Two years ago, I listened to this episode of What Should I Read Next?, and in it, the guest talked about the Dressember challenge. The Dressember Foundation is a non-profit that aims to end human trafficking, and the Dressember challenge is where people commit to wearing either dresses or ties for the entire month of December in order to raise awareness and money.
When I heard about this, I had the idea of possibly doing Dressember on a small scale at my school. Sometimes when I have an idea, it gets stuck in my heart and refuses to leave until I do it, and this was one of them.
Around the second half of sophomore year, I went to see one of my administrators and pitched the idea to her of doing some version of the Dressember challenge. She was interested but told me that our school had a no-fund-raising policy. We had some more follow-up meetings, but it didn’t really go anywhere.
Over the summer, I thought about just stopping, but it felt like some part of me had already committed. It almost felt like an assignment. So at the beginning of junior year, I went to see her again. This time, she directed me to talk to a different administrator. After having a meeting with him, that’s when things started to move.
The first thing he did was ask me to write a proposal. In it, I listed the ideas I had: watching a documentary during assembly, inviting a speaker, setting up a display in the library with related books and videos, and dressing up on Friday. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I think it was around this time that the idea slowly transformed from the Dressember challenge into a more general week centered around human trafficking awareness.
The administrator approved the proposal, and we started the actual process of pulling it off. Without him being as on board and dedicated as he was, there’s no way this would have happened.
Between September and Thanksgiving break, things started to come together. After spending hours watching different documentaries, he decided on the classroom version of Not My Life. I talked to the librarian, and she helped put together a selection of on-topic material. He found a speaker through a perfect coincidence–the brother of one of the women working in the school office used to be a FBI agent who worked on sex trafficking cases. I reached out to several local organizations and received an email back from one of them asking us to organize food for one of their dinners.
In the beginning we planned for the high school to dress-up on Friday, but in the end my principal decided against it. At first, the decision stung, but I understood his concerns about dress-code. In the end, I think it was the best scenario.
There was one last thing my administrator wanted me to do: he wanted me to actually talk onstage about why I wanted to do this. When he first mentioned this idea, I was like sure, but in my head, I was like uhhh no way. Over the years, I’ve gotten so much more comfortable talking in front of my class, but this would be in front of the whole high school. For me, that’s around five hundred people. That’s a lot less than many schools, but as I sat in my seat and imagined standing onstage, it felt huge.
He kept mentioning it though, and at some point, I agreed to do it for real. Now I needed to actually write the speech. So in a hotel room over Thanksgiving break, I sat on the bed and started typing on a Google doc. I realized that I kind of knew what I wanted to say, and it came together relatively quickly.
However, there was one part that I was unsure about. In it, there was one section that was a beautiful set-up for a white privilege joke I had thought of. And this is where I need to provide some context: I’m Chinese, and I go to a school whose overwhelming majority is white. For example, in my grade of around 120 people, there’s less than ten people of color.
When I sent audio clips of myself reading the speech to my church friends who are all Asian, several of them balked at the joke. They told me it was kind of mean. I was like nah, you guys don’t understand, people will think it’s funny, I promise. But then I was like, will they??
When I sent the draft to my administrator, I sent it without the joke because I had decided against it. But most of me still thought it should go in. So when my art teacher and my history/English teacher allowed me to test-run the speech during class, I prefaced it by telling my classmates about the joke and asking them to tell me afterwards whether it was too mean. Both classes told me it was funny and to keep it in, so I did.
Here is the entire speech.
Note: Names have been changed.
As Mr. Jackson (the principal) mentioned in announcements, this Friday we’re doing a couple of things centered around sex trafficking.
To recap, for Friday morning advisees, all of us will come in here to watch the documentary, Not My Life.
During Friday’s afternoon assembly, Mr. Reid will be coming to speak. He is a former FBI agent who worked extensively against sex trafficking. He will be talking about the sex trafficking industry in general and about his personal experiences fighting it. At the end, he will also be having a short Q&A. If you really feel the need to ask him about being a FBI agent, please go for it. I’m very curious.
The last thing we’re doing is in the library. And yes, I know I’m talking to the wrong crowd here, but Mrs. Monroe (the librarian) has put together an awesome selection of books on the topic if you’re interested. It’s on the left when you walk in on top of the reference shelves.
When Dr. Evans (the administrator) first asked me to talk today about what’s going on this week, and why I even cared about doing this in the first place, my immediate reaction was, Why wouldn’t you care about this? But thanks to Mr. Spence (my history/English teacher), I know that’s really bad rhetoric.
So instead, I’m going to use pathos on all of you guys by using an anecdote. It might seem completely unrelated, but don’t worry, I’ll throw logos at you later to tie everything together.
In the White House, there’s an aide whose entire job is to follow the President around with the Nuclear Football. The Nuclear Football is the thing the President would start a nuclear war with. In 1981, a Harvard professor came up with the idea that for the President to access it, he or she would first have to personally kill the aide with a knife, giving the President a glimpse of the millions of horrible, violent deaths that would happen because of the nuclear weapons.
As the professor writes in his essay, “It’s reality brought home.”
I’m guessing the professor knew his proposal would never actually be taken seriously by politicians. But I think he wanted to make a point: the point that having as much power as the President of the United States gives you the choice to avoid facing how much your decisions can hurt others with less power.
For us, we have the choice to never consider how our decisions to not do something can impact others. Because the ugly truth is, we can avoid it. We could probably go our whole lives and never personally encounter or have to think about problems like sex trafficking. And to be honest, I think that’s the easier choice. That’s the cop out choice privilege gives us.
When people tell us that we’re so privileged, so blessed, that we live in a bubble, I never feel deeply grateful like I should. I always feel guilty and uncomfortable and extraordinarily selfish.
I don’t want to be some entitled, private school kid who goes to college, gets a job, makes money, has a family, lives comfortably and happily, while never ever considering those who have less than I do.
But unlike many of you, at least I don’t have to worry about the responsibility of white privilege on top of everything else.
Just kidding. But not really.
I am so lucky to be born where and who I am. I know that. But how can I–how can we–spend that luck in a good way?
I think the first step in answering that question is doing what the professor wrote–“making reality come home.” To me, “making reality come home” means facing upfront the pain people and countries are suffering right now. It means learning and being informed of all the scary, overwhelming statistics and facts. And listening to the real, personal, heartbreaking stories of fellow human beings.
And then there’s the second part. Actually doing something about it. Because none of this, none of this having an assembly and watching a documentary, matters if it’s just words.
But I am not at all saying that the right thing to do is walk into next period feeling guilty and bad. Our heads are good at compartmentalizing for a reason. Because there’s no way I could focus on getting good grades and applying for colleges if the entire time I was thinking about how the median household income in America is 173 dollars, and it costs–according to my dad–around a hundred dollars each day I come to school.
What I am trying to say is, please don’t live this life for yourself.
So, if I could go back and answer Dr. Evan’s question, this is what I would say: I care about doing this week because I was given privilege without earning it whatsoever and I don’t want to waste it. I want to be informed, both of the facts of sex trafficking and the lives it is destroying. And then I want to do something, no matter how small, to help. And I believe that’s something my classmates care about too.
I am happy to report that people did laugh at the joke. Dear Wack Church Gang: HA, I was right. And I still need to show you guys the video of that assembly.
But three other things happened that I did not expect. The first was that people also laughed at my rhetoric joke. The second was that I had no idea how thrilling it would feel to hear people laughing and know it was because of words you had written and said.
The third was all the nice things people said afterwards. Here are the ones that meant the most.
One of our college counselors came up and told me when I made the white privilege joke, a senior guy who is black had gotten so excited and shouted, “Yes!”, in the tech booth.
I got a text from a sophomore who I had been in art class with the previous year but hadn’t talked to that much this year. She said, “annie thanks for talking to evans about having sex trafficking week. i think it’s so great that you it up (sic) and your jokes were really funny! you did so good in your speech and i’m so happy you did it!!”
And finally, at lunch, a friend told me that her history/English teacher said to her class that my speech was a good example of rhetoric in use. Obviously that was the best compliment ever.
After reading that speech (nope, I did not memorize it) on Tuesday, my administrator gave a brief presentation, but the majority of things were planned fro Friday.
Although Dressember was canceled for the students, the adults could still participate, so I reached out to my history/English teacher and asked if he could email the teachers. He said yes (because he’s amazing), and it was so exciting to walk into school on Friday and see teachers in suits and dresses.
On Friday morning, after the documentary ended and we started leaving the auditorium, it was almost completely silent. Usually everybody talks and the tech team plays music, but all I saw were solemn faces. The quietness felt eerie and profound. To me, it seemed like everybody’s faces were reflecting the sadness of the tragedies we had just watched.
The atmosphere as we left the auditorium in afternoon was the complete opposite. Beforehand, I had considered the very possible scenario that nobody would ask questions during the Q&A and it would just be awkward, but that did not happen at all.
Somebody asked about his past assignments or what not, and he told us stories about how the FBI hooked him for life by giving him a crazy first assignment (I think it was a bank robbery) and how the most movie-scene thing he’s done is tackling a guy in a casino. Everybody was going kind of wild, and as he finished, a girl in my row yelled, “Best assembly ever!” That felt really good.
The week after was when the local organization had asked for dishes. The administrator sent out an email with a SignUp Genius link for it, but by the end of the weekend, only a few adults had signed up. On the day of, there wasn’t all the things that the woman had requested, but in the middle of the day, one of the art teachers emailed me.
She said she had seen that some things were still needed like chicken and drinks, and she offered to go on a quick grocery run to get them. You know when someone does something so kind that you just stop a little? Yea, it was like that.
I’ll remember what it was like to talk onstage, but even more so, I’ll remember all of these kind things that people did. Without the administrators, my teachers, the librarian, and my friends, it just would not have happened.
How do you feel about talking in front of people?
What’s a cause you feel strongly about?
Have you ever done anything because of something you’ve read/watched/listened to?
What are you most proud of yourself for doing this school year?