This week I had the privilege of speaking at a private Jewish day school. It was an honor to have with me a young woman who is a graduate of my Relationships 101 program, and an absolutely amazing, formally incarcerated, young man who works with me.
This young man, who had a life sentence in jail, is now out and is working on living his life with dignity.
They both joined me to speak to a group of very privileged young adults about social action, change, and forgiveness.
We arrive at the school and we go through some serious security.
My friends are amazed by the building.
“Naomi, are you sure this is a school?” they ask me.
We enter the classroom. The students trickle in.
I show them videos of The Advot Project. I tell them about my work.
I explain to them that we all have a book of our story.
We must be very careful not to judge people by one page from the book of the story of their life.
I tell them that you can't understand a person from one page. You need to know what happened before to understand what happens after.
You actually can create a new page in their story when you meet them.
I tell them that life is complicated, that there are people whose lives are very different from theirs, but yet they are very much like them.
We all want to be loved.
We all want to fit in.
We all want to make a good impression.
We all want to be the cool guy and we all, yes, we all make mistakes.
I tell them it is our job to be a voice for the unheard.
One says, “What if I don't want to?”
“Isn't there something you care about?” I ask him.
“If you care, speak up. Always find a way to find your voice. Be the voice and have a voice.”
Then my two beautiful, brilliant “guest speakers” tell their story.
With great bravery, they tell how they screwed up.
They stand in this school, a place that was foreign to them and as far away as the moon.
They stand in front of people who are radically different from them and, with humility, stand and tell their story.
They opened their book and let everyone look in.
I had to hold back my tears. I could have easily wept a river.
I've known the young woman who is a graduate of my program for five years, yet I had never heard her whole story.
I sat there listening. The range of emotions I was feeling inside my soul was almost too much to contain.
She spoke of the lack of a father figure.
She spoke about what it was like to come from a low, very low, income family.
She told of how she was lured into the gang life and into drugs.
She spoke honestly and candidly, with poise and grace far beyond her years.
Then, the privileged kids, stepped up in a way that I had never expected. They gently asked questions, with respect and kindness. They asked what they didn't understand.
They tried to give feedback and they wanted details. It was remarkable.
Then, the young man, who is new to my fold, but I love him as if I've known him for decades, got up and told his story.
He is older. His mistakes were harsher. His actions were worse than what the young woman had shared.
He stood there with remorse and beauty.
I don't think I can even begin to describe it in words.
Again, the sweet high school students gently asked questions.
Gently tried to understand.
Gently tried to bridge the gap and touch the untouchable.
The young man who was bravely sharing his story choked up.
He talked about sorrow.
He talked about his challenges.
He talked about his regret.
It was so clear that even though he has changed his ways, even though he is such a stellar person, he still has a way to go to accepting himself.
Even though the law, the state, and everyone around him have forgiven him, he has not forgiven himself.
A young man in the audience raised his hand and simply said,
“I think, if they let you out of jail and they forgive you,
you need to forgive yourself. You seem like such a nice guy!”
It was very quiet in the room, and, if it was possible to do an x-ray of my soul, you would see it stretching to full capacity to take this all in.
It is no surprise that this encounter unfolded the way it did. The staff from the school leads by example. They have created this incredible environment, a safe place for the speakers and the listeners.
Such important role models for us all!
The staff gave us the opportunity to show that inspiration can come from the darkest of places.
My amazing speakers didn't hold back, and, with great generosity, they shared their stories. The audience took in every word. They didn’t judge and were truly open to the other.
I know that for me there is nothing more inspiring than when two completely diverse, different groups of individuals come together and remember that the human heart is simply a human heart.
We all bleed the same color blood.
Our bodies are all built alike, and, at the end of the day, no matter where you are from, and how you grew up, the human essence is the same.
I could not be prouder of what happened in that room that day.
I couldn't have stronger convictions about the possibility of change, and that goodness, goodness can prevail when people are open, honest and accepting.
When I speak publicly, I am often asked who inspires me, who are my roles models.
I think these two speakers inspire me to no end.
It is their honesty, authenticity, and capacity to take responsibility.
The way they share their truth, share their ugly, bear the rawness of human existence that leaves me in awe.
When I speak publicly, famous names of important game changers are thrown at me.
“Is this one your inspiration?”
“Is she who you are trying to be?”
They ask me about women and men who have sacrificed, who are well known entities in the history of social action, people who motivate and encourage my every move.
Famous activists whom of course I learn from, who are my mentors and who I aspire to be.
But today, I think, this is my inspiration.
These unknown heroes, my two amazing people who joined me today.
The graduate of my program and this young man who dared to stop, step up, and share their stories. They inspire me more than anything else.
It was a simple Wednesday on a March morning in the valley.
A classroom in a school with a group of 10th graders, that gave some me faith this week.
Faith that everything I believe in, that I fight for, and pray for is attainable.
It is right here.
It is happening.
It is possible.
So I suggest that you look around.
Find the simple.
See who is quietly fighting the fight and moving forward.
Take the time to notice the things you might otherwise miss.
Allow yourself to be inspired