By: Cardozie Jones, Manager of Youth Programming
A few months ago, I visited Bushwick School for Social Justice along with activist and Live Out Loud “friend of the family,” Catherine Marino-Thomas. The opportunity to befriend and work alongside role models like Catherine is one of the biggest benefits of my role as Manager of Youth Programming. However, as a young person, the concept of a role model was something that eluded me.
Growing up, I was constantly reminded of how grateful I should be to “those who came before me”—those individuals who spoke up, stood tall, and risked their lives to create a world in which my rights as a human being were recognized. Growing up in an African-American family, names like Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were inextricable threads in the tapestry of my education—both at home and at school. Though, as ubiquitous as the notion of the role model was, it always felt abstract. I read books, wrote papers, and prided myself in knowing the important names and corresponding accomplishments, but there was no visceral connection.
During my visit to BSSJ, I’d prepared a program in which students could explore the concept of identity as well as reflect on and celebrate aspects of their own identity.
Catherine was there to help frame that exploration by sharing what identity means to her.
Catherine told her story with conviction, heart and humor. She shared the story of how her “very Italian” father found out she was a lesbian at the age of 17 and of the permanent strain it placed on their relationship. She told the story of her and her wife, and their road to marriage. Adoration turned to activism when Catherine realized that her right to marry the person she loved was bigger than her and her wife. It was—and remains to be—tied to others who want the same for themselves. She also shared the challenges of having a daughter as well the sacrifices they made to ensure both her and her wife had legal rights as parents.
Watching the students as Catherine spoke was a testament to just how strong of a presence she has. When she was serious, they were enthralled. When she was sarcastic, they laughed. At the end of her sharing, she asked if any of the students had an idea of what they wanted their future to look like. One student, whose hand excitedly shot into the air, shared that she wanted to move to California so that she could gain more independence. After a few years, she said, she may decide to marry a man or a woman . . . depending on how she feels. “It doesn’t really matter,” she said. To hear this young girl speak about the options she had to marry whomever she chose juxtaposed with Catherine’s stories of fighting for marriage equality caused me to think back to my own youth. I thought about the abstract obligation I felt to know the names and the accomplishments of those who had paved the way. But what I was witnessing in this classroom was anything but abstract. It was real. It was two individuals, more than a generation apart, sharing authentically with one another. There was a woman sharing all the work she had done and battles she fought, and there was an 11th grade girl excited to share her options—options that she spoke of as though they had always existed.
I realized in that moment that this is what makes Live Out Loud unique. What we do does not exist in the abstract. We do not push the rhetoric of “respecting your elders.” We are out there, in the field, creating the possibility for authentic connections between people.