Lessons Found in Peers' Diversity

We started off at Harvard University, but I instigated some of the muffled scoffing every time they mentioned ``Hahvad.'' The 20 other college sophomores and juniors around me who comprised the inaugural Civil Rights Summer Fellowship were not about to believe that hosting us for a week meant that the lofty institution was truly committed to civil rights.

And so we began with a bond, a skepticism of elite Harvard and of the program coordinators' true understanding of social justice.


"No amount of studying or listening to high-profile speakers could have been more meaningful than the time I spent with my peers, many of whom defied all odds and clawed and scratched their way into being awarded this fellowship."

Our skepticism was probably the most universal bond we could have shared then.

Dominick Robinson, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta and a member of the Nation of Islam, sat to my left. Mariana Ramos, who, along with her brothers, had been poisoned by pesticides as migrant workers in the fields of Minnesota and Wisconsin, sat to my right. Adam Jed of New York sat in the middle of the room. It wasn't until I went to shake his hand that I realized his disability.

Yen Pham, who fled Vietnam with her parents at age 9 and spent three years in a refugee camp in the Philippines before making it to Oakland, Calif., sat across the room. Sridhar Prasad, Columbia University student and the valedictorian of his New Jersey high school, is, like others in the room, a first-generation American. Later that week, Albert Tsoi of Pomona College in California was quoted in the Boston Globe for his involvement in the gay rights movement.
Robtel Pailey, from Liberia, attends Howard University in Washington. And there was Tiffany Berry from the south side of Chicago; Johnny Madrid, who had spent his entire life in foster care; Jon Swan, who had grown up on a reservation in Montana; and Judy Estrada of Denver, whose mother is dead and brother is in jail.
We each had our own story to share. We were certainly diverse. I am not black, Latino, Asian or Native American. I am not Jewish or Muslim. I am not gay or disabled, nor was I born in another country. Yet the week spent at Harvard and the seven subsequent weeks in Washington, D.C., forever shaped my outlook and views on life and the struggle for social justice. I spent the time interning with the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. The organization is headed by Bill Taylor, who once chauffeured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and who worked under Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, assisting with the epochal Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed school segregation in this country.
I got to meet Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. On Capitol Hill, I witnessed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer in action. Later our group met with Sen. Edward Kennedy and NAACP board chairman Julian Bond.
Yet when I look back on my summer, I realize these are not the experiences that truly shaped me. Instead, I think back to when Robtel and I sang ``Hey baby, I wanna know if you'll be my girl'' at the top of our lungs. Or, more sobering, when Mariana spent a week in bed because of her pesticide-related illness.
Or when Johnny revealed to us that one foster family he had lived with bought Oreo cookies for their birth son, but ``the generic kind'' for Johnny. Or when Amanda Glenn spoke of the oppressive cycle of poverty, drug addiction and violence among her white friends in Olympia, Wash., and Las Vegas. Or when Jon discussed the pollution the federal government has dumped onto reservations, and the prevailing sense of hopelessness and alcoholism he witnessed there.
Or when Tiffany, now president of the Black Student Union at Northwestern University, told us that her high school counselors never encouraged the black students of Chicago's south side to go to college. (She later told me that her friends would not believe that she considered me, a white male, her friend.)
In fact, no amount of studying or listening to high-profile speakers could have been more meaningful than the time I spent with my peers, many of whom defied all odds and clawed and scratched their way into being awarded this fellowship.
The program made me realize that no one social-justice issue is separate from the rest. Racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental and economic justice are all intertwined. They are the same issue: equality.
I was in tears as I left Washington. Yet the people I met have given me the faith, motivation and self-confidence to carry on my work in a clear and focused way.
As I continue my involvement in this community, striving to make Lexington and Kentucky a better place, the words and actions of all my peers will be reflected. And the bond that we share now is not skepticism. It is hope.


Zachariah Webb is a member of the Department of Education's Equity Council and the board of directors for the National Conference for Commu-nity and Justice-Bluegrass. He is a University of Kentucky Student Government senator, Black Student Union member and producer of the documentary All I See Is What I Know in the Media Rights Media That Matters Online Film Festival. Reach him at ahrairahel@hotmail.com

Applications for this year's Civil Rights Summer are Due by February 22nd. To read more about how to apply, visit our Take Action page.

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