My earliest memory of social change originates in a small church, with about 17 other people who would meet Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays inside a middle school classroom. Sometimes when I shut my eyes, I can relive it all. I remember sitting by a cold classroom desk, one row to the left and one seat back from my mother. I remember the pastor would sometimes preach with a microphone even though there were fewer people in the room than light bulbs. I remember the pastor saying, “Look around you. We are all blessed! None of us have an empty fridge.” More than anything else, I remember the look my mom gave me as soon as he finished his sentence. It was as if, when the words hit her, she knew that it would hit me too. Her eyes begged me to stay innocent and free from the reality that things were unjust. “None of us have an empty fridge.” I replayed the words to myself like the chorus to a bad song you can’t get out of your head. Our fridge wasn’t empty, but I was old enough to tell when one pot wouldn’t last forever. Since when was this an anomaly? Since when were fridges full? I wondered if GOD had forgotten to bless my family with a full fridge too. But I soon decided that wasn’t how my faith worked. Still, I wanted answers, so I started asking questions and listening to anyone that would give me an answer.
At a young age, social change became a campaign to answer questions people seemed to run from. At first, my questions were innocent. I wanted to know why the other kids teased me for wearing Payless shoes, why scholastic book fairs were just window shopping for some of us, and when I’d be able to buy school lunch too. But as I got older, my questions got heavier. Why didn’t anyone notice the students that weren’t eating lunch? Why did I get pulled over again and again in certain towns? Why did the officer tap his gun when he looked at us? Why were parts of town so segregated? The people audacious enough to answer would say the same things with different wording, “work hard in school, and you’ll be successful. You will get away from all of this.” It feels like if you’re a Black boy, some social circles will tell you that education is the key to success more than they’ll let you know that you matter. They’ll try to equate your family’s debt, hunger, and misfortunes to a lack of schooling. None of that is true to me. If education has taught me anything, it is that education alone is not the key to success. Well, at least not to my definition of success. I asked questions and the responses I got weren’t the answers I needed. Ultimately, I came to understand that my problems were real. Recognizing that homelessness, racism, gender inequality, and so much more were real and fundamentally connected is the first step to finding that answer.
When you’re young and realize that what you go through daily isn’t just, it doesn’t make things more manageable. It makes it more challenging. Because feeling and perceiving pain, but not knowing its name or how to diagnose it, is damning. Honestly, education didn’t give me the keys to success; it enabled me to see what was stopping me, my family, and many of my friends from being successful.
Knowledge without action is useless. It must provoke us to do the work because success should be measured by who we free, not what we cage in our minds. Social change must be a process in which we seek the truth and thereafter fight for change.
Isaac Cudjoe is the Chief of Staff and Director, Center for Social Change.