First-year student Elizabeth Schmidt is YES! Magazine’s online “Justice For All” University Winner for her essay about a mindful response to injustice.
illustration by Melissa Olson
Elizabeth Schmidt, a student of Professor Karen Cunningham at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article “I Can't Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe,” by Gerald Mitchell. In that story, author and entrepreneur Gerald Mitchell wrestles with the enormity of the situation in Ferguson and the unjust deaths of so many unarmed Black Americans by police. He takes an honest look at himself to see how he’s part of the problem, and commits to joining others in building a better world of justice for all.
Where Mindfulness Starts, Injustice Ends
After I read “I Can’t Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe,” I heard on NPR that there was a mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, killing or injuring 16 students and a teacher. I stopped for a second, took a breath, and started my homework.
The disregard for others that Mitchell identifies as the source of prejudice and exploitation in “I Can’t Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe” rears its head with enmity in cases like the Oregon shooting, but more often it’s a beast that kills with a casual eye towards injustice and a shrug of dismissal. Although it is not always clear how, we all contribute to that dismissal.
I gave the beast the opportunity to strike when I turned the radio off and continued my daily business like nothing had happened. My insecurities encouraged this brush-off when I heard a friend say that lax gun control isn’t a significant factor in shootings. I held my tongue in disagreement because I was afraid to offend him, plus I didn’t have any concrete evidence to destroy his argument. The end of injustice starts with ending our tolerance to it, by caring more about what happens to other people than our personal fears.
“Realizing that there is always an actual human being on the other side of our actions,” as Mitchell advocates for, is easier said than done, but if we are the perpetrators of injustice, then we are the ones with the power to stop it.
In the case of violent shootings, our first step should be to grieve. J.I. Cruz, a Frederick Douglas Scholar at American University and 2015 Global Citizen Year Fellow, encourages us to take a moment of silence. He writes in “On Oregon and On Feeling,” “Maybe, in those small moments of silence [that] allow us to feel, we will understand…To feel, if only for one second, may help us [be] more connected, and maybe that will make all the difference.”
If we are going to treat each other justly, we must regain the depth in our feelings. That means embracing loss and using our anger to speak out against injustice. It also means being present to the richness we have available to us: the smell after rain, the sound of children’s chatter at the park, the warm relief of coming home to the embrace of a loved one. We can’t preserve others’ humanity when we’re losing our own by living on autopilot.
If we recognize the beauty around us, we will also recognize the sting when that beauty is threatened. If we get our eyes out of our devices and into the eyes of our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, teachers, even strangers… If we come out of autopilot for just a moment to be a little more alive, we can’t help but connect to others; when we feel connected to the rest of the world, we take responsibility for it.
"When we feel connected to the rest of the world, we take responsibility for it."
For me, taking responsibility means confronting situations that feel unjust. It means paying a couple extra dollars for locally grown organic products at Kent Natural Foods Co-op and the Countryside Conservancy Farmers’ Market, or from farmers with fair labor practices, rather than the supermarket. Taking responsibility means stopping when I’ve wronged someone and making amends. It means putting aside stereotypes that I unconsciously impose on others; it means recognizing individuality. It means listening to others with respect and attention and responding with kindness and sensitivity.
None of this will happen simply because it's the right thing to do. Compassionate acts will happen when we’re invested in the world we’re creating and recognize that they’re necessary for building communities where people can support themselves and each other, where healthy food and fresh air are available for everyone. They must be done so that people aren’t harmed by systems our money supports or by messages we propagate; everyone has the chance to thrive. Everyone has something to contribute if he or she is given a chance. Speaking up against injustice must be done to hold everyone accountable for spreading kind, or at least truthful, ideas. I want to be a part of these actions because they’re the building materials for the type of world that I want to live in.
Perhaps I overestimate the impacts of my individual actions, but, at the very least, living connectedly may allow people around me to live with more vitality or may help them see their own power and value. Maybe those actions can entice others to act similarly—even change the mind of whoever might be the next shooter. If we all live with awareness of our impacts and drive our actions with feeling, maybe we can stop trying to right injustice with justice and start preventing it with compassion.
Elizabeth Schmidt is a first-year student at Kent State University, where she intends to major in conflict management. Schmidt grew up on an organic farm in Ohio with her mother. Currently, she interns at the International Institute of Akron in the Refugee Resettlement Program. She loves hiking, learning about culture and language, and singing in epic places.