The following post was written by Elizabeth Nguyen, a program leader of the 2012 UUCSJ summer youth training. Nguyen will be leading the 2013 Boston Youth Justice Training, which will take place June 30–July 21.
On July 11, partway into last year’s youth justice program, our group packed up our sunscreen and water bottles from our home base in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood and boarded a bus for Roxbury.
We had spent days packed full of rich experience: interactive, intensive learning; evening worships that found us building altars in our common space, walking silently through the city, and singing by the Charles River; moments of laughter playing games on the Boston Common and having an impromptu dance party; sharing our life stories through drawing; and immersing ourselves in questions of economic justice, learning from partners at UUSC and from young people at the Roxbury Youth Program. Now we were headed to meet with our partners at Haley House.
We’d learned about the housing discrimination that formed the foundations for the housing segregation we live today. We’d learned about the restaurant industry and the labor movement and organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United that are working to bring the two together. We’d learned a lot about why economic inequity exists and how it’s intertwined with race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Now we were off to encounter the economic inequality that is the reality in our world. We spent that sunny July day scraping paint in preparation for a new coat at the Haley House’s South End community kitchen followed by justice walking tour of Boston. The participants were delving into issues of gentrification, urban violence, and institutional racism. And they could see it — in the dwindling number of trash cans as we walked from the South End of Boston into the historically African American Roxbury neighborhood, in the increasing number of pawn shops and empty storefronts.
And then we felt it in our hearts as we encountered the beginnings of a vigil held for teen Lance Hartgrove, who had been killed in a stabbing the day before. As a ministerial student and a staff member at the summit, I’d led the group in conversation after hearing about Lance’s death. I wanted them to know the depth of tragedy, the loss that is real, that doesn’t happen out there in some anonymous city, but happens right here — in our cities. And also didn’t want our group of UUs, most with much economic and race privilege, to see Roxbury just as violence or grief. I didn’t want to perpetuate the media’s sensationalism, didn’t want to be any more complicit in a world that “others” crime and sees it as brown and black and young and male and gangs and robberies — not as white and white collar and rich and banks and lobbyists, the military-industrial complex, drones, and the murder that is the death penalty.
This is our world: broken, bleeding. And our religion as Unitarian Universalists calls us, not to turn away from the suffering, not to drive through Roxbury on our way to yet another suburb — but to love.
And I don’t mean easy love — smiling on the street, being kind to a neighbor. I mean the love that says both I won’t turn away from suffering and also I will know that it’s not enough to love without skill and action. Love calls me to get ready. To get trained. To learn about systems of class, race, gender, and heterosexism. Love asks me that I figure out what it means to receive the unearned privilege of these systems and what it means to be oppressed by these systems. Love asks me to learn the skills for making justice: facilitation, relationship building, teaching, listening, and writing. And it asks me to practice them. To practice them and to use them. And to do it out of love, as if our world depends on it. Because, yes, it does.
If you are a high school youth, you are already creating the world. You may be throwing your heart and hands against it and bending the arc of it ever more toward justice. You may be staring down at your hands, at your community, brokenhearted by the injustices. You may be watching on, feeling helpless to change anything. You may be torn, trying to give time toward causes that matter to you and also wanting to pursue the things that nurture your spirit: sports and friends, college and family.
Wherever you are in your journey as a teen, the Boston Youth Justice Training — learning, spirituality, community, and action — will get you ready. Join us!