Close to Home: Justice, children and a time to listen

  • Michelle Torres, left, and Melissa Ortiz work on their assigned drawings depicting their friends and community during a summer art class at Lawrence Cook Middle School, in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 10, 2014. The two students are part of Andy's Youth, and will be working on a mural with De Los Angeles at the site where Andy Lopez was shot and killed by law enforcement last year. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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