04 September 2020

You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Kisara Freeman, speaking her heart and mind. Pic by Hasadri Freeman

Some speeches have afterlives. They live, nourish and inspire people long after the speech-writer or speech-maker is gone. They are found in books with titles such as ‘The Greatest Speeches Ever Made.’ Typically such collections feature people who are already well known. The speeches of the unknown don’t even make it to the footnotes. Much like the stories of insult and humiliation suffered by people at the wrong end of skewed systems.

And that’s why a couple of speeches made by two 17 year olds are that much more precious.

Here’s the backstory in brief. People all over the USA took to the streets protesting racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Three months later they are still protesting, demanding systemic change.

Among the protestors in Philadelphia were some students attending Lower Merion High School. They were out there in the streets with banners and placards. They screamed their slogans. They were tear gassed. They didn’t let up. They went out, day after day.

At one point they decided that protest is a necessary ‘first step’ and as such must be followed by on-the-ground efforts to change. They didn’t wait for parents, school, city, state or Washington DC. So they organized a march (‘Public School Solidarity’) from Cynwyd Station Park to Tustin Playground. This was what it was about: ‘Lower Merion students stand with fellow students at Overbrook High School to address racial injustice in public school funding.’

The why of it was explained beautifully by 17 year old Kisara Freeman: ‘You can't own a cause from your armchair. You have to get out into the streets and become just another person adding your strength to fight. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’

Kids from Lower Merion make it to the Ivy League universities. Those in Overbrook rarely do. ‘How did we become so wildly talented?’ Kisara asked and answered her own question.

‘We have round-the-lock access to school counselors, college counselors, mental health specialists, psychologists and social workers, and when the SAT gets canceled because of COVID, we hold our own. Lower Merion High School has clean air and ventilation, Overbrook High School has 62 reports of asbestos. Lower Merion offers electives ranging from ceramics all the way to oceanography, Overbrook offers 5 electives. We pride ourselves on our high athletic achievements. But it's easy to excel with our 4 fields, two basketball courts, an olympic size swimming pool and a regulation track. How can Overbrook even begin to compete? 

‘Our accomplishments which measure us as being "better than" others can only be proved if they are earned on a level playing field. And the field is tilted entirely in our favor. 

‘Today we students at Lower Merion demand that our parents, teachers, and administrators, PRACTICE the equality that they preach in our homes and in our classrooms.’

She got what others don’t get or are uncomfortable about getting.

‘Don't ignore the work and daily activism and courage of the youth in this country then tell us that the only thing that will change anything is the vote. We’ve technically had the vote for 55 YEARS and voted many different people into office but George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, John Africa, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson and thousands of others are still dead. Their lives did not matter, because we did not do the work to dismantle a system that insists that black lives do not matter. A system that teaches us in a hundred different ways how very little black lives matter.’

Her friend and fellow protestor, Caitlin ‘Catie’ McGinty, was as eloquent and demonstrated exemplary understanding of ‘systems.’
Catie McGinty

‘Every level of our country, beginning with our educational system, is built to profit off and exploit us, particularly historically marginalized people.  The SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] is the most significant and perfect example because it is the capstone achievement of a deeply racist system that all of us have permitted to stand. Today marks the beginning of a long overdue commitment to no longer support this.’ 
And so she stated that the protest was actually the launch of a nationwide petition to abolish the SAT from every school ‘not because you want to be "progressive" not because you want to make "allowances for COVID issues and test cancellations," but because it is shameful to normalize standardized tests before we’ve normalized standard education to all students.’

And they were out there for reasons they’ve obviously put a lot of thought into:

‘WE are here today because we recognize that a select type of student is offered more from the get go. WE are here because we are committed to no longer blaming the student for their shortcomings. WE are here because we refuse to participate in  a system that favors us and neglects our friends across the street. WE are here because for too long we knowingly and unknowingly reinforced a socio-political system that divides urban and suburban schools. WE are here today because we are committing ourselves to putting an end to this once and for all.’

She spoke for all who were there, those people who had decided to be comfortable with discomfort, who realized that tokenism is a cop-out and that a sign, an instagram post, a like, a share, a tattoo etc., means nothing if they do not see what’s happening on the uncomfortable side of the street. And for those who were uncomfortable about being, well, uncomfortable.

Catie had a clear message to parents, teachers and administrators: ‘stand with us or move out of the way because this is just the beginning.’

These young people are on the move. Agitation has tempered them. Steeled them. Made them so much tender and for this reason alone so much more formidable than they were and others are.

The speeches are all recorded. The media, as Kisara’s older sister Hasadri observed in a sharp critique of a particular report, will either not get it or will twist it.

Some words are lost in translation. Some are made to be lost in translation. Some will light fires, move the immovable, squeeze out water from pebbles. When that happens it will not matter what the word was or who spoke it.

I listened to a recording of Kisara’s speech. I read the transcript of Catie’s speech. The world got just a little bit safer, I feel.

 Pics by Hasadri Freeman

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten   Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Ange
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?

Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer



Investigate said...

The world just did not get a little bit safer Malinda, because of these kids we have hope for the future . They are learning and teaching peers to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. They will not follow the norm but will continue to stand up for what is right! May the noble triple gem bless them always .