Yesterday Mayor Frank Jackson—as he has for the past several years—graciously welcomed the Stop the Hate® Youth Speak Out essay finalists into his office. These lucky 11-12th graders hailing from Bay Village to John Hay, Gilmour, Solon, Brush and beyond, got to take pictures with the mayor in the incredible mayoral chambers of the 100-year-old city hall building. Gorgeous wood carved moldings, a massive fireplace with the American flag carved in wood above the mantle, an enormous chandelier, tapestries illustrating Cleveland’s early history and an ornate coffered ceiling created a feeling of warmth, gravity and history. Each student along with their accompanying family members got a photo op with the Mayor. Oh, and the museum’s Education Director, Jeffery Allen, and I got in on the action too.
More impressive than the Mayor’s gorgeous chambers were his generosity and candor in speaking to the students in the “firewall” room where he holds briefings. After asking each student to summarize what his/her essay was about, he commended them all for their courage to share personal stories about racial identity, domestic abuse and discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and cognitive difference. He fielded questions from the students on everything from segregation in schools to gun violence and police brutality. The students didn’t pull any punches, but the mayor did not flinch, giving us all a sobering perspective on the current state of our society.
He cited the prevalence of hate right now, because so many people have chosen to take stances against something rather than for something. He stated that more and more often people are living off of hate, preaching hate and intolerance even when they don’t even believe it. Perhaps at once most unsettling and spot on, the mayor attributed the pervasiveness of racism and discrimination to people needing to exist within the comfort of an illusion—people would rather identify an object of hatred as the source of their problems and blame that person/group rather than “feel the anxiety of the reality of this world.” Wow. People would rather insulate themselves with hate than confront reality. A sobering message, and one I’m unfortunately confident many of the students in the room already understood.
How to find opportunity in this message? Well, the mayor urged the students to make good decisions at important moments in their lives and not to let themselves get sidetracked by negative forces. Given the paths they’ve already established for themselves, I have confidence in their futures, but no doubt it will be a tough road. I suppose the opportunity may lie in converting haters, even if one at a time. I take my inspiration from the courage of each and every one of the students to stand up to hateful people whether it’s uncomfortable, scary or just plain unpopular.
That hefty conversation was followed by the whole group being welcomed into Council Chambers for a City Council meeting. Grand prize winner Zephaniah Galloway of John Hay High School read her essay to a standing ovation from Council members—a moving experience and one that I hope may inspire some the students to get involved in government. I am humbled beyond words to be a part of this powerful process.