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Holding hands with strangers

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 took me to my first protest. At the time, I was one of few non-black participants, marching through downtown Atlanta, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Introverted at heart, I treasure quiet and restful weekends, but I knew that day that I had to march.

As a former 11th grade teacher, my students used to walk home in their hoodies, bought Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea at the corner store, and to this day remain some of the most inspiring people in my life. Back then, they taught me about resilience, about teamwork, and about compassion. These days, they still teach me — about everything from discipline to branding, from mindfulness to patent law.

You can probably tell without me even saying it that almost all of my students happen to be black. It’s not an accident, but it’s also not inevitable.

So it was clear to me that the protest was my only possible response. Standing side-by-side with strangers, holding hands in solidarity, I saw a woman walking through the crowd, waving a clipboard over her head. She was handing out voter registration forms, and I had recently moved states, so I took one and completed it. In the darkness of that moment, what I desperately needed was to know that there was something I could do about it — and that piece of paper helped me see a path to hope.

Today, on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I think about the hope that protest gave me. Today the context is completely different, and yet it is exactly the same. COVID’s disproportionate impact on America is a byproduct of our nation’s persistent inequality. Violence against unarmed black men remains frequent, heartbreaking, and intractable. And the need to march (virtually or physically) while also exercising our democratic voice as a crucial form of expression is clear as day.

I miss the days when we could hold hands with strangers. I’m proud of all the work that has gone into creating collective action and power in the isolation of a pandemic. And I am excited to see how it crescendos in the coming months and years as we combine the light from our protests with the accountability of our votes.