My earliest memories are about keeping quiet. I remember coming home from grandma’s house to have my mouth washed out with Lava soap; my mom’s threatening steely eyed death stare when I spoke out of turn; and her mouthing the words “big mouth” at me while she imitated the gestures of a hand puppet. Later a step-father would embed in my psyche the importance of keeping secrets. I had no voice.
My experience in the justice system only compounded my feeling that I didn’t have a voice. When I insisted I was not guilty of the crime — my court appointed attorney — threw his arms up in the air and exclaimed “What do you want me to do for you?” I thought: “Do your job. Stand up for me. Tell the judge I’m innocent.”
Instead, I kept quiet out of fear and took the plea agreement. During my sentencing the attorney thought I should make a formal apology to the judge. I tried to speak but I was sobbing so hard that no one in the courtroom could understand me. The demonstration of emotion angered the judge. He sternly reprimanded me, and then sentenced me to prison. I still had no voice.
So my story goes. I know that I am not the only one out there whose voice has been stolen. Parents, grandparents, teachers, schools, courts, prisons, systems, societal structures, and erroneous worldviews steal our voices.
But one thing I’ve learned is that we don’t have to buy into powerlessness of silence anymore. We can be heard. We can demand change. We can take back our voices.
On Wednesday, May 9th, I had the privilege along with 200 of my close friends to reclaim our voices in a most unusual place – Target Headquarters. We marched into Target with our voices strong chanting “Red shirt, Khaki pants, — all we want is a chance.” My friends and I had found our collective voices. We were not willing to stand back and watch as big corporations throw communities of color under the bus by keeping them out of the job market. We drew from our personal stories; we had done our homework, community leaders stood at our side and we were ready to take on a giant in the business world…Target.
Because we were raising our voices in unison, we couldn’t be ignored even by Target. Soon three Human Resource representatives appeared and were ready to discuss our demands. Before it was over we were setting appointments to meet later this month. Finally, we had been heard!
Reclaiming my voice as 200 of my close friends did the same was an overwhelmingly powerful moment. Our voices united cannot be silenced.
Jill Barnes is a leader in TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All Campaign.