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A Life Worth Living

Summer Institute
Summer Institute
Cydney Knotts,
Summer Institute Alumnus
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August 3, 2018

You can read every article ever written about discrimination and it wouldn’t prepare you for meeting an undocumented student who has crossed the country to stand in the rain and address a rally of young activists. It’s also not easy to hear someone like that and not feel called to action. I have always been passionate about issues close to home, and activism in those areas has come naturally. However, I also fell prey to the idea that there were no real ways as a marginalized person that I could help other marginalized communities without putting myself at risk of being targeted.

My two trips to the ACLU Summer Institute in 2017 and last week, however, made me realize how wrong I was. Through talks given by ACLU lawyers and activists as well as conversations with my fellow students, I learned how interrelated civil rights are for marginalized groups. More importantly, I learned how my experiences can be used not only to make a difference for my communities — but anyone fighting for their rights.

Growing up as a Black woman in a time of rising discrimination meant activism was personal for me. I loved my childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the city also has some legacies that can’t be ignored. Whether it’s the lingering history of racism because of the 1921 race massacre that inspired the de-facto segregation in my city; the gentrification of my own high school; or a white police officer shooting Terence Crutcher, an unarmed friend of the family; I sometimes felt like my city was meant to be great for only certain demographics, none of which included me.

I was never comfortable with this feeling, and as I entered high school, I decided to do everything I could to ensure no one else would share it. Through the local Youth Philanthropy Initiative, I was given the opportunity to help cultivate Brink Tulsa, a program with a curriculum designed to help low-income students explore their college options and build their knowledge about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. When I heard about the ACLU Summer Institute from a quick Google search, I saw an opportunity to further my involvement with activism.

Before July 2017, traveling to a new city and spending a week with strangers seemed overwhelming, but somehow it wasn’t. Surrounded by people from every place, background, and upbringing imaginable, all I could think was how welcoming the atmosphere was. Many of us shared that feeling of underrepresentation in our communities, and we wanted to make the world more inclusive.

I left my first Summer Institute inspired, and I tried to put all I had learned into action. I continued to work on my efforts with Brink Tulsa, I was elected senior class president at my high school, but I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to give other people the comfort and belonging I felt in D.C., and so I started a started giving lessons to young people of color in my school on the importance of self-care, post-secondary enrollment, and scholarship resources for when they started their college application process. I was doing more than ever to support my community, and yet I still felt there was more to be done.

In the months after I left D.C., the word that kept rattling in my head was "ally." Of all of my takeaways from that week, the one above all is that just because I’m not in a certain community doesn’t mean I can’t do my part. The only problem was that I wasn’t sure what my part was.

And it was for this reason that I applied to the Summer Institute for a second year. While I came to learn, what surprised me most was how much I was able to teach. In my first year, there had been a student named Moses who had been a sort of mentor to me, not only on issues of advocacy but on college admissions and anything else we needed advice on. This time, now that I was about to go to college and knew the institute, I found I could be “Moses” for other students. And in conversations with other students, and with Jeff Robinson, an ACLU deputy legal director, I realized that helping others was the answer to my question.

In the fall, I will go back to Washington to start college at American University. And when I go, I will be sure to learn all I can and gain experience whenever I can. I’ll do this because the Summer Institute helped me realize that all the knowledge I gain can be used to fight for others and to give them the same opportunities that I have.

I think that would be a life worth living.

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