July 18, 2013
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The following is a memo I shared with staff at Year Up this week as we continue to process recent events.
Dear Year Up,
Over the last week, many of you have expressed deep concern over the trial of George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The verdict in this case has affected us all and raised many more questions than it has provided answers. I want to acknowledge the confusion and frustration that so many of our staff and students are feeling at this moment. An innocent youth was shot and killed, and that constitutes a tragedy beyond words. As a parent, I was deeply saddened by the death of Trayvon. No parent should ever have to endure the loss of a child and my heart goes out to both Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. As I have listened to the TV and radio and read the newspapers and blogs over the past few days, I have tried to derive meaning from what happened and am left at a loss. I don’t claim to know all of the facts and arguments presented in the case, and sadly I don’t think anyone will ever know what really happened on the day that Trayvon Martin was killed. However, I am clear about a few things:
- Being found not guilty does not mean you are innocent. According to our system of law, the prosecution could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is why a verdict of not guilty was reached. However, it is hard to say that justice is served when an unarmed teenager is killed and no one is held accountable. Rather, it is deeply sad and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Trayvon Martin.
- Racial profiling and stereotyping affects our youth in profound ways. Trayvon Martin would be alive today had he not been pursued by someone who assumed the worst in large part because of his age, dress and skin color. We work each day at Year Up to change the perception that others have of our young adults. It is part of our strategy to close the Opportunity Divide. Trayvon Martin was perceived a certain way and that contributed to his death. The specifics of what happened that night will never be known, although I am certain the situation would have been different had be not been perceived that way.
- Systems change is critical to our mission and our country. There were several systems that failed Trayvon Martin and contributed to his death, including our gun laws, self-defense laws and judicial process. These systems affect all of us, and in many cases they disproportionately affect the young adults that we serve. That is why we work each day to not only “bridge” the Opportunity Divide but to “close” it. Changing systems starts with changing perceptions, something our students do each day as they navigate L&D, internships, careers and communities. They are at the forefront of this perception change and we both honor and support their journey. I am proud of our organization for leading the charge to create the nation’s first ever Ad Council campaign to provide opportunities for the employer public to engage with Opportunity Youth, and in so doing to change perceptions about the population of young adults we serve.
- Teaching our students to talk about this is a teachable moment. Our students are asking about this event, and looking to us for guidance, but may be struggling to find a safe space to do so. Year Up is and will continue to be that safe space. At this moment, we as servant leaders should be asking: What can we do to ensure that they engage in this dialogue in a way that does not put our young adults at a disadvantage? What can we do this week to create a safe space to listen, learn together and provide perspective and guidance? I know Executive Directors and their collective teams have given a great deal of thought about the shape of those discussions with young adults. I would encourage us to make sure our students leave those discussions empowered, knowing that they collectively are supported, always have a safe space at Year Up to voice their desires and frustrations, and already possess the grit and determination to name racism, sexism, or any form of discrimination and be heard by caring staff.
- Our work around Diversity and Cultural Competency is critical to Year Up’s mission. We have learned about different forms of bias that exist in each one of us, much of it implicit. We have worked hard to be thoughtful about both the historical and current issues that have led to the Opportunity Divide. And, we have developed trust and respect for the many different voices that collectively make up our organization. We have a responsibility to teach others and to engage in thoughtful dialogue, and I hope you will have a chance to do this.
In closing, I am hopeful that we can in some way learn from this tragedy, and that young Trayvon’s death will not be entirely in vain. The Year Up community is part of that process and I am honored to be one with you on this long journey towards greater social and economic justice.