On the afternoon of Friday, August 3, 2018, our mentors greeted us and showed us the steps to take to check in to the Hilton Hotel. On my way through the lobby I saw many new faces. The excitement in the room was overwhelming. Holding my room keys in my hands, I shared the anticipation. Here I was, a young Burundian living on her own, getting to attend the first International Congress of Youth Voices. I stopped where I was and gave thanks to The Telling Room for helping me write and share and for giving me the chance to be there.
Our journey together started with a walk in the Bay Area. The sun was shining. It was a little windy in San Francisco. I felt nervous and wondered how my experience would go. I felt like we would sit and listen and share ideas, like in a class at school. Little did I know I was going to be meeting so many wonderful and wise authors, leaders, and student delegates!
We arrived at the ferry dock. As I was looking around I saw a living legend and Civil Right leader, the Honorable Rep. John Lewis, standing with us. My heart began beating like a drum. But I knew what I had to do. I had not come so far to stay silent in a moment like this one. In my mind, I was like, “I have to talk to him! I have to get some wise advice from him. It’s now or never, Thecla, it’s now or never!”
All of the delegates were boarding the ferry. My first instinct told me to make sure I was in the front row so that I would be among the first people to get to talk to the Congressman before the boat’s departure. I saw him standing, hugging each student who walked toward him. We had heard he was sick the weekend before, so having him right there among us was a huge surprise. Then it was my turn. I walked toward him, my hands shaking. He looked me in my face and said, “My daughter, it is a pleasure to see you today.”
I will carry the precious moments of talk we had with me always. After telling “The Legend” my name and where I was from, he immediately sat me down beside him. He asked me how I was feeling about moving from an unstable country only to arrive in the United States to see what is happening here today. I was honest and sincere, saying that the world is changing and the human race is ill-fated. People from the same origins fight each other like mice and cats. He stated that when he was around my age he did not like the way people were being discriminated against, he did not like racial segregation. He was so passionate about saving his brothers and sisters! He explained to me that if we want a change in life then we need to understand that it all starts within our hearts.
“What do you want and what do you want people to remember you as? At the end of the day you will see people hating on you, maybe you might be beaten, or placed in jail like it happened to me multiple times. But you need to fight for what is true. You need to be the ambassador of those youth around you. Don’t hate people due to their race, gender, or what they believe in; but help them grow by lighting their ways. Fight the good fight, keep hoping. If you lose hope go back to where you started, be inspired by what you have done and keep going. You have a moral obligation to do something, speak up. Be the light and never underestimate your capability.”
His words gave me even more reason to keep representing other youth voices, the voices of those young people who are afraid to speak up due to language barriers. I loved what John Lewis stated that first day of the International Congress of Youth Voices: “Be in trouble, good trouble and necessary trouble.” It is my obligation to use my voice to speak loudly and fight for anything done in the darkness.
In using my voice in that moment, I was thrilled to give to the Honorable Rep. John Lewis A Season for Building Houses, a book that holds the stories of young writers and leaders from all around the world now living in Maine. I wrote and published my own story in that book, which The Telling Room published, and it was my great honor to bring it with me. It was my duty to represent all youth voices, and putting it in John Lewis’s hands, and sharing the pages of it with him, was a huge accomplishment for me. Because now The Legend is a reader of that book. And then we shared what it was like to be an author. He told me about his own books, and about a graphic novel he had written. I can’t wait to read his books!
I can’t imagine a better way to start off my experience in California, sharing my voice with the world’s great young writers and leaders, than by this encounter with John Lewis. To all my young writer and leader friends and delegates, do not stop working. Hard work never killed anyone, and at the end it is worth it. Use your voice, use your writing. You don’t have to be an expert but you can become one. Strive to succeed and make those around you aware that each voice matters. Be the ambassador, for all youth, for all of our voices, everywhere.