#MLKDay Series 2021: Wallace St. Clair
Wallace St. Clair
Senior Site Supervisor
CEO New York City
As we celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we asked a few of our staff and participant colleagues to share some reflections. What emerged are powerful statements touching on the unfinished work of racial and social justice, the importance of CEO’s mission and enduring legacy of Dr. King’s example.
The life and teachings of Dr. King have meant a variety of things to me over the years. I was 6 years old when he was assassinated. While I definitely was too young to fully appreciate the lessons of his life, my understanding grew over time and he has since been a champion and role model for me. I remember sitting in the living room with my mother watching and listening to him on the news and radio. I had yet to experience the intensity of the racism being shown on television. My kinship with the people being attacked by dogs, fire hoses and police fostered an undeniable awareness, fear of and anger towards the “establishment.” Simultaneously, there was an invincible air of hope and promise in Dr. King's booming voice that reassured me. It conveyed a sense that we were going to win. I can still clearly see the knowing glances, genuine smiles and nods being exchanged whenever my family gathered to hear him speak.
And then came the day he was assassinated. It was soon after his April 3, 1968 Mountaintop Speech in which he gave us one of the most profound and prophetic warnings ever uttered: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
For me, and lots of others that was the day all hope for justice died. In my 6 year old mind Dr. King was akin to Superman, and “they” killed him. It is only in hindsight that I can assess the changes that took place in lots of Black communities all over the country. It was a fear-based survival mode that went into overdrive, at least that's been my experience. Yet the struggle for equality and justice waged on and new strategies and approaches were organically developed as African American people found ways to navigate and/or combat the oppressive system. Yet that distrust and in some cases, mine in particular, the fear of the system remained and many opted to pursue nefarious means to survive. Mass incarceration emerged and it was clear that the very same forces Dr. King so valiantly fought against would continue to oppress me and people like me.
Our mission at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) has become an integral part of the present-day Civil Rights Movement. The reality is that an overwhelming majority of people ensnared in the prison industrial complex are African American. CEO, by design assists in reestablishing a sense of hope for formerly incarcerated people through employment opportunities and transitional jobs with daily pay that takes some of the initial pressure off of the recently released.
The work done at CEO is important to me. I have benefitted from it as a former participant and now as a staff member. Today CEO provides me an opportunity to make positive use of my past negative experiences. I have developed an ability to meet almost any of our participants “where they are” and do tangible things to help guide and assist them in their quest to restart and reestablish their lives in a more productive manner. By incorporating trauma informed approaches, motivational interviewing and utilizing the lessons of my personal experience, I get to witness many “ah ha” moments and the transformation process up close and personal. To be a part of the magic that happens here is a powerful and rewarding dynamic that never gets old.
My hope for social and economic justice in the future has increased over the years. It has increased despite the ongoing racism that punishes Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest of police brutality and opposes Black Lives Matter, while allowing white supremacist mobs to storm the capitol or failing to hold police accountable for brutality against people of color. Racism can no longer be denied. It is a reality that must be dealt with.
We have to expose racist structures and beliefs if we are going to face reality and solve the problem. Racism, like COVID-19, is invisible to the eyes, only becoming visible in the havoc it wreaks in people’s lives. Ironically the spread of racism, like COVID-19, is linked to faulty belief systems, misinformation and denial. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, our nation will learn that no real progress can be made while kneeling on the necks of others. As Dr. King has said in his Letter from A Birmingham Jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." My feeling is that we have all the evidence we need to make better decisions and ultimately good will triumph over evil. And racism is evil.