Lianna Kushi is executive director of E for All Lowell-Lawrence, a nonprofit organization founded in 2013 that accelerates economic & social impact through inclusive entrepreneurship. She lives with her family in Lowell.
John Lewis (web photo courtesy of Georgia Public Broadcasting)
When I Heard John Lewis Speak
by Lianna Kushi
In his honor our work continues.
These days (and nights) I find myself, like many, reflecting on where we are as a country, as a community, and now most recently, on the incredible legacy of John Lewis. I feel immense gratitude that even though he is gone he still managed to leave us with a call to action in a recent op-ed, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” in the New York Times that he requested be published upon his passing. I have read it over a dozen times in the last week, and this part continues to ring in my ears,
Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. — John Lewis, July 30, 2020
Almost 12 years ago I had the privilege, in a relatively intimate setting, to hear John Lewis speak. I was working as a staff assistant at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Whenever famous people came to campus to speak, staff members had the opportunity to enter a “lottery” to win a ticket, and then, for the first time, I won a ticket to go hear John Lewis at the Harvard Kennedy School, a graduate school for public policy.
For those who know me well, I am obsessed with the civil rights era. As a kid, I grew in a number of New England towns, in mostly white communities, and often was the most ethnic and colorful student in the classroom. Then at the age of 15, my family moved to North Carolina. I went to a public high school that was desegregated in 1970. Less than 30 years has passed in this mid-sized city since then, and for me, a multi-racial “Yankee” from the north, it was my first time in a school with nearly as many Black students as white students. Junior year, I had a history teacher who dedicated two weeks to the civil rights movement, assigning each of us something to do a deep dive into. I researched the “Birmingham Campaign,” and was amazed to learn what ordinary people could accomplish. With my curiosity sparked, in college I took every Black history and studies course I could and found incredible inspiration and motivation learning these American stories.
This is all to explain that it was an understatement to say I was excited to hear John Lewis speak. It was November 20, 2008, just 16 days after the election of Barack Obama. Designed like an amphitheater, the room was packed, mostly with Harvard Kennedy graduate students, faculty, and at least one eager staff assistant from across the campus. I remember it feeling strange to look down on him, a civil rights giant, versus up at him if he had been standing on a traditional stage. Looking back now, I realize the design was no coincidence, based on the foundations of democracy. Looking up at us, he began, “I know that I am supposed to deliver a lecture, but I think what I have to say tonight will be more like a testimony.” He took us on the journey of his life, he spoke of the injustices he faced, the community he and so many built, and the power of a nonviolent revolution, one that eventually delivered the election of Barack Obama. At 24 years old, I was in total awe. It is one thing to read books and watch documentaries on the civil rights movement, it is another thing to hear a firsthand account of someone who has lived it.
I was left with two things that night. First, people struggled, people suffered, and some people died to give their fellow Americans the opportunity to vote, not just in the South, but across our great country. Second, just as he has in his passing, that night, even in celebration, he knew there was more to be done, and he called upon each one of us in that room to continue the work.
“Each one of us must take it upon ourselves to pass it on, that we’ve been blessed, that more than likely we are blessed to have an opportunity here to get an education, to learn as much as possible. We have to reach back and bring others along. We all should find a way to make things better for all of the citizens that dwell on this little piece of real estate that we call America.”
Here we are over a decade later, and it’s clear: more than ever, there is work to be done. We all have a responsibility to move his vision of a “Beloved Community” forward. This is one of the reasons I decided in 2017, while seven months pregnant with my first daughter Ella, to be a plaintiff in the voting rights lawsuit against the City of Lowell. It was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, (the federal law that was passed after John Lewis and others were beaten on Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on the now infamous “Bloody Sunday”) that allowed us to challenge the city and win.
This history and our present day right here in Lowell are connected in many more ways. From the cotton picked by enslaved Black hands in the South and then woven by Yankee and immigrant women’s hands here in Lowell, this is our collective history, our American story, and our Lowell story. It is a story of ordinary people overcoming incredible odds, ordinary people digging canals, ordinary people working in factories, ordinary people building community, and ordinary people speaking out to be heard. Today our city is one of the most diverse communities in Massachusetts, and this summer thousands of ordinary people are speaking up and coming together to ensure that all our Lowell voices are heard. Let us honor the incredible and historical legacy of John Lewis and build a “Beloved Community” that will reflect my children and all the children of Lowell.