Senate Youth Program Washington Week 2018 delegates share personal reflections on the inspiration of Congressman John Lewis

Delegates to the 2018 United States Senate Youth Program were able to share a memorable afternoon with Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis. Upon returning to their hometowns and families after the program, each student had the opportunity to reflect upon this experience, one of the most memorable in USSYP history. We share these excerpts with you now as a lasting tribute to an American hero who asked all of us to join him in fostering the “Beloved Community.”

Representative John Lewis (D-GA-5th) addresses delegates at the 56th Annual United States Senate Youth Program.

 As Congressman John Lewis walked into the room where we were all seated for lunch, it became so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. One of my favorite things he told us was, “When something isn’t right, we have the moral obligation to do something.” This rang especially true for me, as I realized that I needed to take a more active role in the issues I believe in. Often, we just stand by and let others fix the injustices in society, and his words made me realize that I have the power as a young person to make a profound change in our nation. I shouldn’t feel limited by being too young or too inexperienced. After all, he was only a student when he was fighting for racial equality.  Kate De Groote, UT – 2018

I have never witnessed more respect garnered by a single man than the respect I observed Congressman Lewis receive. There was an indescribable silence in the room ― a silence perpetuated by intense respect and the realization that history was before us. We clung to every word uttered by Congressman Lewis, listening in awe to his stories of persecution, struggle, and triumph.  Joseph Derrico, OH – 2018

Representative John Lewis told us, “Do what you can to help redeem our nation.” Not everyone has to be an elected official to make a difference. Again, it seems obvious – but it really wasn’t to me. Public service has taken on a new meaning for me, and I strive to do something for the community good every single day.  Logan Cobb, AL – 2018

One hundred and four high school student delegates – two from each state, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity – took part in the 56th annual United States Senate Youth Program held in Washington, DC from March 3-10, 2018.

After all, the humanity in politics drives the desire to become a public servant. To devote one’s life to positive, impactful change requires a degree of self-sacrifice; this trait proved exemplary in each leader who spoke with us. Especially with the inspiring words of Congressman John Lewis, I learned that progress often comes with a level of personal risk. Nonetheless, Congressman Lewis explained that we must do what we can to redeem our country, and his message of persistence particularly resonated with me. Grace Dragna, LA – 2018

In the face of societal tensions and perceived discouragement, we must use our frustrations and translate them into actions. Perhaps no person embodies this philosophy better than Congressman John Lewis, who we were fortunate to hear at a luncheon in the Mayflower Hotel. Experiencing a life of oppression and injustice, Congressman Lewis transformed his pain into a productive life of service and advocacy. In his concise, yet powerful, speech, Congressman Lewis inspired us with his willingness to defend human rights at the risk of his own safety. While no words can do justice to the significance of Congressman Lewis’s actions, we honor his efforts by continuing that same commitment to public service in our own lives. Dashiell Chin, MA – 2018

The most memorable person I had the opportunity to meet during Washington Week was Representative John Lewis. His mere presence in the hallway of the hotel was enough to quiet over 100 teenagers!  As he made his way to the podium all of our eyes followed him. The history to which he had not only been witness to, but a significant actor upon, was palpable. The story of his childhood and how he actually wanted to become a reverend and how would practice preaching to the chickens made us laugh. Especially when he said that sometimes the headless chickens were easier to talk to than some of his colleagues. He made us cry when he talked about the time he came within inches of dying as a teenager when marching for civil rights.  I know that had an impact on every single delegate in that room. When I looked around the room at my fellow delegates, no matter their party affiliation, so many of them had tears in their eyes after hearing everything Representative Lewis did for this country and continues to do. He ended his speech to us with a quote that will live with me forever, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, and not just, you have a moral obligation to do something!” Representative Lewis’ quote perfectly embodies why I want to pursue a career public service. I want to fight against and reverse the injustices that exist today. USSYP has affirmed my desire to pursue that career path.  Jamie Roa, MD – 2018

Congressman John Lewis also implored me and my fellow delegates to be optimistic about the future. As he recounted his upbringing as a child who talked to his family’s chickens to becoming a Civil Rights icon, I realized that I had tears streaming down my face. Congressman Lewis’ instructions to “Never give up, never give in, and never lose hope” will forever ring through my ears whenever I am disillusioned about the state of politics in our country.  Caroline Baldacci, ME – 2018

We were graced by the presence of Civil Rights activist turned Congressman, John Lewis. I asked this last living member of the Big Six Civil Rights leaders whether or not he believes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled. He answered with a reluctant yet inspiring “no, but we are close.” Representative Lewis preached that I would not recognize my home state of Mississippi even 40 years ago. Just his mere company was incredible. Noah Harris, MS – 2018

USSYP delegate Noah Harris (MS – 2018)

Reflecting upon my week in Washington, one of the most memorable moments was waiting for Congressman John Lewis to walk into the room to speak to us. At one point everyone went silent, even though he wasn’t even about to walk in, which accurately demonstrates the excitement and anticipation we had for this meeting. Being in the same room as one of the most influential leaders in the Civil Rights Movement was astounding and inspiring.  Hali Kapperud, MT – 2018

My favorite speaker was Congressman John Lewis. As a young child, I learned about his impact in forging civil rights in America. When Congressman Lewis spoke to us, on the anniversary of when he was almost brutally killed crossing the Pettus Bridge, I could not help but cry. Not only was I in the presence of one of the last standing leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but Congressman Lewis instilled lasting words of hope within us all. His unwavering belief that full equality will come for all, further ignited my passion to continue fighting for socioeconomic equality.  Kimberly Collins, NY – 2018

Congressman John Lewis’s words were powerful, they were fierce, and they liberated my mind and sparked an epiphany. I remember sitting down while going through all of Meg’s tissues and asking myself, “how can words be this powerful?” There are superheroes in this world, and there are also those who created the paradigm for these superheroes to follow. Congressman John Lewis is indeed a creator of this paradigm.  Taiwo Odunowo, NJ – 2018

When John Lewis arrived in the State Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, the whole room stood in one uniform motion and began to clap, hard, for this legend that was standing before us. After he spoke, we resumed our standing ovation and clapped with more vigor, because we were no longer applauding a legend, a being of mythic achievements.  We were recognizing a man who had seen injustice and spent his whole life fighting to remedy it. In a matter of mere minutes, the Congressman transformed from an untouchable idol to be revered into a role model to be emulated. His noble actions were not simply a thing to congratulate, but a standard to strive for.  It was evident that he inspired a roomful of leaders to follow in his footsteps.  Kendall Haase, TX – 2018

One of the most inspiring speakers of the week was civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis. Even sitting in the same room as a historical icon was a surreal experience. Congressman Lewis spoke at length about civic engagement and standing up for what you believe in. These remarks not only encouraged me to continue my interest in politics but also helped me understand the purpose of the United States Senate Youth Program: to provide an opportunity for students to gain an in-depth view of the federal government and to encourage youth participation and activism. Ultimately, I walked away from the program more excited about public service than ever.  James Gulick – IL 2018

I close my eyes and I’m suddenly standing in the middle of a Mayflower Ballroom with a microphone in my hand, tears streaming down my face. Alone – except for my 103 fellow delegates – and, oh yeah, Congressman John Lewis. staring right at me. I wipe away a tear as I apologize and stumble over my words. It’s all a blur, but I remember thanking him. For what? I don’t remember. Inspiring me, I hope. Risking his life. Fighting so that I can exist.  Samantha O’Sullivan, DC – 2018

USSYP delegate Samantha O’Sullivan (DC – 2018)

I also embark upon the emotions of gratitude and the withdrawal of reality that came with meeting an elder of our nation, Representative John Lewis. I felt like I had literally met history. I was living in a moment of history that was encompassed in one man. This is a man who helped organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, having a determination driven by the ideal of doing all that it took in a peaceful manner to break down the barriers and thorns of institutional racism. He served our nation in a way that some would not be able to in today’s era. He put his life on the line and held himself to the true virtue that sometimes one must sacrifice all that’s valuable to them, to carry out a greater purpose that exceeds personal gain. I learned from the Representative that we must always speak truth to power, while we walk the talk.  Robert Nishemwe, IA – 2018

Out of all these incredible speakers, Congressman Lewis was the most remarkable. From the instant he entered the room, we all felt the weight of history, a palpable sense of his perseverance and sacrifice in the face of hatred. He spoke with a gentle resolve, his words infused with a dedication driven by love. His very presence brought me to tears. Congressman Lewis reminded us that our work is not finished and instilled in us the sense of duty we have to further the cause of justice and equality.  Elizabeth Hopkinson, MA – 2018

I will never forget scribbling down every word Representative Lewis uttered, tearing up at just the thought that I was in the same room as a civil rights icon. So, I kept scribbling, hoping that the words I heard him say would carry me through life in pursuit of justice. I will never forget the deep breath and pause he took before saying to a room full of excited, motivated, and emotional teenagers that one must “be fearless in the fight that sets your heart on fire.”   Abigail Rosten, MT – 2018

One of the most moving speakers in the program was meeting United States Representative and civil rights’ leader John Lewis. Another delegate described the feeling in the room before he walked in as similar to that before a king or president arrives in a room. There was a hush unique to the most respected and revered of our leaders. To see the impact that Representative Lewis has had on so many Americans was truly inspiring. I have rarely seen a room as full of adoration.  Harrison Bushnell, VT – 2018

2018 Georgia delegates Kendall Chamberlain and Aaron Fondal greet Congressman John Lewis outside the State Ballroom of The Mayflower Hotel.

© Photos by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin