With Whom Do You Stand?

Joe Schroeder, Associate Executive Director, AWSA
(AWSA Update: 8-23-23)

Perhaps the best short video I have ever watched is a five-minute clip of a commencement speech by Greg Boyle regarding a man named Mario.  Its power has compelled us at AWSA to use it often as a closing segment in professional learning spaces with our members.  And even though I have watched this short clip over twenty times, the video always makes me think, laugh, reflect – and cry.  But these are good tears – ones that make me thankful for those who have stood with me in critical moments of my own life.  Tears that move me to stand both for what I believe in and for those in my circle who most need to feel such belief and support from others in them.

Although it is subtly done in the video, the commencement speaker is actually a priest – Father Greg Boyle, who has worked for over 30 years with gang members in Los Angeles through the organization he founded, Homeboy Industries.  And the focus of his speech is about a former gang member named Mario, who sells baked goods at the Homeboy cafe.  Now at first view, Father Boyle shares that Mario can have “mothers clutching their kids more closely” as he walks by them because Mario is the most tattooed employee in the thirty year history of Homeboy:  “His arms are all sleeved out, neck blackened with the name of the gang, head shaved, covered in tattoos….”  

But first impressions can be misleading, for Father Boyle shares that it is widely known by those who frequent the cafe that the kindest, most gentle soul at Homeboy isn’t him.  Rather, it is Mario.  At risk of ruining the experience for you, I will stop here and just encourage you to view this video when you have five minutes.  Better yet, consider sharing it with your staff, as it can serve as a wonderfully provocative means for folks to assess the attitude and commitment they are bringing to all whom they serve.  But before closing, there are a couple of particularly salient points to offer.

In the first few years of his work with LA gang members, Father Boyle reflects, “I had mistakenly tried to ‘save’ young men and women trapped in gang life.  But then, in an instant, I learned that saving lives is for the Coast Guard.  Me wanting a gang member to have a different life would never be the same as that gang member wanting to have one.  I discovered that you do not go to the margin to rescue anyone.  But if we go there, everyone finds rescue.”

Secondly, Father Boyle shares, “I think you stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.  And you stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.  And you stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear,  and you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless.  Make those voices heard.”

So as we enter a new school with all its many opportunities and challenges – and as you finish viewing the video – a rousing question to ponder is, with whom do you stand?  Who is the student or population of students within your community regularly misunderstood, most in need of an ally?  How can you help their voices be heard, appreciated, and encouraged?  How in your role of prominence and influence can you create conditions where such folks recognize their own dignity and value to a degree where they can envision a better future and a pathway to reach it?   In short, how does your decision to stand with them transform and enrich their lives – and, of course, your life as well?