“Your voice matters!”
“You can be a difference-maker!”
“Speak up, the world is listening!”
I know you’ve heard it a million times before. I’m sure by now such sentiments don’t even resonate with you; if you’re anything like me, they just go right over your head.
And it’s not that I don’t believe them— it’s just that it’s nothing new. I’ve always been told to speak up for what I believe in and I’ve always been told that my voice matters.
But sometimes it can be hard to believe when you find yourself shouting over & over again from rooftops and wondering why no one is hearing you.
I’m a nobody.
I don’t mean that self-deprecatingly and I’m not looking for pity here, but when you look at the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty insignificant.
I’m a young woman who moved to Canada’s capital city of Ottawa on a hunch a little over two years ago and is still trying to figure out where ‘home’ might be. I work part-time, I volunteer a couple days a week for various organizations, and I tweet a lot. That’s me in a nutshell.
On July 13th, 2013, I was fresh out of high school, working as a server to save money for moving to Ottawa. On that day, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of then 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This was the day it all began for me.
It started with retweets.
“RT @Josh_Tep: How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain”
“RT @cool_pond: George Zimmerman watching popcorn in the microwave. It starts acting suspicious so he grabs it and it burns him and he shoots it”
“RT @Chachi: If only George Zimmerman would have considered Trayvon Martin innocent until proven guilty. #JusticeForTrayvon”
Then I hopped on the bandwagon.
“And some people still truly believe that the criminal justice system is fair. It’s a sad day. #Justice4Trayvon”
Little did I know that this tweet would be the springboard into a whole new world for me. A world of advocating for civil rights, speaking out against police brutality, and sharing my disgust with thousands of other pissed off Twitter users, all from the computer in my family living room. I can only imagine what my overly conservative mother would have thought if she knew.
For the next couple weeks I spoke out loud and proud against injustice, demanding change in an undeniably unjust system.
And then… I stopped. Life happened. I moved to Ottawa, started going to school, and, well, George Zimmerman wasn’t on the news anymore. No one was tweeting about him anymore, so I stopped too.
I moved on with my life. What I failed to realize was that for every 17-year-old African American boy in the United States, moving on with life looked a whole lot different. Don’t get me wrong, fearing the police was nothing new. But walking down the street with the confidence that if you were shot and killed by a police officer who thought you ‘looked suspicious,’ you would be at fault? YOU would be criticized and rebuked for… for being born with skin that isn’t white… and for wearing a hoodie? And the officer would be deemed innocent?
How one moves on with life facing this frightening reality is something I will never be able to comprehend, and in these months that passed it was something that never even crossed my mind.
Fast forward to August 9th, 2014.
“RT @TheePharoah: I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG”
“RT @capetownbrown: Another unarmed, young, black male gunned down in America by someone who is supposed to “serve and protect.” We are atrocious. #Ferguson.”
This time, it stuck.
Slowly, timidly, fearfully, I stepped into the world of the online civil rights movement taking place across North America.
In the days that followed Mike Brown’s death, I discovered the likes of Shaun King and many other individuals who seemed to care an awful lot about issues of police brutality and racism.
More importantly, I discovered a movement called Black Lives Matter.
If you find yourself here asking, “Why don’t we just say ‘All Lives Matter?’ Why do black lives specifically need to be mentioned?” I need you to read this. This subreddit beautifully summarizes why the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ matters and why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ just doesn’t cut it. If you don’t have time to read it, take a look at this excerpt.
“. . .the phrase “black lives matter” has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.”
It’s not that other lives don’t matter; it’s that in North America, black life is valued less than other life.
What started for me with Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown gradually expanded as Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and dozens upon dozens of other people lost their lives to undeniably excessive force by police.
“‘Ferguson cops beat innocent man, then charge him with bleeding on their uniforms’ Yes… this is real. #Ferguson http://t.co/BoDn4SbzND”
“POLICEMEN & WOMEN: If you see a black person today, please try really hard NOT to shoot them. Please. #Ferguson #AkaiGurley #TamirRice”
“‘Police officers put their lives on the line every single day.’ Black people do every time they step outside. #FergusonDecision #Ferguson”
As time passed and the number of unarmed black men being killed by police exponentially grew, so did my anger, my frustration, my bitterness, my rage. So did countless other emotions I never knew I had the capacity to carry and display so fiercely.
I wish I could tell you I had a magical ‘Aha!’ moment where I decided that tweeting about Ferguson and BLM wasn’t enough. I wish I could give you a simple 3-step guide to taking your next step in standing up against injustice.
What I can tell you is that on June 17th, I made a decision. My eyes were glued to my timeline & my ears tuned into CNN as I learned of the Charleston shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church which left 9 African Americans dead after a domestic terrorist decided that they didn’t have the right to live anymore.
As I watched this unfold, tears streaming down my face, overwhelmed with hatred and hurt and disgust, I decided that 140 characters weren’t enough. I published Let’s Flip Some Tables.
That day was the start of something that I haven’t quite given a name to yet. All I know is that I wrote, and people read. It started with family and close friends, and a few dozen Twitter followers.
And then I wrote another one. And another one. And another one.
And people kept reading. And I kept sharing.
My following slowly started growing, from a hundred, to a thousand, to the over 5,000 followers I have today (I love you all!). And the craziest thing was they all wanted more! I was getting message after message across every platform asking what was next, when it would be published, how they could subscribe.
I don’t know when exactly I realized it, but people actually care about what I have to say. As someone who has spent the last 7 years desperately struggling with the concept of self-love, this was so counter-intuitive. It just didn’t add up. But I was intrigued.
So, I kept writing. People kept reading. I kept sharing.
And now here you are, reading this.
I don’t have some mind-blowing conclusion to share with you here, I just NEED you to understand that people listen to you. You need to know that you have a sphere of influence that is entirely unique to you. You share overlapping social circles with many people, yes, but you have the distinct power and opportunity to reach people that only you can reach.
I can reach all of my followers, but I can’t reach yours. I can reach my friends, but I can’t reach yours.
But here’s the thing.
You can reach people that they can’t. You can be the difference between someone starting to actually care about black life today. You can be the reason that someone decides to stand up against injustice today.
Your voice can be the one that falls on open ears & prevents the next Tamir Rice from being killed by a police officer today.
Your activism can hold the key to keeping the next Sandra Bland from being pulled over for a minor traffic violation & ending up dead in jail today.
If you take nothing else away from what I’m saying, hear this: Your. Voice. Matters. Not only does it matter, but it holds the power to be the literal difference between people living and people dying.
Don’t believe the hype that what you have to say does not matter. I promise you it does.
Don’t be passive. Don’t think, “Someone else will talk about it. I don’t really need to as well.”
I’m not going to tell you how to speak, and I’m not going to tell you what to say. You have words in your head and in your heart that have the power to unlock people from the literal and sociological prisons that systemic racism has trapped them in today.
Even if you don’t know if anyone is listening, even if you don’t have the perfect words, even if you’re scared, even if it hurts like hell, speak. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
We’re counting on you.