Our Mandela Moment

Last week, Generation Citizen hosted Civics Days in our four program sites: NYC, Boston, Rhode Island and the Bay Area. Staff, judges, and elected officials were incredibly impressed by the passion, research and action exhibited by Generation Citizen students across the country as they presented on issues ranging from standardized testing to cleaing up parks to gang violence.

As part of the events, Executive Director Scott Warren gave a speech that sought to tie the life of Nelson Mandela to GC’s themes, namely:

1) Just as Mandela knew that apartheid was a moral wrong and sought to correct it, we must find our current moral and social wrongs, and seek to right the system.

2) We need to do so collaboratively, and with respect, just as Mandela did with the whites who had previously oppressed him and his people.

Below is the text of the speech. Click here to see a YouTube with the delivery. 

Welcome to Generation Citizen’s Civics Day!

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 95.  How many of you know about Nelson Mandela?  The short of it is that, after protesting against an oppressive South African government that repressed black Africans, segregating them from the whites, Mandela was sent to jail.  For 27 years.  He sacrificed everything for the sake of his country including, in many cases, his family.  When he was finally released, he won the presidency in the first truly democratic elections in South Africa.  His story is an inspiration to millions, and earlier today, over 90,000 gathered in South Africa to pay homage to him, including President Obama.  When I was in 10th grade, the same as many of you today, I had the opportunity to visit Robben Island, the island jail where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 years of captivity.  Seeing the incredibly small cell where the future leader spent his days was incredibly humbling.  His journey, from that cell to world icon, is perhaps the most inspiring story I know of.

Earlier this morning, at his memorial service in South Africa, President Obama asked, ““With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?” I think that’s a question that we can all ask ourselves today.  How can we make today the start of a Mandela moment, both in our own lives, and in our own society?

When Mandela was first imprisoned in 1964, the majority of the rest of the world was actually okay with it.  The United States, actually, stood by the South African government and its apartheid regime.  Just forty years ago, it was seen as okay for a government to systematically oppress black people, and impose life sentences on those who railed against the policies.  By the time he was released from prison in 1990, this was seen as a universal wrong.  But at the time, it was not.

History, which I hope all of you pay attention in, is a case study in righting social and moral wrongs.  When we look back, we often ask how people could have been so reckless and thoughtless in their interactions with fellow humans.  Up until 1865, this country thought enslaving black people made sense, and that they constituted 3/5ths of a person.  Up until 1920, less than 100 years ago, this country thought that women should not be allowed to vote.  Until the mid 1960’s, this country thought that blacks and whites should eat food in different restaurants and sleep in different hotels and go to different schools.  Up until about 1990, we thought it was okay for South Africa to treat blacks differently than whites.  And even in current times, women make less than men, we discriminate based on sexual orientation, and racial inequality is rampant.

And so, I guarantee that you in twenty years, when we look back on today, we will be astounded at some of the realities of the day that we allowed to happen.  The question is what those realities will be.  The question is, what issues will make up our Mandela moment.  And the answer, I think, is up to you.

In Generation Citizen this semester, we helped teach you to take action on issues that you care about.  But we essentially taught you to take action when the system actually works. When democracy pays attention to all of its people.  If you care about X, then you should do Y.  If you care about gang violence, or public transit, or keeping your school bathrooms cleaner, then you should take these steps, and you’ll begin to reach your goals.  And all of those steps, from contacting decision makers to getting media attention to mobilizing others, are necessary.  I do believe that. But what happens when the system doesn’t work? What happens when the system is unjust?

Because here’s the truth. Right now, the system in this country doesn’t work.  It’s not fair. Not all voices are equal.  You know this. And in twenty, thirty, forty years, we’re all going to look back and be fairly astounded that we allowed the conditions that we see today, in our backyard, to occur.  And what frustrates me most of all is that no one talks about all of these issues in an honest way.

Issues like the fact that in this city, over one fifth of our citizens are poor.  That some of you, many of you, go to schools without the resources you need to succeed while the schools next to you have flat screen TVs and connected classrooms.  That essentially, in our schools today, we segregate, based on class, based on race.  That many of you have been stopped and frisked by policemen solely because of the color of your skin. That 22,000 children in New York City are homeless, the highest number since the Great Depression.  This is all not okay.  It means that the system does not work.

But I’ll tell you something else.  These problems do not get solved by someone like me.  I can help, I hope.  But Mandela was such a powerful voice in ending apartheid in South Africa precisely because he was discriminated against for the color of his skin.  You, as our next generation, as young people that have been exposed to many of these inequalities, need to be the next leaders of our country.  You need to solve these problems.   As Mandela said, ““Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

So, in our Mandela moment today, we need to recognize which issues are unjust, which issues are historical wrongs, and do our best from right them.  But we also need to do so with respect.  When Mandela was released from prison, and became president, there were many that wanted him to retaliate against the whites.  Against the people who had imprisoned him for 27 years.  Against the people who had caused him so much despair and harm.  And Mandela refused.  Instead, he worked with the same whites that had perpetuated those crimes against his people.  He took a lot of grief for it.  But it was the right thing to do.

It’s an important lesson for us in our country today.  All too often, we pit ourselves against one another.  Rich versus poor.  Black versus white.  Democrat versus Republican.  We’re a people that like competition, and so our politics follow.  And it’s no surprise that we often fail to solve problems.

But as Mandela said, ““People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

We need to work together to improve our schools, combat economic inequality, and solve the other wrongs inherent in our world today. Which seems to make total sense, but never actually happens.  I like sports analogies a lot, so here’s one for you.  I was lucky enough, I guess, to go to the Jets game Sunday.  And I realized something as I was watching.  There are 11 men on a field at a time for each team.  And for the offense to do something positive, all 11 men have to work together to accomplish it.  The blocking has to be good, the quarterback needs to make a good throw, the receiver has to make a good catch.  And it takes one player to screw it up.  One penalty, one bad block, one drop.

That’s all to say that it’s much harder to work together to accomplish something than to splinter off and screw it up.  Think about your own classes this semester.  How hard was it to work in groups? How frustrating was it when one of your classmates didn’t pull their fair share?  But how great did it feel when everyone came together? And so, thinking about Mandela, it’s much easier to demonize people than to actually work together with them, especially when they think differently than you.  But it’s the only way progress happens.

I hope that today is just the beginning of a life-long journey of civic engagement.  That’s what Generation Citizen is all about.  But I also hope that you’ll take the lessons of Mandela with you.

You learned a lot about taking action on issues you care about this semester.  But I also know that you know that the system isn’t quite fair.  And with that, I hope that you will do everything in your power to work to make it a little more fair.  We actually need you to work towards that goal.  And I hope when you do so, you’ll work together with people towards that goal, rather than demonizing others as enemies.  It’s going to be really really hard.  But as Mandela also said, ““It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.