What was the moment, day or circumstance in your life when you were called to social justice? I was asked this question while attending a student conference for the organization Peace Action as an undergraduate of Manhattan College. The group of undergraduates I attended the conference with, all members of activism clubs from different universities in New York, were tasked with writing a memory on a Post-it and sticking it on a timeline on the wall. When we had all added to the timeline, we stepped back and saw a beautiful representation of many distinct journeys with social justice.
For me, the moment I was called to be an activist for social justice was in December 2014. I was 18 years old, a senior in high school, and my younger sister had just come out as transgender. I knew then and there that I was being called to use my privilege in order to make the world a better place for her. My journey started that day, and led me on a path to becoming a Lasallian Volunteer when I graduated from college.
As a Lasallian Volunteer, I serve as a retreat facilitator at the Brother David Darst Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Darst Center offers urban immersion retreats to high school and college students in order to explore the issues of the world we live in, challenge preconceived notions of underprivileged populations, and foster a passion for activism. The students who enter the Darst Center come from around the country and are all in different places in their journeys with social justice. The importance of meeting people where they are at—something we talk about often as Lasallian Volunteers—is quintessential in my job as a retreat facilitator. Some of the retreatants I work with have been personally dealing with marginalized identities since they were born, while others have never thought about what it means to be privileged in this world before. Some walk in eager to interact with and learn from people who have very different identities from their own, while others have put up a wall made of deeply ingrained fears of people they consider “other.” It is my job to begin to break down those walls and bridge the gap to understanding and appreciating each person’s human dignity.
As each retreatant walks through the door of the Darst Center, I remind myself of that question I was asked at that student conference during college. “What was the moment when you were called to social justice?” I imagine that for some of my retreatants, their moment may not have occurred until they arrived for their retreat. This responsibility is not lost on me in my position. Young people today, myself included, live in a world where social activism is not just an effort to create safety, opportunity and equity among all people, but is essential to the survival of the world as we know it. With climate change looming, the global refugee crisis threatening erasure of entire populations, clean water becoming more of a luxury than a right, and challenges around immigration and deportation, now is the time for action.
It is easy to get caught up in the horrors of the world and think that you are powerless in the face of injustice. But that is simply not the truth. I was asked by one of my retreatants, who was concerned about her friends not understanding why the social justice issues we discussed were important, how to respond to people who think they should not take action because nothing they do will make a change. My response to her question was that if everyone thought that way, nothing would change. When it comes to activism, the power we hold is in our numbers. The more people who feel the call to social justice, the more of a chance we have to make a meaningful difference in the world.
As we enter a new decade, I feel the increasing importance of my role as a Lasallian Volunteer at the Darst Center. One of the things we encourage our retreatants to do when we begin our time together is to lean into discomfort. No matter where you are on your journey, challenging both societal norms and our own biases in order to take action is uncomfortable, but we believe that it is in this discomfort that true change occurs. Now more than ever, we need to foster that discomfort and turn it into action. It is my hope that through my year of service I am able to reach as many young people as possible who have not yet felt the call to social justice and give them the tools to lean in, learn their role, and make a difference.
Sam Wilson is a first-year volunteer serving at the Brother David Darst Center in Chicago, Illinois, where she serves as a retreat facilitator and program associate. She is a 2019 graduate of Manhattan College with a degree in psychology.