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Collective Liberation: What It Means to Get Free Together

It was my honor to be the keynote speaker at the Portage County (Ohio) NAACP's Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast. I grew up in this area and attended this breakfast as a teenager, so returning (virtually) as a keynote speaker was incredibly special to me.

Here's the speech with the text of the speech below it. May you continue to make peace for collective liberation.




One translation of this South African word is “I am because we are.”

In other words, we exist because our communities exist. In a world that tries to convince us that individualism is the only way, Ubuntu reminds us that we need each other—that our self-understanding should be shaped by what our community has given us and what we can give to it.

While you may only hear or see one person as I give this speech, I’m surrounded by the presence of the lives that have shaped all that I am and all that I will be.

Pauline and Otis Lott— I speak your names, honoring the legacies you left in the Skeels Community and in the lives of so many. I think of you always and hope I’m making you proud.

Mom and Aunt Linda— Your parenting, support, wisdom and care sustain me.

Marcelle—Your joy keeps me smiling and your quest for freedom keeps me fighting.

Melissa—We keep making impossible, possible. Thank you for believing in me when I don’t believe in myself.

To all of the other mentors, colleagues, friends, and family who joined me today—I love you. You keep me soaring and grounded at the same time, the miraculous gift that community keeps on giving.

Finally, thank you to the Portage County NAACP for inviting me to speak today. Such trying times call for prophetic words, and I will try my best to answer that call.

I am because we are.

Press On!, Unity In Our Community, the theme for today’s breakfast, was chosen a long time ago, but conversations about unity couldn’t be more timely.

Many people are calling for unity in our country in response to the blatant white supremacy on display, everywhere from our neighborhoods to the Capitol building. Some are saying if we can just agree to disagree, even with people who seek to kill us, that all will be well.

I’ve learned that people who want you to sacrifice your humanity for unity don’t actually care about unity, they care about ensuring your servitude.

As writer Robert Jones Jr. said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

You don’t owe anyone an unconditional commitment to unity, and neither do I.

Unconditional unity won’t get us free.

When unity is used as a tool to silence pain, it makes a mockery of the most vulnerable among us. Oppressors need apathy to maintain order and often paint disruptors to that apathy as villains.

Dear ones, I want you to know that when harm or abuse happens, it is not the responsibility of the survivors of the harm to pretend as if the harm didn’t happen for the sake of moving forward.

We are not required to build bridges for people when those bridges will be destroyed before we can cross them.

This reminds me of a story.

A young, Black, radical preacher was scheduled to go on trial for participating in a protest that challenged a racist policy. When he told someone about the protest, they told him the protest was the problem and not the racism that sparked the protest.

So a day before his trial, inspired by that misguided conversation, the preacher gave a sermon titled “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” ⁠

In his sermon, the preacher wrote, “If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don't want peace. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don't want peace. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don't want it. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.”

That young preacher was a twenty-something named Martin Luther King Jr. Although moderates and conservatives try to erase the more radical parts of King’s legacy, it’s clear that King did not believe in unity at all costs.

As a Christian theologian, King was clear that not all peace is created equally.

In Matthew 5:9, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Rev. Dr. King’s call to create beloved community was not a call for us to try to get along with people who don’t care if we live or die because Dr. King was a peacemaker, not a peacekeeper.

While peacekeepers maintain order at all costs, peacemakers pursue freedom at all costs.

Peacemakers know that in order for true peace to exist in the world, equity must exist for all people. Peacemakers concern themselves with the well-being of their local and global communities and decide if someone else is hurting, true peace has not been achieved. Peacemakers imagine a world where we all can survive and thrive and fight with all they have to create it.

Peacemakers know that the only way to freedom is through collective liberation. Collective liberation is a type of freedom that knows our destinies, lives, and communities are all intertwined. Collective liberation says until the most marginalized and stigmatized among us are free, none of us are free.

I won’t say hoping for a world where we can all be free is easy, especially these days. It’s likely that you, on the other side of the screen, are like me and exhausted by everything happening in the world. As I was finishing this speech last night, I burst into tears because I was so incredibly worn out by the collective grief and trauma we’re all experiencing right now.

And then, I remembered that I would be giving this speech to people who have literally saved my life. I remembered that in giving this speech, I was honoring the Skeels Center team, who made sure the children in our neighborhood had something to eat and somewhere to go all summer. I remembered that some of my teachers would be watching, and that those teachers wouldn’t let me give up on myself when I didn’t think I was good enough to succeed in life, or even good enough to live at all. I remembered that people, MY people, who are currently organizing protests…and creating unions…and protecting immigrants…and defending Black lives, and fighting for disability justice, and celebrating the divinity of queer and trans people, and caring for elderly parents, and breastfeeding babies, and making casseroles for hungry neighbors…MY people who are peacemaking like that in this world still took time to support me in this moment.

Every time I feel like giving up, I picture many faces in this virtual audience. And every time I think collective liberation isn’t possible, I remember that I know it’s possible because it’s what my community reflects back to me every day.

We have each other to keep us going.

I would be remiss to tell you to keep pushing toward collective liberation without offering some tools to put in your collective liberation toolkit. So I leave you with three thoughts on how we get free together.

Number one: We end disposability and center accountability.

Too many of our systems are designed to convince us that it’s okay to throw people away. To put our friends and family members in prison and think that this reforms them. To suspend our children and think this makes them better students. We don’t have to buy into the lie that disposing of people heals any wounds.

We can create ways to be accountable to each other that don’t result in the destruction of our communities.

But doing so will require us living into more accountable ways of being together. We can’t stay silent about the harm that happens in our communities if we want to heal. When we hurt each other, we must name that hurt and work together to care for the people who survived the hurt. We have to build more resilient relationships that can hold complexity, conflict, and truth telling.

Number two: Each of us claims our role in our communities with pride.

When my sister does her organizing work, she reminds people that Civil Rights activist Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

In other words, we don’t need one hero to save us. The strongest movements and the strongest communities have many people willing to live into many roles to support the whole. Maybe you’re a healer. Or an elder. Or a mediator.

Don’t worry about showing up perfectly. Just keep showing up in your purpose.

And number three: We must nurture creativity.

Pursuing liberation requires so much creativity. Many of us are here because people did things that seemed beyond the realm of possibility so that we might have a chance to thrive.

People often dismiss bold imaginings of a free future as naive. When I’m tempted to let go of my hopes for a better tomorrow, I remember that the point of oppression is to kill our dreams. Because when we stop dreaming, we stop believing things can change. And when we stop believing things can change, we stop working for it.

That’s why I leave you today with the invitation to dream together and to live into those dreams.

We were dreamed into existence by people who had the courage to think that their dreams were valid in a world that treated them as invalid. Our ancestors dreamed us into better possibilities, and that makes collectively dreaming and living into freer futures our inheritance.

Thank you again to the Portage County NAACP for having me today and for supporting the dreams of so many youth in our communities. Blessings on the journey. Ubuntu. "I am because we are."

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