Youth Justice


About this time each year, Hollywood releases blockbuster movies featuring superheroes—typically a man in tights and maybe a cape opposing a master villain. Fiction aside, what is needed are real world heroes with what it takes to oppose a truly daunting foe. As the members of the class of 2007, I invite you to take a heroic stand for something bigger than yourselves and join the fight for social justice. You have a great heritage and legacy to carry on. Your forefathers and foremothers fought to abolish slavery, secure rights for women, establish worker protections, end poverty and racial segregation and achieve equality for all. Out of these movements grew the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy organization for children who are the most voiceless group in our nation and world.

This year, we’re fighting to guarantee health and mental health care to all children. We’re building a movement to tear down the sinister architecture that funnels tens of thousands of children and teens into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. We are working to end gun violence against children, which takes almost eight young lives every day. We’re establishing CDF Freedom SchoolsSM programs across the country to provide critical summer and after-school enrichment. None of these efforts will be depicted in scenes of superhero movies coming to a theater near you. But by embracing one of them, you can make a difference in your community.

We need strong, smart, morally-centered young people willing to take on the struggle to truly Leave No Child Behind and ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood. We need young people who won’t look down at their shoes if someone calls them smart or a “do-gooder.”

You don’t have to have super powers. Most of you will never be stronger or healthier, and have as much energy as you possess today. You have agile minds and bodies and you have time—you have more than 40 or 50 years of productive work ahead of you—if you stay out of the fast lane with the fast crowd going nowhere. Two of my mentors, pioneering social activist Dorothy Height and scholar John Hope Franklin, are both over 90 and they’re still going strong.

Spend some of your time and energy helping others in both your professional and personal lives. There’s a lot of work for heroes and sheroes—not with guns blazing or swinging from a tall building to save the cute imperiled co-star. Be a star teacher, go to law school and represent the unempowered. Become a juvenile or family court judge. Go to medical school and work in an urban or rural clinic. Volunteer to help build affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity, teach in or support a CDF Freedom Schools program. Choose a child in your extended family or from your community and stick with him or her as a mentor until they’re 18. It is alarming how many children we lose to the streets, drugs, and crime for lack of just one positive adult in their lives.

Find your voice. We need people who will speak up, shout out, if necessary, when they see an injustice. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out and take risks. Establish clear goals and take a focused and strategic approach to what you’re fighting for. Don’t scatter your energies on many things that don’t add up to a better whole.  Keep your word and your commitments and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t stop learning; continue your intellectual and spiritual development to grow as a person and asset to your family and community.

If you’re right, don’t take “no” or “but” for an answer. Be persistent and tenacious. Things may get rough at times. You may be challenged by formidable opponents backed by powerful and well-funded interests. The adversity you encounter might be so intimidating that you’ll want to give up. Don’t. When trouble comes, hang on and hang in. You’re tougher than you think. Don’t expect to solve a major concern with one big effort—work steadily over the long term. Movements are not built in a day or a decade.

Don’t confuse heroism with fame or celebrity. As former Morehouse College board chair and Cleveland pastor Otis Moss, Jr., says, “The hero is known for achievements, the celebrity for being well-known. Celebrities make the news, heroes make history. Time makes heroes, time dissolves celebrities.”

What is offered here is not a life of sacrifice but of service and purpose. You don’t have to take a vow of poverty to share what you have with others. My own experience as a civil rights lawyer and as an advocate for children has been gratifying beyond description. If you want an exciting, purpose-driven life, join the effort to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable in America—be a hero or a shero.