Highland Park, IL – The following essay is a keynote speech given by Highland Park mom of two, poet and children’s author, Janea D. Harris. Janea addressed a captive audience at the 2023 MLK Day of Service event hosted in conjunction by the City of Highland Park and Park District of Highland Park. In person for the first time since 2020, The Day of Service brought together a multitude of small but mighty service projects from local nonprofits. This annual event draws in nearly 200 North Shore residents and is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Beneficiaries of Service by Janea D. Harris
I am truly honored to be here kicking off this wonderful Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service with you all. I am so grateful we get to be together in person again and I recognize that tender hearts are before me. We’ve gone through much in the last few years. However, the work that needs to be done continues. Our political climate is chaotic, and instances of hate are on the rise. So, we are diving into this with love, respect but also the truth. Dr. King left us so many impactful words of wisdom intended to guide on the path of service to and with each other. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
I stand here today inspired by the difference those who choose to serve have made in my life. I spent my early life living on the Northside of St. Louis, MO where I attended St. Adalbert’s school, which was just a short walk up the street from my house. We didn’t have much financially, and my mamma always worked very hard. My tuition was partially paid for by the school. My 7-year-old self didn’t realize how little we had, but it didn’t matter because I loved my school and I loved to learn. (I still do).
I have many memories, but I vividly remember the kind people who brought food baskets and Christmas gifts to my house, including a giant stuffed bear that I cherished for many years. Volunteers who had chosen to give of their resources and their time.
I was a quiet and fairly shy student who loved to write. When I was in 3rd grade my teacher wanted me to read the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son” at a Black History event. I was hesitant, as I didn’t want to stand up in front of everyone– but she me encouraged saying, “she didn’t just want someone to read the poem, she wanted me to R.E.A.D. it.”
I knew exactly what she meant, I felt it, the very first time I read it.
I have loved poetry ever since.
As I grew older, I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, found my voice, and continued to write. As a freshman at ETSU University, I found myself frustrated by an article in our school newspaper that attempted to attack Affirmative Action. It was all wrong and assumed incorrectly that affirmative action was enacted to give people like me a handout. As one of the few minorities at my school, I knew all too well that affirmative action was necessary because people like me were often and still are denied access and opportunity, not because we are not most qualified or overall best candidate but simply based on the color of our skin. Somebody had to say something and that someone was me. I fired off a rebuttal, which was published in the school paper. Entitled, “Reader Needs to Do More Research Before Running Off at the Mouth.” It wasn’t polished, edited or revised, it was simply my emotional response to what I knew was wrong information. A few days after the essay was published, I went to my school mailbox and tucked inside was a letter from my English Professor. She thanked me for my willingness to respond, to speak up and advocate on behalf of all of us. She shared how proud she was and encouraged me to never stop standing up for what I believe and to never stop writing. Her words have stayed with me all these years. I continue to believe that silence on matters of injustice, racism and bigotry is not an option.
Years ago, while living in Atlanta, GA, an elderly black gentleman offered words of wisdom to me and my husband as we were house hunting, he said, “Look around, we got big houses, but no grocery stores and no parks. Make sure there are good, quality grocery stores where you choose to live, always look for amenities and never allow yourself to feel as if you don’t belong.” Life eventually brought my family to Highland Park. We, like so many others were drawn to the highly rated schools, tree lined trees, access to quality healthcare, the proximity to the lake and the number of grocery stores. Here in Highland Park, I can get to 5 different grocery stores within 8 minutes or so. I recognize the privilege in that; however, we all know that is not the case for many communities not all that far from here. I reflected on his words and the St. Louis neighborhood of my youth, and I recalled that there were no grocery stores, I wrote and published the poem, Urban Desert:
I imagine it is a joy to begin one’s day with succulent fruit for those that are able,
For me, a medley of delicious, nourishing berries is often missing from my table.
I dwell within a desert, but not the one that first comes to mind,
My urban desert is man-made, a quality grocery store is nearly impossible to find.
Yet, bourbon, beer and scotch are all right within my reach.
I have many options to purchase whiskey, but none for a fresh apple or peach.
Oh, how I would love a meal comprised of savory carrots and leafy greens,
But it appears that liquor, sweets, and cigarettes are the only sustenance that I need.
This was my reality over 30 years ago and sadly it is still the reality for so many people today.
I serve as part of many organizations, and the Braeside PTO is where I first began volunteering on the North Shore. It’s no longer bake sales and classroom parties only, PTO leaders are usually the first to hear about district policy, curriculum and matters of inclusion and diversity. We make decisions for our entire school populations and it’s important for as many of as possible to be informed and involved. We are often the first to know when our school’s families are struck by tragedy and loss and how we can support them. But we also are the first who get celebrate all things fabulous! Like athletic Championships, Blue Ribbons and organizing those graduation montages that make you all cry.
We serve our school community.
There was a seismic shift in my personal focus in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the protests that ensued. I like so many others, I was devastated but sadly I was not surprised. While social media and most of the world erupted, many of the people I knew were radio silent. I wondered, why they were not as outraged as me? Did they not have the words, were they not equipped or was it simply more of, not me not my problem. Frustrated unable to sleep, at 3:00am, I wrote and published the following poem, Oxygen:
This world is becoming so incredibly hard to bare,
What extraordinary measures are needed to get those unlike me to care.
I need oxygen, each day I find it increasingly difficult to breathe,
Smothered by oppression, discrimination, and disease.
I need oxygen, I’m human, it’s the very basic of needs,
Yet, I’m strangling by the intense pressure being applied by suppressors knees.
I’m choking, my lungs have become totally devoid of air,
No resuscitation measures, no peer intervention, no life sustaining care.
I need oxygen, how much longer can you simply be silent and watch as we die,
I challenge you to stand with us and add your voice to our rallying cry.
We need oxygen.
I had the added challenge of having to explain all that had occurred to my son, I had to educate him on why people who were advocating on the side of what is right were being subjected to treatment that was clearly wrong, all without instilling fear or resentment. I wrote an essay that was published by Chicago North Shore Moms, entitled, “He’s 8 and he’s Black.” It was direct to the point and touched on my fears for my child. My kind, brilliant, dimpled faced black son who I know is destined to do great things. There was no option of skipping the conversation for him it was and has always been mandatory, it’s has always been a part of growing up black in America. Frankly it is a conversation that all of us need to have with our sons and daughters. That essay found its way into the hands of a mom across the world, all the way in Australia. Despite the distance, she had similar concerns for her sons as they were planning to return home soon. She and her family have since returned to Chicagoland, and we have connected over our shared love for the arts and our boys.
Over the next few days, my small group a minority parents found ourselves sending emails and advocating for statements against what had happened. We were in the midst of a pandemic, tired, heartbroken, and mentally exhausted but in that moment, we didn’t choose to rest, rest is not always an option when you look like me our struggles are continuous. We were moved to action.
Service is not always easy or even understood, especially when matters of race, inclusion and diversity are involved. No one wants to be thought of us biased or made to feel uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s unavoidable and necessary. Some people can get a little hot in their seats when the topics of race, discrimination and equity comes up, but the conversations have to continue. As Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
We HAVE to have the hard, uncomfortable conversations, sometimes with those closest to us. It can be exhausting yet we refused to be discouraged, we did not give up. It was from that time that we began laying the groundwork from which our non-profit, Insight Advocacy eventually grew. It’s an organization dedicated to advocating for inclusion and diversity for families of color in all spaces on the North Shore. We want everyone to recognize that conversation is the only the start, action is the next step. Our goal is to move as many people as possible to be advocates and not silent ones. We set out on a mission to create space for ourselves and others, often in rooms where we’re not always comfortable. But our comfort is not what’s important, the work is.
When people use lack of time as an excuse not to get involved, I share that we are Company owners, SVPs, Attorneys as well as moms and dads. We make the time. We plan, conduct, and deliver culturally relevant workshops and plan events that are open to all families during the many heritage months. We are not leaving room for folks to plead ignorance, if knowledge is what is needed, we are prepared to give it.
I am proud of the work that we have done to date, the partnerships we have forged and the work we continue to do throughout Chicagoland.
We have chosen to serve, to be advocates.
I am so very proud of our Highland Park community. We came together and showed valiantly how dynamic we are and can be in the aftermath of the tragedy we suffered last summer. Volunteers from various organization stood up, took action, and pivoted as necessary to lend help and support to the entire community. Our kids, our families and our neighbors needed support and the volunteers connected and continue to connect everyone with supportive resources, even for people like me who were not there. They gave and continue to give of themselves, helping our community toward healing.
We all can indeed serve, and we all benefit from service of others. Service makes a lasting impact, regardless of your socioeconomic status, career, religion or race you too are a beneficiary of the service of others, just like I was at 7 years old and just like I am today. We are fortunate that Highland Park is overflowing with organizations made up of amazing people dedicated to service, many of whom are present here in this room today. I know many of them personally, have served with them and they are who and what makes the difference in our community. They are from all walks of life, and they are all here giving of themselves. They have brought their families out, some of the littles among us and they are sowing the seeds of service into the next generation.
So how can we build upon this dynamic event and keep Dr. King’s legacy alive throughout the year? If you haven’t already, find the organization that is right for you and get involved beyond today. Whether you have 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 3 weeks give of yourself and encourage everyone you know to do the same. Don’t be afraid to sit in rooms and have the difficult conversations. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked on behalf of all of us and today we serve in honor of his legacy. I’ll leave you with Dr. King’s words, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”