I am cynical about justice. I am pessimistic about peace. Do they exist? Will we ever see them? I do not know.
I am cynical about justice. I am pessimistic about peace. Do they exist? Will we ever see them? I do not know. I would like to see over the mountaintop someday, but the mountain seems insurmountable. Throughout this program we’ve learned of inequities and inequalities, taking all different shapes; and we’ve met organizers and experts – social justice heroes without capes. Despite all of the knowledge and skills I’ve gained in this Fellowship, the mountain has only seemed to grow taller. This Human Rights project is a relentless and never-ending ordeal, full of angst and anguish – so why do we continue the pursuit? Beneath the information I’ve learned, skills I’ve developed, and experiences I’ve had in this program is a framework I’ve cultivated for thinking about the pursuit of Human Rights: that while the pursuit is full of angst and anguish, it is also healing, uniting, and empowering, because Human Rights, peace, and justice are healing, uniting, and empowering. And so, we keep climbing.
When we look at past struggles for Human Rights, they all seem to be harmful: Civil Rights champions like John Lewis or Bayard Rustin were brutally beaten and emotionally traumatized. Even today, Human Rights struggles appear endlessly frustrating and painful – Dr. Carole Anderson’s lecture on voter suppression or Professor Kinnison’s presentation on challenges facing indigenous peoples are prime examples. But while the trauma of these struggles is manifest, their power to heal is latent. When the girls from ViBe Theatre Experience performed a reenactment of what they imagined a day in the Leesburg Stockade looked and felt like, Dr. Shirley Reese, who survived the Stockade, had tears rolling down her cheeks. The same was true of visitors of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, and many of us during the Under My Hood Truth Experience with Coleman Howard. Those tears – of vulnerability, appreciation, and reconciliation – come from validation, acknowledgement, empathy, and sympathy by others. In this way, the pursuit of Human Rights allows people to address their past, embrace their present truth, and imagine a future in which they feel liberated.
When you go into a courtroom, you’re walking in with Thurgood Marshall, and when you speak out against injustice, you’re speaking alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Roselyn Pope, John Lewis, among others.
The pursuit of Human Rights brings together people of the past, present, and future. Underlying the panel on athlete activism, exploration of music in the Civil Rights Movement, film and discussion on eugenics, and conversation about immigration challenges was the fact that each brought together diverse individuals united by the same goal and vision. Not everyone in a movement or struggle must be best friends; on the contrary, they are often vigorously the opposite. However, in a diverse group, not only may people pursue their respective passions, but also connect and learn from one another, cultivating empathy and finding strength in their differences. But even further, the pursuit of Human Rights brings together people of the past and of the future. As Derick Pope explained, when you go into a courtroom, you’re walking in with Thurgood Marshall, and when you speak out against injustice, you’re speaking alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Roselyn Pope, John Lewis, among others. In a similar vein, when you advocate for responsive climate change policies or affordable housing, you’re doing so with generations not born who are crying out and shedding unshed tears in vain. It’s this thinking – that you’re more than your present, and that time is a continuum in which the past bleeds inextricably into the present and future – that can overcome complicity, anticipation, and fear.
The pursuit of Human Rights is audacious because it involves acceptance, forgiveness, and the reclamation of your individuality. In terms of acceptance, Professor Washington distinguished early on between legitimate and right – that someone may legitimately believe their perspective, even if it’s not right. In the photography workshop with Joshua McFadden, the man we spoke to who believed that people experiencing homelessness are homeless because they lack grit may have never have learned about systemic oppression. Although it’s bold to extend an assumption of goodness to someone, to do so is to reaffirm your own goodness. In terms of forgiveness, as Dr. Hooker explained, to forgive is to relinquish your preoccupation over someone or something, and therefore free up your attention and thought, which can be channeled instead towards knowledge and growth. A powerful example of this was Marshall “Eddie” Conway, who noted that he was able to renounce his trauma and anger once he forgave the individuals responsible for his nearly 44 years in prison. His forgiveness was both powerfully courageous and personally liberating. Ultimately, the pursuit of Human Rights allows you to reclaim your individuality. When structural and invisible barriers constrict, restrict, and oppress your creativity, innovation, and liberation, it’s hard to see your individuality. By accepting and forgiving those who create and perpetuate barriers, however, the pursuit of Human Rights allows you to reclaim yourself and fortify your humanity in spite of them.
Above all, I walk away from the John Lewis Fellowship knowing that this pursuit is necessary.
Beyond the particular insights and information, I’ve learned about the histories and inequalities we’ve studied, this program has taught me a framework for understanding the pursuit of Human Rights that I will carry with me in all that I do. I’ve learned that while we may never truly see justice or peace at the end of our pursuit, we must work to ensure we see it in the process, because the pursuit of Human Rights is in and of itself valuable. Every day, we must be the change we want to see in the world. For justice and peace cannot be forged at the end of our struggle, just before the finish line; rather, they must be nurtured and cultivated constantly. Too often, the process of Human Rights is scoffed at, overlooked as burdensome and tedious – and yet, Human Rights are burdensome and tedious. Inherently, this pursuit is full of contradictions: it’s harmful yet healing, segregating yet integrating, righteous yet audacious. But above all, I walk away from the John Lewis Fellowship knowing that this pursuit is necessary.