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On Why I Still Have Hope

I’m sending more like me. Those were the last words I had for Stanford during graduation. My friend and I were both so angsty that we couldn’t bear to be with anyone else, so angsty that we refused to participate in Wacky Walk. They gave me an award for my contributions to the campus. We both had known each other from freshman year, and from traveling to China. We often hung out in silence in that way that only people who truly understand where you are coming from can. We didn’t need to exchange words. So at my undergraduate graduation, we laughed about the nonsense of it all. The Stanford kiddos dressed as babies. Susan Rice spoke, reminding my classmates to Be the Change and not count it. We heard our classmates shuffle uncomfortably. The suggestion reminded them of how they ended up where they are. I wanted to make good on my promise. I was going to go into education.

It took a long time for me to let go of my incredible angst. I came into Stanford with a lot of really excellent reasons to be pissed off, how anyone could have expected me to be any different with my background at 18 seems to be a ludicrous standard and one that no one else could have possibly held themselves to. What I saw at Stanford, didn’t help that matter. From my fall quarter IHUM, when in the middle of a debate about the false dichotomy of equality v. freedom, a girl said that poor people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough to the day when the dean who had known me my entire time there and had fought with me about my activism finally asked me my life story and at the end looked at me in horror of what she had just heard. When I graduated she hugged me and told me she was proud. I wish she had asked sooner, had trusted me when I told my story time and time again in meetings. I wished that I had been backed more in class and not brought into meetings where I was told I was alienating people with my suggestion that perhaps we should have resources for my numerous friends who felt so miserable at Stanford that they almost left, that they spent nights being committed for suicide attempts, that drank to deal with the social situation. That like good Stanford students hid their struggle.

There were days at Stanford that we wondered when the struggle would end for us, but we also lived with the tremendous guilt we carried for the people left behind. I couldn’t go to class or even for a walk, or to a social occasion without hearing something bigoted. We all developed coping mechanisms. I had a stand-up routine, sometimes I drank, sometimes I took impossibly long walks, sometimes I disappeared for days going home or hiding in my dorm room. The once student body president, the girl that was loud and funny, and outgoing, a known character, I became an insecure shadow of my former self. People would get glimmers of me and then it would go away. I began to fear that I was what they said I was, angsty, insane, and anti-social. I’d go home on the weekends when it got too difficult. Come back and for a few days and I was me again, but it was inevitably ruined by some bigotry or some crisis.
Very few poor kids make it to college, any college. Even fewer finish. At Stanford, the friends I had rarely struggled academically, and certainly no more than my privileged friends. We were used to having to work hard under impossible conditions, so we did just that. The friends who struggled, struggled socially. We struggled most of all because with every act of aggression or microaggression made against us we knew all too well that our classmates would have the power to decide our families’ fate. It wasn’t enough that things were as they always were at home, where for me, the dining hall amazed me with the amount of food so much that I gained a lot of my weight my freshman year simply because I still ate like I was certain that that food wasn’t going to be there the next day. But we also had to deal with ignorance, bigotry and acts of cruelty. My close friend had to leave her dorm because she was harassed so badly. Another left after struggling through the realities of their dorm life, where they made fun of their accent. I was one of the lucky ones, I am crazy, I was born fighting. I was angrier than I was sad. I knew too much about American history to buy into the lies I heard regularly. I never quite learned how to keep my mouth shut.

So given all that, why do I still have faith? I figure that if they couldn’t stop me with all the difficulties of being poor then they surely weren’t going to stop me now. I would rather go down fighting. I would rather fight than to not, even if that fight is fruitless. I have hope because I watched Stanford change in my time there. When I started Stanford they didn’t publicly identify low income students, they used coded language, when I asked why we couldn’t use the term for the student group they told me no one would participate because of the shame. I told them I didn’t see how lying was going to help their shame. The student group I was instrumental in founding not only has the term in their title but also has won the Outstanding Achievement Award twice since I graduated. I have watched as the campus has become more open about class. As my younger counterparts told me they felt better supported, and therefore had the strength to push even further than I could have hoped for when I was done there. I had hope as the staff started to self-identify as first gen or low income, publicly and for the first time in their lives. Stanford made my life incredibly difficult, first by not giving me any resources and then by fighting my attempts to advocate for those resources, but the Stanford I entered was different from the Stanford I graduated from.

I have hope because of the privileged friends I have who are conscious and the few others who fight the good fight next to me. I have hope because of the incredible essays my students produced for their Civil Right’s unit. I have hope because I watched my students from EPA, quiet and scared to speak at the beginning of the year, take on their own voice. I have hope because we spent several weeks on Facebook talking about music and culture and Civil Rights. I have hope because this generation is more liberal than ever and has had just about enough of the bigotry. I have hope because my students fight. I have hope because I have seen 16 year olds who couldn’t read or talk, become confident and make massive growths in math. I have hope because I have never encountered a child and rarely encountered an adult who, once presented with the facts, didn’t want to do the right thing by their neighbors. I have hope because my students put their faith into me.

I have hope because we have faced so many battles in this country in working class communities. Not even slavery had the power to take away the humanity of people and the fighting spirit of people. Not even abject and horrific poverty had the power to take away the humanity and the fighting spirit of people. Not dogs or hoses, or lynchings. Not lack of education. Not violence. Not fighting a rich man’s war. Not the Depression, not death, not an entire culture that devoted each day to reminding people that they didn’t belong, that they were other, that they were less. None of those things could stop the unstoppable, which is humanity’s natural tendency to desire freedom so fiercely that they would face certain death to obtain it. With each generation we pushed harder. Apparently the elites didn’t realize that having us fight their wars would make us incredible soldiers in our own borders. We have seen progress, and it didn’t happen inevitably, it happened because people paid for it in their blood and sweat. People paid it because they would pay any price for freedom.

I have faith that things can get better. I do what I can to make them better. I have seen them get better. But mostly I have hope because there is no other option. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I learned from studying history that bad things don’t happen by accident, that includes structural bad things like racism. They happen when we fail to choose love and they can be torn down only when we choose love. I’m in this for the long haul, and I get up every morning and choose love. That choice is what started the chain, from my mother, to me, to my classmates, to my students, and ultimately in my own small way it will be a choice that will help move us forward. When people call me strong what they mean is that I think it is impressive that I get up every morning and choose love, but what they need to understand is that all of us has that strength. I do what I can to pass that belief along. Social change isn’t created by structures, it is created by individuals coming together and saying “we can do better than this and I love enough to try.” Humanity has so much more in it that is beautiful, and we can do better. We have to do better together, but I have met very few people in my life, even though I’ve seen some horrific things, who at their core don’t want to love. That impulse is so strong, so powerful, that systems had to be created to hold that impulse down. But what is created by man can be torn down by man. Love is always a more powerful force.

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