Why I LIFT by Jasmine Reid

By LIFT on July 15, 2016

Categories: First Person Perspective, Real Stories

We live in an age where the act of listening has become political. With the click of a button, we can curate our social environments to become an echo chamber, espousing only those things with which we agree and ignoring those opinions that don’t jive with our worldview. We don’t have to look far to see how poorly we as a nation deal with dissent. Take the presidential debates, or the comments on any given YouTube video. We’re all fighting to be heard – we all have our picket signs with our opinions and our causes – but how well are we listening to the people around us, especially to those whose opinions pick at our conscience? How do we escape the seduction of agreement and honor another’s experience with the same dignity and respect with which we honor our own?

But let me not speak for you. I speak as one who has come of age in the Black Lives Matter movement. While I technically moved into adulthood well before Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner were ever hashtags, I can pinpoint my racial awakening to August 2014 when I first heard the rallying cry that black lives mattered. In the past year, I have watched America shrug off its veneer of colorblindness and repeatedly expose that even at their most vulnerable, black, brown, and impoverished cries for help are not quite vulnerable enough, not quite helpless enough to be heeded. Rather than seeking to understand the substance of this movement, news anchors, political candidates, and yes, even some of my friends argue against the methods of the revolution, failing to realize that these activists have to be disruptive in order to get their marginalized realities heard.

The fact of the matter is that not everybody is given the same license to be vulnerable. I think back to last year when I first heard about Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, two young black teenagers who suffered the same tragedy hundreds of miles apart. Both Renisha and Jonathan got into near-fatal car crashes in predominantly white neighborhoods and sought out help, knocking loudly on the doors of the closest homes. They bled and cried and cajoled and yet. In both cases, they were mistaken for burglars, and in both cases, they were killed: Renisha by a white resident, and Jonathan by the police called to arrest him. The neighbors, you see, saw black bodies before they saw wounds, and they interpreted cries for help instead as threats of violence. As skin color crowded out humanity, these tragic misunderstandings became the latest in a centuries-old American tradition of racial tension turned violent.

I conjure the memories of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell not to demoralize but to demand a new world order, one in which multifaceted teenagers of color are not collapsed down to historical tropes, and one in which marginalized groups are honored – and not attacked – for their vulnerability. I believe in a world where experiences and stories are shared, and people actually listen. I’m not talking about that I’m-gonna-pretend-like-I’m-listening-while-I’m-really-thinking-about-the-next-thing-I’m-gonna-say kind of listening. I’m talking about deep listening, profound listening, the kind that makes the words and the feelings of another well up in your own chest. That kind of listening, I believe, can help bridge the gap between where we as a nation are and where we need to go.

As racial tensions run high in this country, I sometimes fear that we have lost sight of the power of human connection to resolve the tensions we face, but every day that I go to work at LIFT, I remember that there is hope. As LIFT staff, we have the opportunity to give the under-heard voices in our communities the chance to speak and to feel and to be valued. How often are low-income families given this space to be vulnerable? We too often hear stories of how low-income families are denied space – pushed out of neighborhoods, actively silenced in communities, and generally ignored by the public eye – but we at LIFT have the opportunity to right this wrong. I, as a LIFT fellow, have the opportunity to right this wrong.  The current racial and socioeconomic climate cannot be solved by impassioned think pieces and slick political speeches alone; if we as a nation are to believe in and defend the worth of all people, then we must first allow our humanity to resonate with another’s.

With each meeting, LIFT accomplishes just this. From doing job applications alongside members to helping them secure subsidized housing, we directly engage with people whose experiences have made many of them question their self-worth. Our members oftentimes come into the office battling years of self-doubt so oppressive that it’s difficult for them to hope in a future that differs from their past, but the beauty of LIFT – the reason that I have loved working with this organization for the past year – is that we value self-efficacy as much as we value tangible, goal-oriented progress. Simply by listening and treating each story with the dignity and respect it deserves, we provide space for members to confront their life experiences head on, to build up their self-esteem, to make more meaningful progress towards their goals, and in some small way, to chip away at the institutional constraints this world has placed on them. I lift because this organization believes that every person has worth and every person has the right to tell their story. I lift because in truly listening to our members, LIFT becomes a space for them to speak their visions into existence and to craft a future that matches their loftiest dreams. While I can’t bring Renisha or Jonathan back to this world, and while I can’t make every detractor of Black Lives Matter understand the significance of movements like this, I can do my part to make sure people like Jonathan and Renisha have a space to be vulnerable.

LIFT allows me to do just that, and that’s why I lift.

This essay was written by Jasmine Reid, a two-year Member Service Fellow for LIFT-DC.