Sometimes we wake up in the morning, or step off the train, or walk into a coffee shop and there is no strife to remind us of the oppression, terrorism, and nightmarish bigotry that has become our overt reality.
There are mornings when I walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and I take a moment to watch the sunlight touch the highest dove anchored to Martin Luther King Jr’s peace statue. I think, in its beautiful stillness, with no sirens or expletive shouts at the shuttle for driving away a moment too soon, that it could be the day when that bird breaks free from its iron bond and freezes the world in a peaceful state.
In those moments, as few and far as they may be, I want to close my eyes and drift into a sea of moments where there is no hurt in my world, in our world.
Those are also the moment when I search for the core of wretched normalcy to break the spell that makes me confuse beauty for perfection and the world’s momentary kindness for the end of historical systematic abuse. I picture the calm before a storm or the clean bandage over a wound.
I try to bring those images to mind whenever I walk around Brookline with my notepad as a journalism student assigned to report on the neighborhood. On an average day in Brookline, I see are homogenous faces that smile warmly as they’re pulled along by their adorable puppies and eat their JP Licks ice cream cones. As I look at them, I force myself to think: Who is being silenced here? What’s going unseen so that we can paint this picture in its brightest colors?
I also wonder: Where are the change-makers handing out megaphones to the voiceless so they can be heard above the laughter? Where are the people trying to free Dr. King’s doves because they know, better than anyone, that they’re not going to fly away on their own?
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to meet someone who I would say hands out the microphones every day. He does the work of bringing a flashlight to the injustices that marginalized groups face in a town like Brookline, MA, the area that borders our campus. Originally, my goal was to tell his story in 500 words, to add a dash of color and meaning to an otherwise eerily calm semester of writing about school board meetings and happy townsfolk. Yet my goal and my outlook were changed when Alex Coleman, a BU graduated lawyer and psychologist who moved to Brookline over 3 decades ago, spent the evening before the election chatting with me about what it was like to be an activist, parent, and transgender person battling the institutional framework that pushes back against societal inequalities for trans-folks but also for the many marginalized voices in his town.
As the former Director of his town’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations, Dr. Coleman took the time to push me to think about the work that everyday citizens can do, must do, to mobilize their societies, and even the most noncontroversial communities need advocacy for those who may be silenced.
From the reporting I’d done on the surface level of Brookline life, I wouldn’t have known, when he told me the story of his transition in 1993, about the non-inclusive environment that arose for his family in the local school system. While I was ashamed at my own surprise at the news, he told me that such discrimination furthered his determination to be an activist for those who are treated unfairly, even in those moments when it’s easy for people like myself to be ignorant of the oppression brewing for those trapped beneath the surface.
As we sat in a quiet coffee shop, he said “so that’s why am I an activist. Defense, offense, I see things. I have a very strong sense of fairness.” For him, it was that simple.
That night, when I watched Donald Trump gain the electoral votes to be pronounced the president-elect of the United States, my mind immediately jumped to the Dr. Coleman, who I’d spoken with about his thoughts on the candidate hours before. We’d both been certain that things would look different than they did through my tear-soaked eyes on the morning of 11/10. When I thought of Dr. Coleman, I also thought of the years he’d spent defending children in the Boston Juvenile Court, or representing same-sex couples fighting to adopt a child in Massachusetts, or even advocating for 2010′s Senate Bill 726 that would provide basic civil rights for transgender people that weren’t specified in ANY civil rights law. I thought of the lifetime he’d spent working to shake the system that allowed us to say “everything is ok,” when that was only true for the few who are fortunate enough to lay a blanket over the chaos and step above it. I thought of the lifetime of work still ahead of him, still ahead of us.
I think it was because of him that I didn’t feel completely defeated that night, his stories were a blessing that kept me afloat as the victory of our enemy was proclaimed. I think, in part, it was because of his words in that large progressive town that hadn’t progressed as far as I’d seen, that I didn’t wave my white flag.
My conversation with Dr. Coleman brought me the clarity that everything was never alright, and that the sooner we move past that hard truth, and we can begin doing the same work that he’s being doing his whole life: waking people up from the fantasy that if we’re going wake up in a world where we can truly be happy without ignorance, we’re going to have to pull the lid off of all the spaces we think are safe and rattle them until we can see their inequalities, because that’s the easiest part.
As Dr. Coleman told me, “Like all places that are better than many, it’s always easier to overlook the ways that we’re not. ”
At the time he was speaking of Brookline. At the time, so was I.