like?
I write with uncertainty and continue to struggle with difficult questions.
Questions that Dr. Hooker posed like, Is there ever a point after an injustice in which justice is not the thing we should be talking about to acquire the world we want?
Questions that other Fellows posed, like Desmond, when he asked, What does the name “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice” mean?
I do not have answers to these questions, but I am excited to discuss them with you. I do not have closure, as this work is a process, so I will leave off with some commitments to myself and those around me, through you.
- I will make an effort to bridge the disconnect between my beliefs and my daily action. What circumstances are people willing to divest themselves of voluntarily? asked Dr. Hooker. Find where you stand, figure out who you are supposed to be in the world that you want, and start being that, he encouraged. Who am I in the world that I want and how can I start being that person?
- I will listen more often and more intently. I will unlearn my reflex to fill silence and to feel the need to prove my intelligence. Dr. Soltis, Executive Director of Freedom University, left us with important wisdom I hope to put into practice: Always step up. If you talk too much, step up with your listening. I will step up with my listening.
- I will share the amazing wisdom I have been taught this past month. I will share them with you; with mom and dad; with Buddy and Zadie and Nana; with the “liberal” communities with social and economic capital that we have access to; with Joshua; with my friends locked out of these learning environments; with my future children. I will share them through my action project. I will ask questions to professors, teachers, curators, politicians and others when honest, nuanced histories are not shared, when accounts and voices are missing.
- Ms. Nse Ufot, Executive Director of the New Georgia Project, emphasized the importance of us each contributing our time and energy in the way we can, because it’s not about what’s happening in the White house, it’s about what’s happening in your house. Inspired by the words and examples of those who came before me and of all those who shared with me this past month, I will find communities doing the work where ever I am; I will show up with intention and figure out how I can best support the work.
- I will be kind to myself in the process.
How are you feeling, Zo?
With love and admiration,
Your big sister,