by Diane D’Souza, Director of Lifelong Learning at EDS and The Mission Institute
A few weeks ago, in a town outside of Boston, a father opened his heart to people who thought they knew him. This father holds an important job, and you might find his wife teaching in a classroom at Harvard when she’s not in a hospital or conducting research at Tufts. They’re not expressly political, and the town they live in is a stable, wealthy, largely white one. In a church basement on a Sunday in December, this father described the moment he looked up at the TV and saw his son looking back at him in the face of Trayvon Martin. This father has two sons; one is nearing college age. As he watched the news that night nearly two years ago his mind kept flipping: Trayvon’s face, and that of his own boys, their hoodies pulled up as they came home from school.
In a room where you could hear a pin drop, the father told his white church friends something they had never heard, and something every black family has experienced or can identify with. He talked about what it’s like being a parent of a child whose skin happens to be black. He talked about the conversation he and his wife had with the boys about the police. Remember, they told them, if a police officer stops you, you could die in that moment. Move slowly; be respectful. I thought of the lessons I learned about hiking in the woods: if you hear a rattle, stop, don’t move, slowly back away. If the snake bites you make a tourniquet, make an incision at the bite marks, suck out the poison. Be prepared: this is a life threatening moment. The point is not to frighten but to prepare, to learn, to survive. For many of our black children life threatening moments are a daily occurrence---even when you’re walking home with a bag of skittles from a 7-11 grocery store.
This father spoke about the conversation he and his wife had with their eldest son about college. I’ve had that experience. It’s not always easy. It’s a bit of a tense time for our sons and daughters. Yet I’ve never had to tell my children, I’m sorry but you can’t go to a school in a state with a Stand Your Ground law. That’s non-negotiable. I love you too much, and the risk is too high. When he finished sharing and our adult forum was over, the minister of the church and other friends went up to this father to learn more about the world he and his family occupy right in their midst. They learned how well-meaning teachers and aides often stop the boys in school hallways at the end of the day, telling them to hurry so they don’t miss the METCO bus. That’s the transport run by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities which brings economically disadvantaged urban kids of color to this largely white suburban town.
We have a long way to go to move beyond our assumptions about each other. We have a long way to go drop the stereotypes which cripple and shame us. We have a long way to go to name the privilege that allows parents like me to take my children’s safety for granted---even if it is an illusion. We have a long way to go to create the beloved community that was part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. There is much unfinished work.
I am grateful to live in a world where the Dream Defenders, the “sons and daughters of slaves and farm-workers… a generation of world changers, writers, readers, rebels, marchers, dreamers, leaders, thinkers, organizers, activists and revolutionaries” remind us that we are all complicit in the death of Trayvon Martin. These young leaders remind us that real change begins right here and now: by finding the humanity in each other; by questioning our truths; by having real conversations with ourselves, with friends, with strangers; by channeling our anger, our confusion, our angst into a burning passion for positive action. We need the energy and vision of the young, the wisdom and experience of the old, the perspectives of those different from ourselves, and the gift and hard work of shedding our assumptions. Only then, through a re-energized commitment to bettering ourselves and the societies we create, do we truly honor the life of Trayvon Martin.