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The power of voice

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous quote reads, “They came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak out for me.”

The turnout to the Town Hall meeting on Monday in response to the recent racist and criminal acts was enormous. The fact that it ran over its scheduled time indicates not only its importance, but also the passion and desire for change that the people in attendance brought with them. During the segment in which people could provide witness regarding acts of discrimination and harassment that they had faced in the classroom, in the residence halls, because of campus culture and traditions and because of systems and resources, one sentiment was shared above all others: To dispel the ignorance, you must raise your voice.

From the mundane example of correcting someone in class about a misspeak to the more demanding example of correcting someone when they use hateful slurs, any ignorance can only be dispelled through vocal action. Silence is indifference, and indifference always sides with the perpetrators. In any process for change, your voice is the necessary spark. These recent acts of racial intolerance are small flickers that have illuminated the bigger picture. As one student put it, the core of the problem is a lack of respect ­— giving it, getting it and creating an atmosphere that fosters it. How we respond to acts such as these says an enormous amount about how we define our Notre Dame family. Do we fall silent in the face of injustice? Do we speak up? The forum on Monday was a clear example of the latter.

I would certainly consider Monday’s Town Hall meeting a “victory” of sorts. It was a victory because of the witnesses who spoke out, because of the possible solutions that were shared and because of the shared sentiment that we can work together to make our Notre Dame family better. Nevertheless, one “victory” over racism does not preclude our obligation to act preventatively through education in order to dispel any veins of racial hatred that exist.

The conversation did not end Monday night. It cannot have ended Monday night. To truly lay claim to our responsibility to educate, to dispel the ignorance and to combat the prejudice, we must continue the conversation, we must elicit ongoing dialogue and we must not be afraid to speak from the heart. The conversations that were had Monday night must be the conversations that we have daily in the dorm room, the classroom, the dining halls, in the paper and in LaFortune. These acts of racial harassment and those deeper issues they have brought to light affect every single person who calls this University home.

So here is the challenge: The next time we hear things that are insensitive or ignorant, we must engage.

Engage, engage, engage. That’s the only way to educate. It doesn’t matter if those who feel they are not involved are engaged until they cannot stand hearing about it anymore. Because as long as racial harassment is a reality, it is an injustice not to speak of it. Because, until we speak the truth fully and openly, the false and seductive nature of “there are no problems here” cloud any chance at improvement.

Those who gave witness at Monday’s event truly stood up and told truth to power. They told truth to the power of ignorance. They told truth to the power of silence. Most importantly, they told truth to the power of those with the ability to change things. So let’s change things. All of us. Let’s all join in this conversation and action.

Spring Break presents us with a great opportunity to search ourselves and find the inner strength to speak, even if our voices might tremble. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our friends. We owe it to our University.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.