In the past year, but particularly in the months since November 9, we have been forced to deal with the harsh reality that our nation is severely divided. Our generation, in partnership with our first Black president, has pushed society toward social justice and change, yet it is clear that racism is still very much a factor in our lives. Blatant acts of hate don’t surprise me – I’ve experienced enough of them. But I refuse to believe that our nation is forever doomed.
Back in 2009, as a freshman at the University of Mississippi, I ran for homecoming court. Despite being told that, as a Black girl, I should pursue the title bestowed by varsity athletes, not the entire student body, I pushed for the student-body-elected position. I won. I was filled with optimism until a few weeks later, when the KKK arrived on campus for a protest. They were wearing white robes and carrying Confederate flags. Racism was clearly alive and well.
During my sophomore year, a traditionally White sorority invited me to be the only Black member of its Ole Miss chapter. A few weeks later, a blog post appeared under the headline, “Phi Mu Accepts African American Girl – Laughing Stock On Campus.” I felt isolated, worthless, and powerless, with little ability to avoid judgement based solely on the color my skin. Racism was clearly alive and well.
Finally, during my junior year, inspired by President Obama’s campaign for a second term, I ran for and was elected to the position of student body president of Ole Miss. I was the first Black female in the university’s 164 year history to do so. I believed that if our President could be a voice for others – those who looked like him and those who didn’t – so could I. Shortly after my inauguration, a student denounced my election, addressing me with racial slurs. As you likely guessed, racism was clearly alive and well.
The reality – or at least my reality as a Black American in a predominantly White environment – is that there are always going to be people who are for you and people who are against you. Running for office helped me learn that lesson very quickly and sometimes very harshly. I learned that we have choices to make. We can react out of anger or we can react out of love. We can push the envelope and break down barriers, or we can stand on the sidelines furious and bitter.
We can all agree that there is a lot of work to be done in this country. But I know we can do that work, because I’ve started trying to do a small piece of it. When I attended a 2012 campaign event in Tennessee, First Lady Michelle Obama hugged me and told me, “You’re next.” She too sees hope in our generation. Her encouragement is a big reason why I chose to spend the spring of 2015 interning at the White House.
I went back to the White House the week after the election for an intern alumni event. Many of us were still in shock about the results. But I was inspired to hear what members of the Administration have planned. There are 4,000 people leaving the White House this month armed with the ingenuity that helped them get there in the first place. They will go back to their communities with the momentum the Administration has built and the ability to effect change and spread hope, light, and values that our generation can stand behind.
People give millennials a lot of flack, but we are the generation that will change the world for the better. We stand for optimism, hope, and strength for our future. Yes, President Obama’s eight years in office are ending, but his legacy will be felt throughout our country for a long time to come. His presidency marked a new beginning, and it proved that someone who looks like me could make it to the highest office in the United States. Knowing this, we must take the ultimate initiative to become more engaged and active than ever before.
If my time as president of Ole Miss taught me anything, it’s that we have the power to overcome hate with love. We have the power to energize, heal, and unite our nation. As President Obama steps out of the Oval Office for the last time, we still have the power to make a real difference.
This article appeared first on Jopwell, written by Butler Snow’s Kimbrely Danderidge.
Images courtesy of Kimbrely Dandridge
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This package was reported by Sarah J. Robbins