A speech written by Reza Corinne Clifton
This speech was delivered on behalf of the 2006 Graduates of the Leadership for a Future (LFAF) program at the May 12, 2006 Graduation Ceremony at the RI Statehouse. LFAF is organized annually by RI for Community and Justice and the Institute for Labor Studies and Research.
I’d like to first acknowledge and thank everyone who came out to honor and celebrate participants of this year’s Leadership for a Future Program.
I’d also like to give a special acknowledgement and a huge thanks to RI for Community and Justice and the Institute for Labor Studies and Research; specifically to Carolina Bernal, Sarath Suong, and Toby Ayers. It is because of these two organizations that this year and in previous years, a program of such importance exists, and it is because of Carolina, Sarath and Toby that this year happened with the success that it did.
Finally, I’d like to thank you, all of my fellow Leadership participants for choosing me to speak on behalf of you. I was pleasantly surprised by their selection and I consider it a distinct honor that I will carry for life.
When I told a friend of mine how excited I was at being selected or really elected to class speaker, he said to me, “Cool. You’re like the leader of leaders. I thought about that for a moment, then I kind of dismissed it. I am here because of my ability to string words together succinctly, and hopefully because I will be able to capture in words our collective, phenomenal experience.
For a moment, I’d like us all to abandon this notion of leaders, and I’ll tell you why. Sometimes, when that word Leader is uttered, we immediately jump to other words and descriptions, like politicians, directors, CEO’s, and easily we start putting together other roles and ideas of who these people are.
The thing is—and one lesson that I learned again and again in this program—is that a leader is a person, and a human being first. What do I mean by human being besides mammal who walks on two? I mean, for instance, as you all here know, that we all have families. And we all live in communities. And no matter how down for a cause or THE cause we might be there is always a sacrifice.
It was always a sacrifice to show up on a Saturday morning at 9:00. We were always leaving loved ones, work assignments, or even just the comfort of our beds to show up. But we did that because of you all, the families and communities that we temporarily left.
But it was the ability for each of us to really look at our communities, to mentally and physically see and feel the pain of others that kept us coming back.
So one thing that I want to do is again thank you for allowing your loved one to come and spend time with us. I also want to urge all of you here to be careful with that label Leader. We are not here, we did not attend this program, and we don’t start campaigns because of rhetoric. We do not fight to preserve HUD affordable housing, build our Muslim cultural centers, and fight to improve the educational system because a cabinet of directors told us to.
We are in this movement, THE movement as friends, relatives, neighbors, and appalled onlookers. We have been pushed to a point where complaining and shaking our head isn’t enough. We have been pushed to a point where despair and anxiety will overtake us if we don’t see change, but maybe most importantly, we have been pushed to step in to make the small changes that create big movements.
We are lucky though; and looking at our three youngest participants, Isja, Sasha, and Julio, they may be the luckiest. The life of an activist, revolutionary—or whatever your terminology of choice—can be lonesome and isolating. When you find of group of people like this one, though, that path an activist takes becomes just a little smoother. But for many of us, it took time to find that supportive network and many youth don’t , can’t or won’t find it. In this case, I hope that Sasha, Isja, and Julio did.
But remember all the teens, preteens, and tweens who won’t find the network. Some will pursue a materialistic and superficial life, sometimes legally but as we’re seeing right here in Providence, often times illegally.
I ask those of you here to remember the bright glimmer of love, hope, and confidence in Sasha and Isja’s eyes, as well as everyone’s eyes here. Why? Because if local, national, and international policies like the ones we see now—those that eliminate youth after school programs, those that decimate social, health, and cultural programs, those that allow the same people with to keep and those without to stay without—continue as they do now, we are going to see less and less of that glimmer.