‘Change agents’ teach big lessons

By Meredith Stoner

As a Jewish participant in the Cultural Leadership program, the April retreat about Civil Rights and Social Justice was such an educational experience, enlightening us to be cognizant of whose shoulders we are standing on in our missions to bring about social change in our communities. After a Friday evening of experiencing the intense struggles faced when trying to rise above classism, and feeling motivated by the young people of Birmingham’s perseverance in the Children’s March of 1963, we were ready to open our eyes and ears to hear first-hand accounts from change agents in St. Louis. They noticed a problem, grabbed an ally or two, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work (the mantra of Cultural Leadership).

Our panel of change agents included Father Marek Bozek of St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, Ms. Frankie Freeman, Mr. Percy Green, and Mr. Eric Vickers. We divided into groups diverse in gender, race, and religion, and interviewed them about their lives’ work towards social justice.

My group interviewed Father Bozek, and learned that he emigrated from Poland to become a priest in the United States. Although his church is currently involved in a struggle with the Archbishop for the title of the parish, the congregation continues to worship and in fact has more than tripled since his arrival. Father Bozek’s church is accepting of all people living all lifestyles who wish to find a connection to God. He reminded us to not focus so obstinately on the literal prose of the religious texts, and instead look for the true messages. He left us with an inspirational quote of his belief that “it’s not whom do you love, but do you love?”

Percy Green educated us about the profit to be made from racism in our society, and that if we truly wish to recognize and resolve the problems that stem from this -ism, we must eliminate the profit that is made economically, politically, and socially. Mr. Green peacefully protested racism in the workforce by climbing the St. Louis Arch in July 1960, which resulted in the addition of Title VII to the Civil Rights Act. This new law prohibits racial discrimination in employment. Mr. Green urged us to question authority in order to see what is being asked of us, and then to apply the information to our lives.

Ms. Frankie Freeman, a civil rights lawyer, described to us the barriers facing her as an African-American female change agent.

Along with many other notable achievements, Ms. Freeman was nominated by President John F. Kennedy as a Civil Rights Commissioner.

Ms. Freeman advised us that as change agents, it is important that we “do [our] homework, get [our] facts, check out [our] facts, and check out [our] traps.”

Next, Rabbi Susan Talve, my own rabbi at Central Reform Congregation, shared her story of hosting the ordination of two women priests. Although she received many letters from outraged people around the world about her decision to host the ceremony, many others thanked her for supporting women’s abilities to succeed at the same occupations as men. Rabbi Talve reminded us that “you can’t fix everything, but everyone can fix something.”

Finally, Mr. Eric Vickers spoke about being an activist for equality in St. Louis. He organized a non-violent group protest that successfully blockaded highway I-70 in 1999, due to alleged prejudice against hiring minorities in the construction industry. Also, after converting to Islam, he met with President George W. Bush about the treatment of Muslims in America after 9/11. He reminded us that as young change agents, we cannot always trust the government to see and solve the problems we experience in our communities.

Although only one of our change agents on the panel was Jewish, as am I, it was very valuable to see that any injustice we encounter in any situation can be confronted if we find allies to help us change what isn’t right.

I felt very inspired by the fervent determination these five change agents demonstrated, and became motivated to look critically at things to which I may have been apathetic before. I was reassured that with the encouraging words and actions of these past change agents to inspire and guide us us, that our generation has the knowledge and tools to challenge injustice in our communities and the world.

Meredith Stoner is a junior at John Burroughs High School.