In 1998, when he was 17, Aaron Jenkins participated in a three-week summer pilgrimage retracing the path of the 1961 Freedom Rides from Washington, DC, into the deep South. The pilgrimage was part of a year-long leadership, training, and cultural education program for high school juniors offered by Operation Understanding DC, (OUDC), a Washington non-profit organization. The OUDC program drew lessons from the history of Black and Jewish communities in America in order to end racism and anti-Semitism and help students to critically explore race and culture in America.
Through my first-hand exposure to the civil rights movement, I gained a greater understanding of what others did to create change. I learned the names and roles played by pivotal foremothers such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Claudette Colvin. All were women who would train and work with fellow freedom fighters such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and John Lewis. Participating in the OUDC program started my own journey in understanding institutional oppression and developing the belief that these racist systems could change. Over a decade later, I joined the staff of OUDC, becoming a teacher and mentor to students who could hopefully be tomorrow’s change makers.
In July of 2013, my OUDC students were one week into their three-week summer journey—the same summer pilgrimage that I had taken when I was their age. We’d just finished a discussion on the connection between race and history when America provided a critical learning moment: the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced. The man who killed Trayvon Martin was found “not guilty” on all counts in Trayvon’s death. A 17-year-old high school student, Trayvon was the same age as many of my students. He was the same age I was when I participated in the OUDC program and only three years older than Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American youth lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman in her family’s grocery store.
We asked the students to share their feelings on the verdict. They decided to create a video and the hashtag #TrayvOnward to express their feelings, which ranged from “angry and frustrated but hopeful for change,” to “I felt surprised that I was not surprised.” Their sentiments showed me that the process of looking at history and gleaning lessons in the present mattered. It was powerful, but I later realized it was not enough.
On June 14, 2020, I marched. Travis and Dolapo, two of my former students who became my mentees, helped shake me out of the heaviness of the moment. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd made me realize I had learned to navigate oppression systems to survive, instead of working to dismantle them through taking action. When I was an OUDC staff member, I actively engaged in social justice issues and felt I was doing dismantling work. However, when I left OUDC, I was less active in, as Dr. King put it, “bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” When Travis and Dolapo reached out to me, it encouraged me to do more than just survive. Their calls—seeking direction from me as their mentor—reminded me that education must be combined with action. We attended the “Prayer Walk for Peace and Justice,” a Sunday morning march from the National Museum of African American History to the Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House. Travis and Dolapo had motivated and inspired me as I had motivated and inspired them. They helped me remember that mentoring goes both ways. They also reminded me of a lesson from my Christian faith, which is not to be “overcome by [the] evil” of these incidents, but to “overcome evil with good.” Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Protest. Prayer. Action. As a Black man, I felt any of those killed could have been me, Travis and Dolapo, or any of our loved ones. Over and over, the lack of justice reflects systems of oppression along racial and gender lines. While there have been charges filed against the murderers of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, to date there have been no charges brought forth in the Breonna Taylor case. When I was a staff member at OUDC, I taught students about systems of oppression. I now realize true change requires consistent action. Systemic institutional oppression requires systemic institutional action. We can never let up in doing the work of dismantling systems of oppression.