By Heather Steranka-Petit
Last month, I had the privilege of hearing Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Institute, speak at Cleveland State University. This event was a Community Conversation, hosted by The City Club of Cleveland, Facing History and Ourselves and The Allstate Foundation. Mr. Stevenson is a great speaker, and his message was very timely for our community. It was also a good follow-up for the “It’s Time to Talk” event the YWCA held in February. Mr. Stevenson has a list of four things we can all do to bring about social change. In this post, I review his four items, along with some of my own perspective.
- Get proximate.
In this society, it’s easy to look away from problems. If you live in the suburbs, and never see what’s happening in some areas of the city, it’s relatively easy to pretend all is well. When you get proximate, you cannot look away. At the YWCA, we have our business offices in the same building as a childcare center and Independence Place – an apartment community for young people who have aged out of foster care. These young people are here, and we see them everyday. Getting proximate makes me ask myself – can I do more to support these young people? What else can I do in my private life to get proximate? I used to volunteer tutoring students in the Akron Public Schools who were struggling with reading. Why did I stop that, and can I do that again? After hearing Mr. Stevenson, I know I need to get involved more closely in my community.
- Change the narrative.
This was a specific point Mr. Stevenson was making about the narrative of racial injustice in the United States. He specifically asked us to consider why in the USA we feel it is OK to sentence a child (under 18) to life in prison – without parole, or to the death penalty? Stevenson told us the United States has the largest prison population in the world, by a wide margin. As a society, do we really feel some children under the age of 18 have no possibility to change their lives? As a mother of two sons, ages 20 and 16, this point really impacted me. I have been following the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and I am looking at it in a new way. Yes, he did a terrible thing; there is no question about this. He deserves to be punished. And, he was 19 years old at the time. He will either be locked up for the rest of his life, or sentenced to death. How does either of these options help our society? I don’t know the answer, I only know that after hearing Bryan Stevenson, I am looking at the situation in a new way – I am questioning the narrative.
- Keep hopeful.
When we do difficult work, it is easy to get down, and feel defeated. But we have to keep hope alive. As an example, in my personal life, I feel that the Cleveland Indians Mascot – Chief Wahoo, is a symbol of institutional racism. It bothers me that my community tolerates the use of this symbol. In my home, I do not want to have any Cleveland Indians paraphernalia with Chief Wahoo on it around me. I have forbidden my children from wearing anything with the Wahoo image. However, I cannot make my husband give it up. He does not see a problem with the image, and the more I try to convince him, the more he digs in his heels. He wears t-shirts with Chief Wahoo on them. He is an adult, and he has the freedom of speech to wear what he likes. It is frustrating for me, because if I cannot convince someone in my own home, how can I make a difference in the community? This is when I need to make a conscious effort to stay hopeful. In Bryan Stevenson’s words, “injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
- Doing the right thing will be uncomfortable.
My takeaway from this point is that working for social change – like eliminating racism – is hard and uncomfortable work. We cannot hope to make real and lasting change if we only do work that’s comfortable. I ask myself of this every day. If I want to make a difference, am I willing to take risks and be uncomfortable? So far, I keep going to work and I am not giving up.
Listen to the full Bryan Stevenson event here: http://livestream.com/accounts/7478988/events/3897164
So with these points in mind, what can YOU do to continue the dialogue?
Heather Steranka-Petit, MA, CDP, is the Director for YWCA Greater Cleveland’s “It’s Time to Talk” programs and services. Heather participated in the It’s Time to Talk forum as both a facilitator and a facilitator for the It’s Time to Talk train the trainer sessions. With a wealth of knowledge about cultural competencies, Heather will support the “eliminating racism” mission of the YWCA. Through the continued development of programs and services, she will work to improve the cultural competency of individuals and organizations in the Greater Cleveland community through awareness, knowledge, skill building and empowerment.