A message for youth.
Published: June 17, 2012
Continuing the quest for social justice.
A Letter to My Grandchildren
Dear Alexandra and Jack:
Yes, I decided to write another book. I know you’re probably thinking, Now Pops is in really big trouble. He’s always telling us he’s read three books in his entire life, and also written three. So he’ll have to figure out how to pick a fourth book to read.
I’ve been reluctant to do more writing because I’m not all that interested in memoirs, and I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. But now I realize that I do. I’ve reached the fourth quarter of life, and as I look into the rearview mirror, back six decades or more, I can see and understand so much more about the journey than I did while I was living it. I believe there are insights that I can pass on to others, including a new generation that’s energized to fight for social justice.
Your Pops moved into Harlem in 1960 at the age of 20, spending from 1960 to 1971 there and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This, too, was a time of uncertainty and fear. Our country was engaged in a very unpopular war in Vietnam, and millions of us found ourselves on the streets protesting. During a number of those years, I had up to 35 young people living with me who had no homes or places to stay. A dozen of them didn’t make it—they either were shot or overdosed on drugs.
I was very angry during that period and in much despair. I felt caught between the privileged community I’d grown up in and the tragic realities of the community I’d chosen to join. I couldn’t believe that there were so many young people without hope or a future just blocks from some of the wealthiest individuals on Earth. I wanted to bring this broken nation together, make it whole, “with liberty and justice for all.” And although I didn’t realize it then, I wanted to heal myself, too, to find a family and a community I could truly belong to.
At this time in our nation’s story, there was much social unrest over civil rights for African American citizens. We saw regular footage on our TV screens of people being beaten and jailed simply because they wanted the equality and justice that was promised by the founders of our country. And in the midst of this, we saw three of our leaders assassinated, men who were national heroes—President John F. Kennedy; his brother Robert, who was a senator and candidate for President; and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our national leader in the fight for civil rights.
These were difficult and uncertain times of change, just like now. It was easy to fall into despair, to long to escape from it all, or to get so angry that no one wanted to be around you. Your grandmother and I would never have imagined that we’d see an African American President, a Hispanic Supreme Court justice, or a female secretary of state or speaker of the house.
Also, I never thought I’d see the day when our campuses are again full of young people who are motivated to do so much to give back to their communities, who not only want to do well in their vocations, but also want to do good for their neighbors. And finally, in a time of intense political division, we see people coming together across political lines around one burning issue: the need to ensure that all children have an equal chance in life, starting with a great education. That is the same issue that your grandfather and his colleagues have been working on all these years. Back in the ’60s, I never thought I’d see the day come when we have a chance to really turn around our failing public schools.
And if I’m being honest with you, I never thought I’d be alive in 2012—alive, happy, and whole, with the family I always wanted. Somehow God healed my brokenness, and that, too, is part of my story.
Jack and Alex, it’s an amazing thing to be alive. You won’t really understand your journey until someday you look into the rearview mirror of recollection and experience, just as I’m doing—but that’s all right. There’s plenty to understand right here, right now.
One final request: Do Pops a favor. If anyone asks about this crazy grandfather on the Milliken side, and they don’t have time to read the book, here are the four main insights that have guided me in writing it:
- Life, while often confusing and painful, is also incredibly good, a never-ending journey from hurting to hope to healing. This is the power of love in action.
- The theme of my life journey has been connecting the dots, trying to bring together the fragmented communities that I feared I could never belong to. In the process, I found and confronted my own brokenness.
- My spiritual journey—my own personal walk with God—has faced many of the issues and challenges of modern believers, and I think it demonstrates that even a flawed and sometimes bewildered pilgrim can find a way to put spiritual principles into practice.
- I’ve lived and struggled during a time in American history that has left an enduring legacy of social consciousness, service to others, collective change, and commitment to social justice. This book is my best shot at passing on some hard-won wisdom, lessons, life experiences, and insights to the next generation.
I hope the two of you enjoy this book one day. I pray it will make your own journeys just a little easier and more blessed.
Bill Milliken has been a tireless advocate for disenfranchised youth and one of the foremost pioneers in the movement to connect schools with community resources to help troubled students graduate and succeed in life. Visit his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/billmilliken.org