Having a mentor is crucial. It was as important for my life as my grades in school, my extra curricular activities, and my exposure to the world at large. I believe these are all things that young people need to break cycles of oppression and poverty, however, without having someone to guide you in the right direction, you will either not make it to your destination or take considerably longer to get there. I was lucky. I had several mentors throughout high school (and still today) to give me advice, challenge me to be better, and help me along what is often a confusing and winding rode.
One particular mentor was Michael Charney.
I would describe Michael as an activist, a life-long teacher, a creator of ideas, and a friend.
I met Michael at the inception of the Ohio Minimum Wage Campaign. We met a few times in larger group settings, but the first time we interacted on a more substantive level was after I performed a poem at the minimum wage campaign rally. Parts of the poem are still etched into the crevices of my memory.
“5.15 is not enough. All these political tricks, making even the most dedicated citizens sick, as I attempt to mix my political concrete to make a lobbyist brick, so that I can break down your window of consistent unfairness. America…the worlds riches country, yet inflation is so high, I’m still hungry.”
Throughout high school, poetry was a tactic for me to articulate my thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a way where multiple audiences could receive them. Several of my poems were inspired by conversations I had with Michael and other mentors. It stills tickles me to know that I wrote the 5.15 poem while driving to the rally in Columbus; it was written because of a request from my teacher, Lori Urogdy.
In high school I put teachers into three categories. The categories were: (1) the teachers who cared, (2) the teachers who were only there for a paycheck and (3) the teachers who changed the lives of the students they taught. Michael Charney and Lori Urgdy were in the third category. Even though Michael was never my teacher in a classroom, he taught me a lot and changed my life in a significant ways. I met Michael when he was the executive director of Ohio Youth Voices. We would travel the state together speaking to students about how they can have their voice heard and how they should be active in a system that often silences the opinions and experiences of people not old enough to vote.
While traveling around the state of Ohio with Michael, his gray Buick became an active classroom filled with questions, inquiry, knowledge, and critical thought. During these trips we took to Columbus, Athens, Lorain and other parts of the state, I would be asked to share my thoughts and opinions on an array of political, social, and economic issues. I can also remember having discussions quite a few discussions about political philosophy and history. The gray Buick was more like a college seminar class where I was pushed for the first time to consistently think about the world through a lens of power, privilege, and marginalization.
My inner city high school education was not exactly exceptional. However, there was more than enough material in my own neighborhood that allowed Michael and me to sit in the gray Buick classroom and deconstruct a society that neglected my family, my classmates, and poor communities around the country.
I can vividly remember some of the abandonment issues in relation to my community. I lived at two locations in East Cleveland, Ohio. The first street was Penrose Ave and the second street was Baldwin Road. At both locations Michael was not being able to find my street because the street signs were not posted at the end of the block. The street signs, the boarded up houses, the gang graffiti on the side of a family dollar on Euclid Ave, and the litany of closed down store fronts represented an ambiguous and at times contradicting reality. On one hand these were the manifestations of institutions that abandoned my community. On the other hand I often saw this abandonment paralleled with the vigor of classmates and community members. This included interacting with parents and classmates who loved their community and even getting to know Paul Hill who moved into East Cleveland for community building.
This movement into certain locations for conscious reasons still reverberates in my mind. Michael coming to Cleveland was no mistake. It was a deliberate and thought out way to join the labor movement when he was younger. This intentionality in the way Michael has lived his life has always inspired me to think about my future with more calculated consideration. I have always been intrigued and motivated by Michael’s ideas. The time he spends being able to look at any issue and strategize around solutions is something I still aspire to.
I still talk to Michael today about my life struggles, goals, and pathways. He remains a mentor who helps me maneuver through a world where my goal is ultimately to advance the common good of humanity.