Last Tuesday, I received the text, “Raymen Justice was killed walking home from school.”
As the executive director of a youth leadership and advocacy organization in Oakland that has served young people for over ten years, nothing could have prepared me for this heartbreaking news.
The next day, hundreds of students in high schools throughout Oakland gathered in libraries and classrooms to grieve the loss of their friend. Students wrote on banners and made altars to say their good-byes. Flyers circulated with his picture and unforgettable smile. One teacher from Oakland Tech said he had never seen so many young men cry.
For many students, irrespective of race, neighborhood and grade – Raymen was one of their own. He wasn’t just an “exceptional kid” interested in biotech: he represented “every kid” in Oakland from tough neighborhoods and hard circumstances, who struggles daily to survive and thrive.
I got to know Raymen when he joined our after-school program saying, “I believe that youth can achieve anything they put their minds to.” In the two years since, he organized with his peers to improve Oakland’s high schools by expanding a peer-counseling program for ninth graders, and by becoming his school’s All City-Council representative and increasing academic support services for students district-wide.
The day after he passed, our staff and youth gathered to share stories about him. “Once that smile started to creep over his face, you knew the words ‘I love you’ weren’t far behind,” said Lukas Brekke-Meisner, a Program Coordinator.
Emmanuel Davis, a fellow classmate shared that “Raymen would stand up for you no matter what and that’s why so many people loved him.”
Malik McMillan, who attended middle school with Raymen, remembered, “In the eighth grade we elected him ‘Principal for a Day’ and that was cool until he came to school in a suit and started giving us all detention!”
His desire for something better for himself and for his community inspired those around him to set higher expectations for themselves and for each other.
Raymen seemed to understand that for him, success wasn’t going to be a given, it would be a conscious decision he would need to make every day. And that would, at times, prove difficult for him. The pain and trauma of losing two close friends to violence within months of each other never really left him. Nevertheless, he made it to school every day, more determined in his drive to succeed.
As we have been wrought with grief, and remembering all the things Raymen said and did, I keep picturing him as this bright light. And when we start to laugh at a funny story, I can wipe away the tears and look up for a minute and realize I am still surrounded by so many bright lights—the other youth in our program and all the students we cross paths with every day in our work at the schools.
For me and for all of us at Oakland Kids First, his legacy will be this. The ability to see the promise in everyone, even the hard kids, the tough kids, and the ones whose light isn’t as apparent as it was in Raymen. In these difficult economic times, we are all being asked to tighten belts, and make hard choices. All too often, the unintended consequence of these choices is to cut some kids out, to give up and move on, to focus on where our “investments” can reap the biggest pay off.
Raymen never gave up. Not on anyone, not on himself. Raymen kept smiling, hoping, and inspiring. The best way to honor his life is to do the same.
Kim Miyoshi is the executive director of Oakland Kids First.
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