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Don't be afraid to get dragged: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day reflections on "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

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Don't be afraid to get dragged: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day reflections on "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Tamesha Derico

Photo: Baltimore Post Examiner

Photo: Baltimore Post Examiner

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Each MLK day, I reread "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." This year, I'm reminded that it's our responsibility as a community, as Americans, to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced through oppression and marginalization.

More specifically, I'm thinking of ways I can do more to use my own voice to speak out for those struggling with mental wellness, many of whom are homeless and/or living in poverty - including many persons of color. I do not want to be part of a generation of silent "good" people.

I've never considered myself an activist.

During much of my life, I've been mentored by "insiders" - city officials, politicians, lawyers, and savvy white women who are rich enough to volunteer full-time. These are the folks who get a bad rap for being "the establishment," yet I've seen firsthand the passion they have for some of the same issues as activists: literacy, homelessness, affordable healthcare, fair employment, and a generally more equitable society. These are also the folks who have fostered my love for and belief in the transformative power of organizations. After all, there were many organizations - SNCC, CORE, NAACP, etc. - that were integral to the success of the civil rights movement. 

However, I also acknowledge the limits of what organizations - especially large or ideologically diverse ones - can do. Dissenting outsiders play a crucial role in our society, often forcing bureaucratic governments and NGOs to get their acts together and respond more quickly to the needs of the people.

Many times I feel I'm walking a tight rope between the two.

Ideally, I'd like to be a bridge, using my business and nonprofit management background to actually implement the kinds of reforms that activists advocate for. Implementation is boring to most, but it suits me well. I was always the one making sure our family's vacation plans fit into allotted time slots, and I actually liked filling out the sorority's standards paperwork. 

It's also an awkward place to be. I often feel like a party pooper, telling my insider friends that the things they're doing really aren't as impactful as they think, and telling my outsider friends that their demands are unreasonable and doing the most. 

Photo: kevint314

Photo: kevint314

Finding the right balance will be part of the process of finding my voice, both as a writer and as a professional.

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently a fellow for a major website, which exposes my writing to a much broader audience. Some colleagues and I posed some interesting, edgy ideas in a recent team meeting, but we expressed concerns that our views may prove controversial and face backlash from readers. 

"Don't worry about getting dragged, y'all!" assured our editor. "Your editors and I will let you know if we think any ideas aren’t fully fleshed out or need to be reassessed. But a lot of times the controversial posts are the most important — it’s OK to  cover them."

Perhaps that's the message that's calling out to me from King's letter this year: don't worry about getting dragged! Use the talents God has gifted you to do your part, and don't worry about the consequences. 

I'm not obnoxious enough to think I'm following in King's footsteps in any profound way, but I think part of the point of the holiday is to realize that we all should be following him, in our own tiny ways. This year, I'm challenging myself to speak out from my own unique perspective, publicly and privately.