[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]
On a cloudy Fall day, I walked out my classroom door and onto the blacktop with several of my classmates demanding equality. Organized only the previous day over the weekly famous chicken nugget Tuesday around a lunch room table with crayola markers in hand, I had held my first activist meeting unknowingly in 5th grade. Our local elementary school custodian who was near retirement age lost his small office space inside the boiler room—also known as the “Toy Hospital”—and was being forced to work longer hours that would prevent him from caring for his ill wife.
I was disgusted by the lack of compassion for such a committed professional who took extra care to find lost items, shovel mazes in the playground in the snow, fix broken toys, and always offer a smile with a helping hand. He was the grandfather of the school and was loved by many. The new school administration decided to take an approach that custodians were not in fact “real” school employees and cut office space use and 9-5 schedules.
On the hard blacktop of the playground that crisp Fall morning, we sat without jackets as my teacher came outside with others to speak to the small group of us on the blacktop. Our demands were simple: give our beloved custodian his office back and let him take care of his family, treating everyone equal. Soon the school principal came outside and told us that we needed to go back to class. Some did while others refused, I asked for a meeting with my school principal and she agreed. Sitting in my prinipcal’s office with all of the large pictures of graduating classes on the walls, I repeated my demands for our beloved custodian.
My principal and I spoke for over an hour and at the end of the conversation she agreed to let the custodian use the bolier room once again as an office space. I did however get comunity service hours for my protest on school grounds and for leaving class, but my prinipcal and I agreed that I may do my community service hours with the custodian helping him around the school. My principal and I also decided to meet weekly on Fridays to discuss the needs of my elementary school. Fridays at 2:00 became one of my most favorite things about Elementary School and many of our talks led to school improvements, committees, and applications that lasted for years after I had moved on to Jr. High and High School.
Today, many years later, I look back at that moment and think of the power that each of us had using our voice to fight intolerance and stand up for equality. No matter how big or how small you are or where you come from, your voice is the most powerful tool to create change.
There is no perfect time or perfect place to stand up for what is right. I think of Marco Melgoza, Will Phillips, Nkosi Johnson, David Ashby, Derrick Martin, Ceara Sturgis, Oakleigh Reed and the countless others I wish I had room to write about. All different ages, backgrounds and abilities using their voice to create change each and every day.
All of us can do it.
Take a stand, use your voice and be a fierce advocate for change at any age.