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Editor's note: Last month, at a Cranbrook Peace Foundation event honoring historian Howard Zinn, Berkley High School senior Emma Fialka-Feldman, of Huntington Woods, helped open the evening with an inspiring message we thought deserved a larger audience.
"We are the generation that we have been waiting for." That's the slogan for Free The Children, the largest youth organization in the world. Young people do care. We are not waiting until we have our college degrees. We are not waiting until we get an "official paycheck." We are not waiting until we have a family of our own. We are changing the world now.
I do not like hearing that adults are excited for what we are going to do when we are older. Adults should be excited about what we are doing now. And we are doing great things. We organize community service projects, we speak at conferences, we talk to military recruiters in our schools, we canvass for elections and we attend protests and rallies. We are very much a part of changing the world today.
Last year, as a junior, I had the honor of participating with 10 other juniors and seniors in the Youth Leadership Project, more commonly known as YLP, which is sponsored by the Cranbrook Peace Foundation. Once a month, we focus on a different issue. We learned and became passionate about issues like hunger, poverty, the environment, arts and media, and human rights. A topic added to our events this year was disability rights. This community has historically been excluded and isolated from many social-justice organizations. YLP devoted an entire day to learning about disability history, the exclusion of people with disabilities in our schools, and the ongoing disability rights movement. These monthly events on various topics have encouraged young people to make a difference now. We are not only part of the future, we are members of the world now and should be encouraged to make positive changes today, not tomorrow.
After each event, I remember coming home and telling my parents that I found out what I wanted to study in college. In September, after I learned about Detroit Edison's pollution of the Rouge River, I decided I wanted to study environmental issues. In October, after the "homeless and hunger" day, during which we volunteered at a soup kitchen and visited a teen crisis center and Gleaners food bank, I wanted to be a social worker. In November, after I visited Freedom House, where international refugees stay until they receive the "official" documentation to begin applying for citizenship, I wanted to be a translator. But perhaps the event that led to my most personal discovery was spending my spring break at the U.S.-Mexican border.
There is one person whom I will never forget. At a migrant community center on the border, I met Sonya. Sonya has eight children. They do not go to school. She can't afford to send them to one. Her husband left her. She traveled from Honduras to Mexico. The U.S. government has tried to stop the 3,000 immigrants who cross the border every day by building walls in cities, which has pushed the migrants to cross the unbearable desert. Sonya has crossed the desert three times. When I talked to her she was trying again for the fourth time. It is incomprehensible to me, a high school student who sleeps in a bed every night, learns in a classroom and hangs out with her friends, to imagine Sonya's story.
Later that night, she shared with the group her journey. She told us about the blisters she has, the thorns that dig into your skin and never come out, the guide that takes the group of migrants across the border who does not wait for those falling behind, the little water she can take ... the list went on. All of the participants listened so attentively. We could see her pain as she pointed to her feet to show us the blisters from her three-night walk. The statement we heard over and over again was how she did not want to come to the "Land of the Free" or take our jobs. She did not want our freedom of speech or religion. She wanted to be able to send her children to school, have food on the table when they came home, and money to support them. Because of a long history of U.S. foreign and economic policies, there is no work for people in Honduras. She continues to make the long, deadly journey to America to make money to send to her family.
If Sonya is in the United States, her children are still far, far away on the other side of the wall. One day I truly hope there will be no walls or borders. I hope there will be jobs with living wages, schools and health care for everyone, and strong families. Then maybe one day Sonya would be able to take her family on a vacation to the United States and show them a diverse, tolerant nation. Maybe one day I would take my family to Nogales. There will be no Nogales, Mexico, or Nogales, Arizona, because it would be one area united. Walls and borders should not separate two countries. Within two countries is just humanity.
As I am applying for college, many schools ask me what I would like to study and now I say immigration and Spanish. I hope that I will be able to meet more people like Sonya who each have their own story to tell and contribute to breaking down the barriers between people and nations.
I would like to thank the Cranbrook Peace Foundation and the Youth Leadership Project for creating a space where curiosity, social justice and passion are fostered. More importantly, I would like to thank all of the juniors and seniors who were part of the experience. Without any one of them, it would not have been what it was. Each teenager involved in YLP broke all the stereotypes of the apathetic teen. All of the young people who were involved with the discussion with Dr. Zinn today, all of the young people who talk about the genocide in Darfur and Iraq to their friends, and all of the young people who are passionate about creating a better world, I thank you too. We are not the generation of tomorrow. We are the generation that acts today.
To learn more about the nonprofit Cranbrook Peace Foundation, based in Bloomfield Hills, and the organization's Youth Leadership Project, visit its Web site at cranbrookpeace.org.
Emma Fialka-Feldman is a guest columnist for Metro Times. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.