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Liana Willis ’19 Participates in Freedom Center Event

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O’Dowd’s Liana Willis ’19 was among a group of 20 Bay Area high school students selected by the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, to participate in a private dialogue with Congressman James Clyburn on the topic of leadership.

Representing South Carolina’s 6th District, Congressman Clyburn is the highest ranking African-American in the U.S. House of Representatives.

After meeting with the students in the afternoon on February 1st, Congressman Clyburn was the featured speaker at the Barbara Lee & Elihu Harris Lecture Series, co-produced by the Freedom Center and the Peralta Community College District, at Merritt College that evening.

“It was such an honor,” Willis said of her meeting with the civil rights icon. “It’s one thing to learn about someone in history books or in class, or see them on TV, but when you are face-to-face and get to shake their hand it’s much more influential.”

Congressman Clyburn, who was elected president of his NAACP youth chapter at the age of 12, encouraged the students in their civic engagement. “He reminded us that no matter how young we are we can still make a difference. That was important for us to hear,” Willis said.

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“He also talked about the importance of getting to know and appreciate the experiences of those who are different from us. He said experience is the best teacher, and that includes more than just our own,” she said.

Congressman Clyburn also urged the students to remain positive and remember small actions can have large impact. “Any change that we can make – no matter how seemingly small – is important and matters, because small changes can spiral into bigger change,” she said.

Willis participates in the Freedom Center’s Nonviolence Leadership Program, attending Saturday leadership classes at Merritt College and engaging in community projects, leadership exchanges and public speaking events.

Last spring, Willis was one of half a dozen students invited to go on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage with Congresswoman Barbara Lee to Alabama, where she visited the cities of Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and met with survivors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, bombed by Klansmen in 1963 and killing four little girls. “The experience provided an extremely powerful awakening,” she said.

Willis encourages her peers to consider attending events like the lecture series and become more civically engaged. “The difference between going to a lecture and staying home is a choice of activism in itself,” she said.


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