I (Veronica) have been feeling kind of somber on this MLK Day. Despite the beautiful Atlanta sunshine and crisp weather, despite the flood of volunteerism pouring out across the city… there is something in the sharing of MLK’s dreams and writings today that is calling back memories from my time in southwest Atlanta. I’m remembering the kids who lived across the street and their hopes and dreams- specifically Caleb (one of the young men featured a lot in How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick).
Caleb was one of the kids we spent the most time with. He had a big heart and a contagious, fun personality. He struggled in school but with mentoring and tutoring was making small improvements. In an effort to give him a vision for what could be, we toured colleges and made vision boards and talked about the importance of good grades. In a season when Caleb was doing really well in school, we took him to the Commerce Club in downtown Atlanta for a celebratory breakfast.
Caleb was awestruck by the Club. It sits at the top of an Atlanta office building and the tall glass windows overlook stretches of the city in every direction. You can’t help but feel small as you watch the people and cars below. The tables are fancy and the breakfast is quite a spread- Caleb’s plate piled high with sausage, bacon, and waffles. He couldn’t believe that he was allowed to go up for as many trips as he could eat. Our server brought Caleb orange juice in something like a wine glass and he drank it like a King with his goblet. “This is the life!” he said with a grin.
About halfway through breakfast Eric suggested we talk about dreams. He handed Caleb a pad and pencil and invited him to write down three goals for his life. They came fast and deliberate:
1. Graduate from high school
2. Go to college
3. Support my family
Caleb had dreams. He had a vision of a world where he could do these three things, where he could succeed. He had proven to be a hard worker and was willing to go the extra mile (quite literally, for a while Eric and Caleb went running at 6:30 am together to help Caleb wake up and get to school on time). We were happy and proud to see him dreaming about his future, and as we toasted our orange juice I think we all believed his dreams would come true.
But what we didn’t realize yet is that Caleb’s dreams would take more than personal responsibility and determination on his part to achieve them. So often in our society when someone has a dream we praise them and say, “Yes! That’s a great dream! You go do that. Don’t let anything stop you.” But big dreams, especially Caleb’s, take everyone dreaming in unison to accomplish. It takes middle school black boys dreaming about their future, but it also takes school administrators and police and neighbors and churches and clinics and social services and college deans dreaming the same dream.
I think this is what King meant in his famous I Have a Dream speech. He wasn’t just talking about his own individual dream for his family… he was calling for collective dreaming and societal change to make it possible. He was addressing social determinants of health – calling for the conditions in which whites AND blacks work, live, play, grow, and age to be equal. From MLK’s speech, “one hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” That was 1963. While some strides have been made, there are still many islands of poverty in our country and huge life expectancy and quality of life gaps. These are the conditions which must be changed to turn King’s dream into reality.
So while I am glad for all the generous volunteering in honor of MLK today, I wonder if we could keep this spirit alive tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after. I wonder if we could align our dreams with Caleb’s, and commit to asking questions like, “What would allow kids in poor neighborhoods on the southwest side to go to college?” Or better, “What would make their neighborhoods healthier from the start so that going to college is a more natural step after high school?”
I think the best thing we can do to honor MLK and Caleb is to forge a new response to dreamers. A response that includes our long-term commitment:
“Wow. That’s a big dream. It’s going to take a lot, and it won’t be easy or comfortable. It could take years, even decades…Are you sure this is what you want?
Ok then, let’s get to work.”