Our Little Light: Letter From A Young Activist

Our Little Light: Letter From A Young Activist

by Lindsey Hennawi

“This Little Light of Mine” is the song that my mother chose for all of us to sing as she led a crowd marching up and down the street in the poorer part of the poor neighborhood where we attended church. The 1995 march was part of our church’s ongoing voter registration drive. Though only six at the time, I had the vague inkling that this was important for the people of color who comprised our congregation.

The church was African Methodist Episcopal (AME), which we began attending after my mother had a falling out with the priest at our Catholic church over what color skin Jesus had, how it differed from his depiction in the church’s paintings, and whether the congregation was “comfortable with” or “ready for” any change thereto.

The march occurred roughly two years after my mother made me, at age four, watch the entirety of the Roots series. At age five, she explained to my Daisy troop during our Thanksgiving celebration that Columbus’ arrival didn’t really do wonders for our Native ancestors’ livelihoods. I was 15 and it was 11 years after the march, when she mentioned, offhandedly, like it was a story she could have sworn she had already told, that the reason she pulled me out of the same Daisy troop was because the mothers would not let their daughters be my friend after they met my dark-skinned grandmother and thereby clarified my multiracial mother’s and my ethnic ambiguity.

The march was around the same time that my mother framed her Malcolm X “By Any Means Necessary” poster to hang prominently in our living room. And it was 10 years before my best friend and I started a women’s rights club at our high school, where the response ranged from the support of fellow self-proclaimed feminists who were similarly enraged over issues like pay inequity and domestic violence and the hostile skepticism of the older boys who chalked it all up to penis envy. It was 13 years before my first trip to Palestine and 14 years before I returned to the West Bank to work for the Right to Education Campaign, where I heard stories of the intimidation and incarceration of university class presidents and schoolchildren. And it was 15 years before I found myself at the center of a small controversy after getting into an altercation with a priest at my Jesuit-Catholic university over my distribution of sexual health materials on campus.

There were, of course, many different factors that prompted me to become what people would consider an “activist.” I am the daughter of politically conscious parents who raised me in a racially and economically diverse area of a “blue state.” I was always encouraged to volunteer in my community. I had the privilege of belonging to a good public school district — and later, a good private university — where I had teachers who took notice of and nurtured my interests.

But I came of age in a tumultuous time. I was 12 years old when I turned on MTV and watched the Twin Towers fall. Later that week, Osama, the friendly Jordanian deli owner who usually greeted me in Arabic, said “hello” and whispered that I should start calling him “Sam” instead. In the following months, my nation went to war again and again and I learned to articulate my opposition to it, developed ideas for the ways tax dollars could be better spent. Education. AIDS research. Prison reform.

A Mother Shows How

But when I think about my life and my personal involvement in activism, I think of my mother and that day marching. We were not a contingent of a larger movement. From what I recall, we weren’t even particularly organized; no one had bothered to decide what songs we would sing in advance, so my mother went with “This Little Light of Mine” on a whim. And in the days before Twitter, we had no online social network to mobilize us.

Just people who
identified a problem
and set out to do
something about it

We were just a group of people who identified a problem and set out to do something about it. It was grassroots. It was democratic. It was simple and beautiful and a lesson I want to one day teach my children, should I have any: activism is the tool of the people not who are strong or rich or powerful or famous, but rather of those who care enough to wield it. There is no degree or income requirement for participation. And even the biggest issue — say, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of poor people of color — is addressed first at the smallest level, like with a 10-block march through the center of town.

I heard several times at my Catholic university that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Maybe it’s due to my lack of identification with religion (that early church involvement petered out within a few years), but I always considered that to be a more fitting description of activism. As obligated as we are to address the needs of the world’s oppressed, so too must we demand that those who are responsible for that oppression acknowledge their complicity and act accordingly.

This, though, is in many ways an absurd notion. I’ve learned already that the powerful do not cede their power easily or willingly, and the uprising of the less powerful to wrest it from their hands historically remains an unfinished battle. Activists, then, are those who still fight, loss after loss and year after year, for things like peace and justice and liberation. And activism is that little light each of us has. In the song, it’s the devil who tries to extinguish it; in the life of an activist, it’s the government, the police, The Man, society, the Church, our own burnout, whatever. But the point is the same: to keep letting that light shine.

She taught me
the most important
thing was to speak up

Activism is that impulse to keep trying when common sense would dictate otherwise. It is a fool’s passion, really, to stand up and declare you are going to change something and then set out to do it. But it is a passion each of us is capable of fostering in ourselves and in others.

My mother knew this when she took me marching with her. She knew this when she went back to school to become a public school teacher while working full-time and raising two children. And she knew this when she taught me that the most important thing, ever, was to speak up and speak my mind. It is a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since.

Now, 16 years after that march, I’m a case manager working with immigrant families in New York City, and this is the lesson I would like them to know, too: that they have a voice and a right to be heard. That even when all the odds seem stacked against them, there is still hope. That, despite all the hateful rhetoric our politicians manage to drum up, this country is absolutely theirs to take and make better.

I’d like to give them the thing that my mother gave me, which is the belief that some small action, what feels like the tiniest push, can be the beginning of the greatest change. That it can, in fact, be the first little light of the dawn of a new day. And as Maya Angelou would say, good morning.

Lindsey Hennawi received her B.A. in International Studies with a focus in human rights and conflict resolution from Boston College. Her involvement in activism has included teaching sexual violence prevention in urban high schools, increasing access to sexual health information for university students and participating in Palestine solidarity work. She has worked with immigrants as an ESOL, GED, prison-based and after-school tutor, and has lived and worked in the Middle East and North Africa. She currently works as a case manager for immigrant families in New York City.

Also see: Letter to a Young Activist: Left to Learn from the ‘60s by Laura Whitehorn in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Speak Out: Sharing Passions, Tips, Techniques by Gabrielle Korn in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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