BY LARYN RIDGEWAY | July 27, 2020
[Editor’s note: LaRyn Ridgeway, a student at the University of Detroit-Mercy, participated in an immersion trip to Selma, Alabama in March 2020.]
Ever since the eleventh grade, I’ve been passionate about racial justice, especially with regards to Black people. It first began when my class was assigned The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. (If you haven’t read this book, you must. No matter what occupation or race you identify with, you have to be educated on racial injustice.) Alexander breaks down the origins of mass incarceration and explains just how much racism is alive and well today. It presented two truths to me: (1) everything I thought was okay was not; (2) there are pillars lodged in the system that is our country that play smaller yet more monumental roles in my life than I could have ever imagined. It felt as if I was stripped from my identity when in reality, I was shown it.
My initial reaction was anger. Of course I knew of the extensive history of racism, discrimination, and demanded societal erasure. I did not know that the very thing I was taught in school—how the criminal justice system and incarceration were fair and justified—was far from the truth. This led me to do more research on my own. I researched the extensive history of Black people here in America and all around the world. Gaining all this information invigorated and empowered me. It made me want to speak up against racism, which was new for me. I had never felt propelled to be more open in voicing my opinion in such a way before. I saw how much Black people have accomplished and how much of the world we know today would not come close in comparison if it were not for the people who lived, loved, sacrificed, and fought through life—in spite of all those odds stacked against them. Suddenly, I was a warrior.
Soon after, I grew hopeless with regards to the plight of the Black American people. I realized that we can only be so much here in America. The laws, statutes, beliefs, and values of the majority will not let us evolve in the light of God that we are supposed to.
I am a work study employee for the University Ministry Office at the University of Detroit Mercy. They are committed to doing service in the city of Detroit and elsewhere. Once I learned about the service immersion trip they orchestrated to Selma, Alabama and how it focused on the civil rights movement and racial justice, my intention was to reignite what I had lost. But, if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting much change.
The first day of the trip was an amazing introduction. It was March 1, the anniversary of the first celebration of Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday marked when voting rights protesters in Selma tried to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to gain voting rights at the capitol in Montgomery. They were met with city police and forced to return home.
Marching on that day with presidential candidates, Selma natives, and college students all the while being asked to represent the NAACP during the march was the climax of my trip. I sensed everyone’s 54-year-long dedication to a fight I lost hope for in my own community. Attending the awards dinner that was hosted by the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation was humbling. Civil rights activists and those alike from all around the world were recognized for their contribution to the struggle. Seeing everyone come together to celebrate their great work towards nonviolence and racial justice was honorable. That day was a spark to an unexpectedly familiar feeling in me.
In the intermediate period of the trip, things began to shift. Our housing was compromised, we had not received necessary information regarding our volunteering, and other things. I found myself sitting on the deck at the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation and remembered that I had not had a chance to reflect on my experience thus far. Watching the still water under the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I realized that I could only gain a valuable and impactful experience if I were like the water—flowing effortlessly through and around whatever is in its path, accepting the necessary adjustments. Water does not shape itself in a way it thinks it should be. It flows and knows. It doesn’t ponder. I kept this philosophy close to me as the trip continued.
This unconsciously shaped the rest of the trip. My experiences were deeper and I was completely open to whatever remained for me. Overall, it was a whirlwind. It was a unique journey that made me feel the electricity of something more—whether good or bad. Inevitably, this feeling turned out to have a bigger meaning. It did not take me long to realize that the trip was destined. All of the experiences felt familiar, like I had been there before. God knew that I needed to experience the trip.
As of now, I have hope for my people. I believe, regardless of how the past and the present look, there is always hope for something better. The beauty of nature is that nothing is permanent, and that includes racism. We have to experience strife now, as my ancestors did in the march on Bloody Sunday and elsewhere, to pave a better path for my children and my children’s children. I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams and to them I owe everything. But we owe it to ourselves to invest and bestow all our faith into the youth. We are not the problem, but the solution.
LaRyn Ridgeway is a student at the University of Detroit Mercy studying developmental psychology. As a career, she would like to start a non-profit for at risk youth that focuses on their growth mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.