#IAmForChange – Pushing Progress Forward

Pushing Progress Forward

By G. Viribus, student

On April 12th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested while protesting against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While in the Birmingham jail, he got his hands on a newspaper containing a statement by several local white clergymen discouraging the methods used by the peaceful protestors. In response to their open letter, Dr. King wrote one of his own, scrawling his thoughts on any scrap of paper he could find. His response, famously titled “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was published in full a few months later. While throughout the whole letter he lays out an incredibly powerful and eloquent defense of the demonstrations and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, one quote is particularly striking as we examine the events of the present:

“Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will…We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”

martin luther king, letter from birmingham jail

In this community, there are countless individuals who have embraced that quote and are working to move this community forward. One week ago, on February 17th, three North Allegheny students and one alumnus made statements about their own experiences with racism within this district and called on the school board to take action to ensure that no BIPOC student is harassed or burdened with self-hate during their time in this district. They used their voices to advocate for change because they understand Dr. King’s message–that in order for us to move onward and upward, determined individuals must shape it that way.

2 photos: King mug shot, 1956; King in jail, 1967
Credit: Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’, The Atlantic

In his letter, Dr. King writes about the people who change the course of history: those of ill will and those of goodwill. But something that stood out to me was the presence of a third role–the role of the bystander. Oftentimes, we feel entitled to sit back and watch history progress in front of us–especially if we feel that we do not have much of a stake in what unfolds before our eyes and our screens. Bystanders don’t see beyond the surface level of issues and they don’t recognize how many people are needed to truly achieve a greater standard of living, or education, or equity, or justice for all. 

Even within this district, there are problems–evidenced issues–and if we as a community consign ourselves and allow others to confine themselves to the role of the bystander, our entire community will suffer, with BIPOC students and their experiences most impacted. It is every single person’s mandate to deny themselves the passive role of the bystander.

It is easy to assume that history is progressing naturally upward, that positive change is constant and inevitable. But that perspective–a strictly linear view–neglects all of the incredible people who worked, and continue to work, day in and day out to ensure equity. That perspective allows us to sit back and simply hope for the best.

That perspective boxes the situation of equity assurance into a static objective as opposed to an ongoing and constant process.

Asking people to do their part has never been a radical demand. Demanding that every single one of us commits to a demonstrable culture of antiracism is not extreme. 

Taking on the role of advocate and changemaker can be intimidating. But it is essential–anything else would betray our innate responsibility to help our friends, neighbors, community members. 

Change starts in the smallest of places–within ourselves and the connections that we form with others. Internal change is recognizing our own biases, educating ourselves, and not turning away when we see the pain inflicted on underrepresented and disadvantaged communities, along with communities of color; external change is encouraging others to do the same and engaging in activities that structurally improve systems. In the past several months, and certainly in the years before then, you have seen North Allegheny students calling for change.

As members of a school board–as parents, as community members, as teenagers, as teachers, as administrators–your role is not to hang up on this call, but instead to put it on speakerphone and ask how you can help, then follow through.

Progress is not promised. Progress is not always natural. Progress is necessary.

Behind every victory for iconic achievements like the Civil Rights movement, or the disability rights movement, there were countless policymakers, leaders, and most importantly, ordinary people from all walks of life, who activated and fought tooth and nail against forces that enabled bystanders and people of ill will to command the driver seat. We can either become a part of that force for positive change, or we can do nothing–will you be letting the illusion of inevitability cloud our judgment and actions?

#IAmForChange because progress does not sail ahead in a straight line–but when determined humans of goodwill are at the helm and rowing the boat, it does move forward.


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