Once upon a time, I was a 7-year-old girl growing up in Tampa, Fla., attending Incarnation Catholic School located close to our house. There, all of the students attended church every Friday morning. I loved the homilies during these masses. To me, the priest was going off-script and just talking to us kids.
A young deacon whose name I cannot recall was especially keen in teaching us about what I now think of as justice. It was that same year, 1969, that I learned from this deacon about the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
The deacon also explained such things as racism, prejudice and apartheid.
That was the year something changed in me. I started a 25-year boycott of Nestle Crunch Bars (my favorite) to protest apartheid, which I understood the Nestle Corporation supported in South Africa. I became an activist sitting in church on Friday mornings with my second-grade class. Years later, I would became a lawyer because, since childhood, I wanted to create fairness and opportunity where there was none.
Our community is now locked in an often-heated discussion about justice. A boy, Andy Lopez, is dead at the hands of someone entrusted to ensure our safety. School boards, parents and neighboring communities are confronting inequities and disparities in the resources available to students who often fail because the “equal treatment” formula of school funding isn’t actually fair and equitable. The recently published “Portrait of Sonoma County” shows us that a person’s residential zip code in the county can literally be a determinant of health and longevity.
“We must never lose sight of the fact that the law has a moral foundation, and we must never fail to ask ourselves not only what the law is, but what the law should be,” Justice Anthony Kennedy once wrote.
When we look at the challenges confronting our community, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we create sustainable, systematic, equitable change” and seek youthful thinking and conscious young leaders to join in these discussions.
We need children, youth and young adults to help policy-makers understand from their perspectives what the law should be because, in our fear, frustration and disappointments, we often seem to make rules that fail to account for what matters to children.
We need to ask our youth what they think the law should be. Even if policies do not change right now, at least through authentic youth engagement, their voices will be heard, and their ideas will begin to influence our adult thinking.
We will begin to see the world through their eyes and, hopefully, provide better for their safety, freedom, health and future.
As a 7 year-old, my voice certainly could not be heard in Washington, D.C. or Capetown, South Africa, but in a small way, I still feel that my little boycott spoke to the world for me.
That act didn’t transform the prejudice or bring down the institutions that prejudice perpetuated, but it established my intention to work toward solutions and new thinking so that the injustice and inequality I learned about during those homilies would become part of our history, and not a determinant of our human development.
Thank God for that deacon. I would not be here today without his faith in the power of kids to know what’s just and what must change.