I walked into the ACLU of Michigan offices eight years ago with a small afro—three-fourths of an inch to be exact—and only a vague, abstract understanding of words such as freedom and justice.
The words were something illustrious and important—something my ancestors had fought and died for—but up until then, my own life experiences seemed unacquainted with their struggle.
(Pictured: Top: A young Rodell (c) stands between dad Rodell Jefferson Sr. (l) and ACLU staff attorney Mark Fancher in 2007. Bottom: Rodell Jefferson at the ACLU of Michigan offices, June 2015.)
That changed after I sat down in those offices and began what would become an even broader education about civil rights, freedom of expression and the critical importance of social-justice work.
I was a 10-year-old boy back then, expelled from Old Redford Academy because my hair was supposedly “too long.” Some school officials claimed it was too long. Perhaps my short curls spoke too loudly, or were too vivid for classrooms that too often fence in individual expression. Nevertheless, this injustice would expose me to the ACLU of Michigan and others who champion for civil rights—and in time, I was back at my school desk learning attentively, my head full of hair fully intact.
Fast forward nearly a decade and now I’m sitting at desks at Brown University, wearing my hair as proudly as ever, free from worrying over whether my ‘do fits prefixes like “small” and “mini.” My hair has grown—twisted now into short coils that I plan to let get even longer as time passes—and so have I. College has taught me a lot about myself—and perhaps even more about the injustices that people face every day.
Being inundated with these stories sometimes can feel overwhelming, crushing even. But other times it can be energizing to be surrounded by people who just as passionate about the world that we live in as I am--people who yearn to be champions of justice as well.
I ended my first year at Brown still not knowing my major, still not knowing if I am going to law school, still not knowing so many things. But I did finish that year knowing that I had a foundation to build something wonderful within me.
And this discovery has, in some ways, taken me full circle.
This summer, for instance, I’ve come back to the ACLU of Michigan—not as a client this time, but as a legal intern. Now, I’m not just being fought for. I’m also doing the fighting, on behalf of others. I believe that reconnecting with the ACLU will allow me to take the next major steps in my life and my journey into social activism.
After all, I am not just an intern for the ACLU—but an intern for the freedom and change that are necessary for a more just world.
I am no longer the small afro whostands just behind the champions. Now, I stand with them.
By Rodell Jefferson III, intern at the ACLU of Michigan