'We can fix this broken world'
Nearly 150 people marched from Forest Hills Elementary School to downtown Lake Oswego and back on Saturday morning in a "March for EquALLity" that sixth-grader Sonnet Lawson hopes will lead to greater awareness about equity and inclusion.
"It breaks my heart to think that there are people out there that think it's OK to make other people feel bad, or hurt them for being unique," Sonnet told the crowd, which gathered under sunny skies in the courtyard at Forest Hills for the march she organized. "Everyone is valuable. That is what I stand for and what we are standing up for today."
Sonnet was joined by parents and children of all ages, along with a host of local leaders. Among the marchers: School Board members Bob Barman and John Wallin; City Councilors Joe Buck, Jeff Gudman and Jackie Manz; former City Councilor Jon Gustafson; and state Sen. Rob Wagner, who is also a member of the Lake Oswego School Board.
Members of the grassroots organizations LO for Love and Respond to Racism also participated, including Respond to Racism co-founder Willie Poinsette, who told Sonnet after the march that "I am so very, very proud of you."
"We have to take action and be proponents of change," Poinsette said before enveloping the Lake Oswego Junior High sixth-grader in a big hug.
Wagner also praised Sonnet — and other local students — who have raised their voices in recent weeks through walkouts, "Walk Ups" and a lobbying trip to Salem.
"Our children are leading the way," he said. "They are now doing the work of social justice every day."
Wagner, Poinsette and others noted that the march coincided with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying it is important to remember and acknowledge the struggle and "how far we have to go to achieve equality — "equality of opportunity," Wagner said, "equality of treatment, equality under the law in our civic life and equality in our private lives."
"I will say, from my own experiences growing up in this community, that it is easy for the privileged to turn away from the most difficult conversations," Wagner said. "But it is the struggle of our times — the struggle for all times."
In the face of bullying and intolerance, Wagner said, students like Sonnet are fighting back.
"They are taking to the streets," he said, and that's exactly what happened Saturday when Sonnet led marchers through downtown Lake Oswego. She carried a sign that defined the word "eracism" as "the removal from existence of the belief that one race is superior to another."
Her father, Dave Lawson, sat at the corner of 10th Street and A Avenue with a sign that elicited honks from passing cars. "Only love can drive out hate," his sign said.
Sonnet, who said she has long been aware of bullying and hurtful behavior at her school, was inspired to take action after a group of students passed a racist note to an African American eighth-grader earlier this year. She attended a student-led walkout in the days following the incident, and says she was touched by the stories her classmates shared there.
"I wanted to make a positive change at my school," Sonnet said. "There's so much bullying and racism there. It's not a good thing. It's making people feel terrible, and no one should have to feel that way."
Her father said that when Sonnet came home with the idea for the march, he immediately agreed and helped her figure out the required steps, such as getting a permit and insurance.
"She sat down and started writing her speech right away," Dave Lawson said. "When I read it, I noticed that she had misspelled equality, adding a second L. The teacher in me wanted to change it, but my wife said we should keep it."
"Equality is for all," Sonnet explains. Thus, the "March for EquALLity" was born, and on Saturday it drew a crowd made up not only of adults but also children from preschool age to teens.
Laura Hjelseth brought her daughter Eliza to the march. Both carried signs, one saying "Respect Existence or Expect Resistance" and the other "It's chaos. Be kind."
"It's sad that we still have to do this," Laura said, "but I am hopeful for my community."
Sonnet said the event made her feel hopeful, too.
"Alone, I'm only a voice," she said, "but together, we can be the change that this world needs. We may be one town, but slowly, we can fix this broken world."