Trayvon’s Life – Not Just His Death – Means Something

As the media coverage of the George Zimmerman trial verdict finally begins to wane, Americans all across the country are struggling to make sense of the tragedy and the judicial outcome – how to make meaning of it, and what, if anything, they can do.

 The coverage – so polarized, so sensational – frankly left many of us feeling weary and disconnected, left with questions and emotions which don’t get truly addressed by posting on Facebook, tweeting, or by water cooler conversations. Whether we’ve been to a protest or started to turn off the news, many of us have a feeling deep down that we want something – some kind of meaning – to come from this tragedy. We want Trayvon’s life, and not just his death, to mean something.

For those of us who work with America’s children and youth, Trayvon meant something long before he went to buy some skittles and an iced tea and met a terrible end. He had tremendous value as a human being – he was growing and developing as a person, learning who he was, developing skills, making friends. He was getting ready for adulthood and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. He was, in truth, navigating America in 2013, where being a young African American man – just being who you are – can put your safety at risk.

Although I didn’t know Trayvon, I’m going to guess that he had mentors – relatives, teachers, coaches – who believed in him and helped him as he matured. I know without ever having met him that Trayvon had hopes, gifts and dreams. All of that is lost to us now.

In his personal and compelling remarks last week, President Obama talked about convening key leaders to “talk about how we can do a better job of helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to success.” Mr. President, please do host such a convening – and please invite leading organizations who serve all our young people – like the Boys and Girls ClubsGirl Scouts and Boy ScoutsYMCACamp Fire, and other dedicated and outstanding organizations. 

These organizations not only treasure young people, they know how to help them navigate through their early years and become who they are capable of becoming. And please, Mr. President, I hope you will also convene leaders who can focus on what it takes to transform communities and institutions that perpetuate ideas of ‘otherness’ – ideas that predispose some Americans to perceive threats where there is only a young person occupying the same public space we’re all entitled to occupy as we move through our daily lives.

To ordinary Americans who are stuck trying to figure out what to do with their feelings, I ask, on behalf of the frontline workers across the nation who strive every day to unleash the amazing potential of our youth, that you honor Trayvon by lending a hand. Support the organizations in your community who skillfully, and with love and respect, help guide and develop young people every day. Give a donation, volunteer, show up – in memory of Trayvon. 

There’s an expression in Judaism, that is said when someone dies. You say, “May his memory be for a blessing.” Whatever you believe happened on that tragic day, let us agree that Trayvon Martin was a young man who mattered. He deserves for his name – and his memory – to be for a blessing, to mean something good in this world he left too soon.


Karen Heller Key is Executive Vice President & COO of the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA) and the National Collaboration for Youth, (NCY). 


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