“Do you give a damn?” This is a question I want you to ask yourself. Do you give a damn about poverty? What about education? Immigration and the children separated from their families at the border? LGBT issues, economic development, elections—do you give a damn about any of these issues? What about the young African American men and women whom police routinely shoot down? Do you give a damn about the family of Emmett Till receiving justice? What about the Confederate flag still hanging over Mississippi, regardless of the terror it invokes?
Do you give a damn about anything besides yourself and your own life? I can't answer this question for you. You’re the only one who can give your honest answer, and I truly believe there's no right or wrong one. There is only the question, and your honest answer because you have to be willing to live in your own truth.
When I began my journey as a community leader, this was the question I had to answer for myself. Before I could step forward and become a voice for my community, and create a platform for bringing about change, I first had to decide whether or not I cared enough to do this.
The life of a community activist isn't glamorous. Fighting for justice isn't glitz and red-carpet affairs and photo-ops. This is a life that never allows you to truly rest because there is so much injustice in the world.
There are scores of urgent calls from people in the community who need your help, and and people spend hours upon hours organizing the community to come together so they can discover their strength in numbers.
None of this is easy. But I decided to do this because I didn't want anyone else to have to go through what I went through. I gave enough of a damn to make the conscious effort to do my part to create positive change for the generations after me.
I was born into poverty. It may be popular in some circles to denigrate my parents and grandparents for my family's condition. After all, there are many who believe hard work always provides a way out. While I strongly believe in hard work and dedication (because it does help open the door for more opportunities), I also know from experience that there's more to it than just that.
There are many who will not want to hear what I say next because it negates the idea that we are all somehow responsible for our own poverty. But I'm asking you to keep reading because I want you to know and understand my story.
I was born in a two-parent household. We literally had nothing but the clothes on our back and the small house we lived in. We lived in Fayette, Miss., one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the state.
"Why didn't you just work hard?"
We did! I watched as both my parents worked to maintain the little we had. I witnessed the grueling hours of hard work as my parents struggled to keep the roof over our family's heads.
We dealt with extreme poverty, but there was more to it than that: We also dealt with a debilitating mental illness in my father, which almost destroyed my family. I know my father loved us, but in his mental condition, he became suddenly incapable of showing this love to us, as he left my mother and his children to fend for ourselves.
Now my mother was left to pick up the pieces, attempting to put them back together as best as she could while providing for her children and keeping us safe. She worked hard, but her hard work simply was not enough. She did the best she could, and I will always love her for putting her children's needs above her own, always pushing us to succeed and reach for greater heights.
But my mother's love could not lift her family out of poverty. Her love couldn't heal my father's mental illness. Her love could not keep food on the table, even though she did her best to provide for us.
In my book, "Those Who Give a Damn," I talk about how poverty affected my early life. I talk about how hard it was to concentrate in school because I would often worry about whether or not we would have food on the table that night.
I use my book to detail my own life because I want to shine light on issues that communities don’t always discuss. It was easy for me to give a damn because I lived through this. I know what families are going through right now. I know what poverty really looks like.
There are many who speak callously on these issues. In a way, I get it because if you haven't faced these issues in your own life, it's difficult for you to understand. When I hear someone talk about poor people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, I realize that this is someone who probably comes from a wealthy family and has never had to struggle to survive.
This is why I take my responsibility serious: a voice for those who have been marginalized and forced to remain silent. The world will never understand unless we communicate our plight and the dark places our journeys have taken us.
Just because we were born at different ends of the economic spectrum doesn't mean we are so different. If our entire population had access to the same opportunities, I strongly believe that 99 percent of our population would succeed in their lives.
It becomes so easy to lose ourselves in the rhetoric and the "us versus them" mentality, but this sets our entire society up for failure. When we have no problem viewing our fellow man and woman and their problems they face as something that doesn't affect us, then I fear we have become heartless and are at risk of losing our humanity.
When I wrote "Those Who Give a Damn," it was because I wanted to use my life to inspire others. I have had a fulfilling journey as a public servant. My journey started when I was a teenager, and there have been highs and lows, but I have always tried to keep my eye on the goal—to put people first.
I know it's easy to become disillusioned and apathetic. It seems like every day brings a new depressing or disturbing headline. It's overwhelming. But as long as you concentrate on filling the needs of your community, you will find an immense reward in what you do.
There has to be a reason why we have not solved these crises yet. Perhaps it's because we've never really decided to truly give a damn about the issues that affect our fellow men and women.
Many people feel they can't make a difference. Well, as cliché as it may sound, change starts with one person: It starts with you and me.
To solve these issues, we have to first be willing to talk about them and let them enter our public consciousness. The conversation is only the beginning, the start of us being willing to focus on solving the issues that exist.
Duvalier Malone is an author, motivational speaker, community activist and CEO of Duvalier Malone Enterprises, a global consulting firm. He lives in Washington, D.C.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Jackson Free Press.