The Personal is the Political: Reflections on an Advocacy Journey

The Personal is the Political: Reflections on an Advocacy Journey
Leah Harris
NYAPRS Conference, September 17, 2014

One of the places I most like to go to relax and reflect is the MLK Memorial where I live in Washington, DC. The granite walls are inscribed with Dr. King’s powerful quotes, which remind me to do my best to live by and promote the social justice values that he stood for. Equality, dignity, opportunity, and freedom from discrimination and violence.

Our movement has made great progress over the last four decades, and we can and should celebrate that recovery has “gone mainstream,” as per the theme of this year’s conference. Yet we also must remember that the oppressions we face today, as people with psychiatric disabilities, are still many and they are grave. For so many of us, the American Dream is out of reach. We die 25 years younger than the general population. We have the highest unemployment rates of any group. We die by suicide by the thousands each year. Many of our people are trapped in cycles of poverty, incarceration, and disability. These realities demand that we act for change.

I want to share with you today a little bit of my story of oppression and liberation, my journey from victim to advocate. It’s a journey that I know many of you in this room have traveled with me. Our stories are interconnected.

Self-determination is a basic human need, from the cradle to the grave. I remember so well what it was like to be totally powerless over my life and destiny. To be young, terrified, traumatized, and utterly dependent on a system that was slowly crushing my spirit. I will never forget.

When I turned 18 years old and became an adult, I was a high school dropout. I was living in a decrepit group home, where my treatment team said I belonged. The group home owner took our entire disability checks to pay for the squalid conditions we lived in. I was intensely suicidal in that awful place and utterly without hope. Was this how I would spend my adult life, rotting in a group home? This question haunted me.

After my last suicide attempt in 1992, the hospital sent me back to the group home with nothing but a prescription for a new drug in my hand. My stomach growled, but I had just a few dollars to my name, and I tried to decide if my remaining money should go to cigarettes or food, since the food they served at the group home was not fit for dogs.  I sat down on the ratty old couch in the darkened, sour-smelling living room, drew my knees up to my chest, and sobbed.

This time, something, the dawning of a new realization, clicked inside my head.  I finally understood.  The people who were supposed to be helping me truly had no idea whatsoever what they were doing.  They were just going to switch me around from drug to drug, hospital to hospital, placement to placement, forever.  For the longest time, I had believed them -- that I was too broken to be fixed.  Now I was slowly beginning to understand that the system was probably more broken than I was.  But I had no idea what to do about it. I just knew I had to escape this awful future that yawned in front of me.

It occurred to me in what I can only call a “moment of grace” that I would have to drastically alter the way I viewed myself and the world.  I would no longer define myself as a mental patient.  From here on in, I would reject the diagnoses and prognoses of the mental health system and view myself as just a plain old person again.  A person with dreams and abilities-- not merely disability. Not just a cluster of symptoms and diagnoses.  I would officially put the past behind me, and concentrate on a new future, which would not include a revolving-door flurry of hospitalizations and placements in systems. I would take control of my destiny. That was the beginning of self-determination in my life.

I called my family and begged them to let me come home, and to my surprise, they agreed. They took a risk and went against doctors’ orders. Their only condition was that I finish high school and go to college. That was the beginning of hope returning to my life.

My family’s American story was borne of trauma. I come from a Jewish immigrant family that escaped oppression in Poland and Russia to come to America in the early 20th century, miraculously avoiding the Holocaust. Our family patriarch on my mother’s side, my great grandfather Max, was nearly killed by the pogroms in Bialystok, Poland. Max was an artist and an activist - a Bonus Marcher demanding jobs for disabled vets after World War I, a brilliant actor and singer in Yiddish theater. He was also prone to alcoholic rages, and suffered from the effects of post traumatic stress and mental health issues. We now know that the effects of trauma can leave an epigenetic imprint on our genes, and can cause future generations to be more vulnerable and less resilient.

My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was eighteen, after she ran away from our hometown of Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1968 to join the hippie movement. Somewhere in California she had her first psychotic break, and she was never the same. Police picked her up sleeping on a park bench in Arizona, and she then experienced the first of dozens of forced institutionalizations that would shatter her soul. This trauma, she passed on to me.

I have started to say that “stigma is in my blood.” When my mother became pregnant with me, several family members tried to convince her to abort me. But she refused. If she was a more “compliant” sort of person, I might not be here today. I am grateful for her fighting spirit.

When I was a baby, my mother, a single woman living in poverty with a psychiatric diagnosis and no support, cycled in and out of the hospital. She hated the way that Haldol and Thorazine made her feel - they took away the voices, but they made her sleep all the time, an impossible situation in which to raise a child. She would go off them cold turkey, as no one had educated her as to how to safely reduce or withdraw from meds, and she would develop experiences of psychosis that were frightening for us both.

When she was in these states, she used to have “delusions” that her psychiatrists were Nazis, that they were out to get her. My family told me that she was paranoid and crazy. Now I know that my mother knew a truth that I would not find out until I began researching the history of psychiatry years later: that her “delusions” were actually based on historical fact, given that people with mental disabilities were the first to lose their lives in the Final Solution. My mother drew symbolic parallels with her own experiences of seclusion, restraint, and sexual violence that she experienced while in the psych ward at Milwaukee county hospital. I understand her delusions now.

When she was lost in a land dominated by Nazi oppressors, she cut off all contact with the outside world. And so I have many traumatic memories of police breaking down the door and dragging her away to the hospital while I cowered, terrified, under the bed. At those times, I would bounce around between various family members’ houses and short term foster-care placements.

And in a further rupture, I was permanently removed from her custody when I was five years old and sent to live with my maternal grandmother and her husband in another state. I rarely saw my mother again after that. These adverse childhood experiences would have a long-term effect on my mental and physical health going forward. But the effects of childhood trauma were just only beginning to be understood back then.

My father was battling his own mental health challenges, and wasn’t around for my early childhood. He had also been in the mental health system since he was eighteen, when he had his own psychotic break. At the Menninger Clinic, he was told that he would never lead a normal life, and he believed them.  He was a brilliant man with an encyclopedic memory and was fascinated with various forms of information technology before the rest of the world had even heard of that term. He wanted desperately to have a real job. He sent out his resumes, with years blotted out by disability, and never heard back.

Later in his life, we discovered this movement together.  My father used to send me links to articles about human rights in mental health. He used to call me his “darling left-wing daughter.”  He had a dream to start a local support group for people with mental health issues, in Florida where he lived. He was so overmedicated that he slept for 18 hours a day, a reality that evaporated any dreams he wanted to achieve.

My parents’ lives were cut short by the common practice of polypharmacy that damages the internal organs, the brain, and the heart. Their lives were also cut short by a lack of hope and human compassion that damages the spirit.  My mother died at the age of forty-six, from complications of the diabetes and weight gain brought on by heavy doses of Zyprexa and other antipsychotics. My dad had been on at least six different psychiatric medications simultaneously since his youth. We were actively working on a plan to try to get his meds pared down, but it was too late. He died, suddenly, shockingly, at age 63.

The 25 year disparity in life expectancy for people diagnosed with serious mental health conditions is not an abstract statistic for me. It is my legacy.

What can I do with the overwhelming grief that surrounds the senseless loss of my parents, except to do the work that I do every day?  It is my way of mourning them, of remembering them, of celebrating their lives and trying every day hopefully to create something meaningful out of their tragic deaths.

I too, would have my share of mental health struggles. When I was seven years old I expressed my first thoughts of suicide. My family sent me to a psychiatrist for the first time, a chain-smoking woman in her late sixties who peered at me from across a desk and showed me ink blots. Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by her. She prescribed an antidepressant and warned my family to keep an eye on me, because with two parents diagnosed with mental illness I was supposed to be particularly vulnerable. The prospect of becoming a mental patient like my parents terrified me, and shaped the way I thought about and viewed myself.

In 1989, at age fourteen, I would become one of the first youth to be prescribed Prozac -- on an off-label basis, of course, since it had not been approved for use in children.  I had certainly been wrestling with difficult emotional states that often get labeled as depression, but Prozac propelled me into a full blown manic state.  I stopped sleeping, and became suddenly and completely obsessed with the idea of hurting myself.  At the time, although the suicidal side effects of Prozac were known by Eli Lilly, they were not known to the general public, including most psychiatrists.  So my experiences were just dismissed as symptoms of my “worsening illness,” for which I should receive greater doses of – you guessed it – Prozac!  Thus began adolescence.

What I needed most was validation, reassurance that I was OK just as I was, a kid thrust into extraordinary circumstances with absolutely no coping skills or tools with which to handle them.  I needed to hear that my turbulent emotions were a normal reaction to the abnormal circumstances that I had been through in my most vulnerable 0-5 years.  What I heard instead was that it was all my fault; or my faulty brain chemistry.  Something Was Wrong With Me. I deeply internalized this assessment, and so did my family.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I was hospitalized five times – one of them a long-term placement in a residential treatment center.  Before getting into the mental health system, I had had my problems to be sure, but I was a young girl full of dreams for myself. I dreamed of being editor of my high school paper. I dreamed of being a journalist or a writer. But as I went through the system, those dreams slowly died in me, and I came to believe, through a series of subtle and not-so-subtle encounters with mental health professionals, that I would end up like my parents, with no hope and no real future.

It was drummed into me that I could not trust myself to take risks or to accept challenges, because that would most likely trigger the return of my “illness.”  I loved academics. Learning was the only thing that brought me any satisfaction. But I was systematically denied education during my year in residential treatment at age 15-16. Because I was deemed a “flight risk,” they would not send me to the local high school where many of the other kids went during the day. My “education” consisted of watching movies all day. My abilities and talents wasted away while I was in treatment.

In retrospect, the people who helped me most were my family, who let me return from the group home, and pressed me to get an education. And the educators who refused to give up on me. Mr. Harris, my honors comp teacher, visited me in the hospital and told me that I would get through this and go on to be a writer like I dreamed. We are still in touch to this day.

In the continuation high school for the “bad kids” that I attended after I came home, Mr. O’Leno insisted that I would graduate, and encouraged me to go to college. If not for him, perhaps I would never have had the courage to take baby steps back towards re-integration into society. When I made it to community college, I had a guidance counselor who knew all about my mental health history, and still insisted that I would transfer to a UC school. And with his encouragement, and that of my family, I did. At college, I was able to shed the patient identity and become a student among students. Education saved me.

But my rise from the group home couch was not dramatic and clear-cut.  My ascent was slow and uneven and painful and confusing, fraught with dips and doubt.  Yes, I tried to put the past behind me, but there was still an unshakeable discomfort, a lingering unease, a desperate shame. The childhood trauma I had experienced continued to affect me in subtle and glaring ways.  I hid my past from all my friends. I often felt like a fraud, a crazy person trying to pass for “normal.” I struggled with addictions to various substances, in a misguided attempt to manage my dark moods.

It was through an astounding act of synchronicity that I discovered our movement, and my whole life changed.  In graduate school, I was increasingly depressed and overwhelmed.  Despite the good face I was able to show the world, all my coping mechanisms were failing.  I hated myself.  After an 7 year-long hiatus from the mental health system, at the age of 25 I entered back into therapy.

The university therapist, upon hearing my family history, insisted that I needed to go back on meds, and suggested that I read Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac.  Doubtful but willing to listen, I went looking for the book at the university bookstore, and Listening to Prozac wasn’t there. What I found on the shelf instead was Dr. Peter Breggin’s Talking Back to Prozac. “This can’t be a coincidence,” I remember thinking. I bought it and read it in one sitting, where for the first time I read an explanation of the adverse effects I had experienced, where for the first time I heard someone else critique the systems that had caused myself and my family so much pain.

I wrote to Peter Breggin and told him my story. It was the first time I had told anybody since I had been in the group home. Unbelievably, he actually wrote me back, and encouraged me to get in touch with this movement.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing--I hadn’t even imagined it.  He referred me to Mindfreedom International, and I emailed David Oaks, explaining that I wanted to tell my story, and he suggested that I contribute to their oral history project, a campaign to systematically gather the stories of survivors.

I was eager to participate--until I found out that they would not accept stories posted under a pseudonym.  As I contemplated the idea of using my real name, I felt slightly sick.  My story would be posted on the internet.  Anyone would be able to read about the self-injury, the suicide attempts, the pills, and the psych wards.  All of it. Would it be worth it to go public?

That got me thinking about the LGBT movement and how far it had come since the days of Stonewall--in no small part because people had the courage to come out of the closet and fight for their dignity and equality. I thought about the HIV/AIDS activists in the Act Up movement who put their bodies on the line to demand a cure. The moral imperative to fight for justice won over my fear.

Breaking the silence and putting my story on the Mindfreedom website was the first significant step in my journey to advocacy.  In an internal paradigm shift, I had officially reframed how I viewed my entire life.  I was no longer a victim – I was a survivor.  But I wasn’t content to just survive. I realized I had to help change things. I started with my own personal experience - around SSRIs and suicide.

In 2004, I joined forces with over 50 families who had lost their children due to SSRI-induced suicidality, as well as psychiatrists like Dr. David Healy, who had risked job security and reputation to educate the public about these adverse effects. I was one of the few among that group who had lived to tell the tale of what those feelings are like. We went to the FDA and for hours, we testified, telling stories of unfathomable loss to the members of the FDA Pharmacology Advisory Committee. Together we demanded that a black box warning be put on these medications, so that other families might be spared similar tragedies.

I wept with joy when I learned that we had won! It was one of the proudest days of my life. The Pharmacology Advisory Committee sided with us, and a black box warning, the strongest warning any medication can carry, was placed on all SSRIs prescribed to children and adults to age 24! To this day, it remains one of the proudest days of my life. None of us could have done it alone - but together we were able to achieve something significant. I think this speaks to the power of people with lived experience working in collaboration with families, providers, and other allies who share common values and goals.

More healing than any therapeutic intervention has been the sense of belonging to a social movement - something larger than myself. My life changed when I finally found my “tribe:” a group of people who had experienced the same forms of oppression and understood me on a level that few others could. A tribe of people who were also committed to changing the way we understand and respond to the experiences that are called “mental illness.” As Angela Davis said: “I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever, but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement.”

What I have been able to accomplish in my advocacy journey thus far, I owe it to the people who saw the potential in me and encouraged me to follow that path. People like Oryx Cohen, who encouraged me to “come out of the closet” with my story as part of the Mindfreedom Oral History project in 2001. Darby Penney, who encouraged me to tell my story at a NARPA conference oral history session that same year. Dr. Dan Fisher, who encouraged me in 2002 to testify before the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. People like the late Dr. Loren Mosher, dissident psychiatrist who gave to me freely of his time and knowledge in the fight to end the silence on SSRIs and suicidality. Eduardo Vega, who in 2007 encouraged me to get involved in bringing the lived experience voice to suicide prevention. I owe a debt of gratitude to these and so many more people who paved the way for me to speak out, who have given me love and encouragement and support along the path.

The experiences and relationships I found in this movement helped to heal me and gave me permission to rebuild my shattered sense of self. I no longer felt like a fraud. I felt like a person, whose life experiences were of value, a person with something to contribute to the world. And I consider it my duty to pay it forward however I can.

Yet becoming an advocate would not signal an end to my struggles. There were more layers to peel off the onion. A difficult life experience led to another breakdown in my late 20s. I experienced constant thoughts of suicide, and once again found myself unable to get out of bed. I had also developed debilitating chronic back pain, which I now know is extremely common among trauma survivors. Immobilized by physical and emotional pain, I knew that I was in trouble. Out of desperation, I began to study the mind-body connection and learn about alternative medicine. I took up the practice of mindfulness in earnest. I knew I had to find a way to begin to face and heal the traumas of my childhood--and the traumas I experienced in treatment--or I would be of no use to any social movement.

During an intensive meditation retreat early on in my practice, there was a moment when my suicidal past hit me with full force. All the ways in which I had tried to kill myself. And the cold, dehumanizing reactions of the systems that were supposed to help me. The grief and sense of betrayal hit me like a tsunami.

I left the meditation hall, sat on a hill overlooking a grassy valley, and I howled with sadness and rage for my lost girlhood. Instead of shame, which had been my default reaction to the past, this time I felt compassion for the girl who hurt herself in so many ways. For the first time in my life, I felt a basic sense of worthiness and yes, love for myself. Even in my most difficult hours since, that feeling has stayed with me and gotten me through many challenges. Today, more and more studies are accumulating, showing that mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help trauma survivors heal and develop resiliency.

It’s not that I walk around in a pink cloud of bliss: I don’t. I still suffer and struggle enormously in my life at times. The work of healing, the work of recovery, is never done. But today I can recognize that I don’t need to heap suffering upon pain by judging and blaming myself for how I feel. When I just give a little bit of mindfulness and attention to what I am feeling in any given moment, I find that even the most extreme internal states often tend to shift in an amazingly short time. The ability to help myself has allowed me to be more present for others. Self care and caring for one another are essential to our cause as peers and advocates.

My activism today extends from what Pat Deegan calls “the intersection of love and outrage.” Eight years ago, I became a mother, and soon after, a single mother, which marked an extremely significant transition in my life. I never imagined becoming a parent. I never dared it was possible for me. There was a part of me that still held on to the stigma in my blood, the message my mother received, that people with mental health conditions shouldn’t procreate. There was a part of me that feared the past would repeat itself, and that my son would be taken away from me like I was taken away from my mother. But thankfully, my son is 8 years old now, years past the age I was taken away, and though being a single mother with a psychiatric disability is certainly challenging at times, I am now confident that I do not need to share my mother’s horrible fate. Together, my son and I are healing the wounds of intergenerational trauma that have plagued my family. The cycle of trauma stops with us. Today, I fight alongside my peers and our allies to change things so that our children need not suffer what we did.

Today - we as a social change movement face perhaps the most significant national challenge to everything we have worked for over the last decades: choice, voice, dignity, civil rights, and hope. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013, introduced by Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, was created as a response to the devastating events at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. This dangerous bill would roll back the clock to the authoritarian days of “doctor knows best,” the days when we were seen as having no expertise of our own, the days when no one used the word “recovery” when it came to our lives and our futures. It would end federal funding for innovative peer-run recovery programs. The bill would loosen involuntary outpatient commitment standards, erode our privacy rights, and reward the states who favor institutional-based care with mental health block grant money. At the same time, it would eviscerate the Protection and Advocacy system that was created in the 1980s to protect us from abuses in inpatient and other mental health settings.

The bill, and the public rhetoric around it, greatly increase fear and stigma in our nation. Proponents of the bill, who have all the access to the major media, pay lip service to the fact that we are no more violent than the general population, and more likely to ourselves be the victims of violence. But in the same breath, the litany of horrible crimes committed by the tiniest proportion of us is repeated over and over and over until it is drummed into the public’s consciousness.

We find ourselves in a climate today that is quite Orwellian. A climate where coercion is referred to as “love,” and and “assistance” is a euphemism for forcing people into unwanted services. When we ask for the right to choose and direct our mental health care, when we dare to demand housing and education and meaningful work, we are accused of lacking the insight necessary to achieve these things. It’s a climate where we are demonized and scapegoated in all the major media as part of the problem, instead of what we know we are: perhaps the best hope for a solution to help fix these broken systems.

It is truly a David vs. Goliath situation if there ever was one.

Despite having lived in the Washington, DC area since 1998, until last year I stayed away completely from Capitol Hill. It was a combination of fear and yes, not a small measure of cynicism about politics and government that kept me away. But in 2013, I could no longer ignore my duty to speak out. I remembered the words of Eli Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And I remembered the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” And I remembered what Judi Chamberlin said, “we have a moral imperative to fight for justice. I believe we have no choice.”

So I dusted off my power suits and headed for the Hill. The first time I climbed the steps to the Rayburn House Office Building to attend a hearing on Murphy’s Bill this past spring, I remembered that I wasn’t truly alone. In spirit with me were all the people who had experienced coercive, traumatic and dehumanizing interventions in the name of help, and who were denied access to housing, education, and employment. In spirit with me were all the well-intentioned family members who didn’t want to force treatment on their loved ones, but didn’t have access to or know about alternative voluntary, recovery-oriented community resources. In spirit with me was every mental health provider who went into the field hoping to really make a difference in their communities, but became cynical and discouraged in the face of so many broken systems and broken spirits. In spirit with me were my mother and father, whose lives were destroyed by these very systems.

Again, I am reminded of the power of collaboration and partnership for social change. As Dr. King said, “We cannot walk alone.” The national partners in this work are a cross section of disability and civil rights organizations: the Bazelon Center, Mental Health America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the National Disability Rights Network, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Disability Leadership Alliance, the National Council on Independent Living, and my group, the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery -- with much support from NYAPRS.

We visited office after legislative office this past spring. With each visit, I felt a little less disempowered, a little more hopeful that perhaps, David could defeat Goliath. (And now I *almost* know my way around the Rayburn House Office Building, a maze of a place if there ever was one.)

The great news came later in the spring, when Representative Ron Barber and colleagues introduced a new mental health bill: the Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act, which does not include the controversial and extreme provisions in the Murphy Bill. The Barber bill serves an important symbolic function - namely, that our voices of dissent had an impact. And practically, it slowed down the momentum of the Murphy Bill considerably. If not for the rapid mobilization of this cross-disability alliance in DC, and all the numerous, calls, visits, and letters by grassroots advocates across the country, I believe the Murphy Bill would have already become law.

At this time, no one knows what the fate of these dueling mental health bills will be. There has been talk on the Hill of a compromise among the Murphy and Barber bills, but there are no signs of that happening. The philosophical clash between those who support an authoritarian, top down model of mental health care and those who support a more collaborative, person-centered approach is still ongoing. But what I know is that we will not stop.

We must hold fast to our values and our vision. They will never steer us wrong. We might not see the fruits of our work in this lifetime, though I certainly hope we will. I believe that we will one see a day in America when:

  • Having a psychiatric disability will no longer result in a lifespan 25 years shorter than the rest of the population.

  • Parents with disabilities will be empowered and supported to keep their families together.

  • No one will be traumatized or re-traumatized by their health care; “do no harm” will be a true reality.

  • Law enforcement officers and other first responders will know how to respond when they encounter a person in crisis, avoiding tragic outcomes.

  • There will be the social and political will to adequately fund the kinds of supports and services people and families want and need.

  • All people with mental health conditions will have access to the same opportunities as others to pursue education and meaningful work, to be valued members of society.

  • Students will no longer be expelled for disclosing mental health conditions, and will have access to ongoing emotional and peer-to-peer support at their schools and universities.

  • People experiencing homelessness will have access to safe and affordable, supportive housing, integrated with the rest of the community.

  • Returning veterans experiencing mental health challenges and traumatic stress will have access to the supports they need to heal and resume their lives.

  • People who have been incarcerated will be given a shot at real rehabilitation -- the chance to establish a life in their communities again; and opportunities to access work, education, and relationships that will help them stay there.

  • Everyone experiencing mental health challenges, trauma, and addictions will enjoy their full human and civil rights, and equal access to limitless opportunities for personal growth, healing, and recovery.

Our movement goes so far beyond mental health: it is a social justice movement, a multi-issue struggle. It’s radical in the sense that it seeks to address the root causes of the conditions that cause people to go into crisis in the first place - overwhelming traumatic stress, exposure to violence and abuse, isolation, lack of access to timely support, coupled with social ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination.

We recognize what Dr. King said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As we know, the old ways of doing things in this country are failing. We need a paradigm shift. We need creative ideas to counter the old dinosaur mentality. Many of those creative ideas are already in this room, and across the country, around the world, among people with lived experience and our allies who believe in our vision.

I will be forever grateful that I was able to escape from that group home 20 years ago, that I experienced the magical synchronicity that led me to this movement, to the people who encouraged me to break my silence and speak out. I will never stop telling the truth as I see it, wherever and whenever I can, until justice is done for our people. Because the personal is the political.

And I am forever grateful to all of you here who share your own stories of struggle and survival every day, who give hope to people who have lost it or never had it to begin with, and who fight for what is right.

If you want to be an advocate, find the places where your personal intersects the political and take action with others. If the magnitude of the struggle we face feels overwhelming -- as it often does for me -- focus on what you can do for justice.

I will close with the words of Dr. King: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”


Leah Harris