February 6 2017

Editor’s Note: South Kern Sol’s Randy Villegas, 20, gave this speech at the “Day of Unity” event held on January 20 at the Liberty Bell in downtown Bakersfield. Hundreds of Kern County residents gathered that day despite the rain to rally together their support for a more inclusive community and nation.

Throughout the bitter election season we’ve seen the targeting of vulnerable communities including the poor, the undocumented, Muslims, Sikhs, Mexican-Americans, immigrants, and more. We are gathered here to say that we will not stand for hatred or intolerance in our community. Instead we stand together to illustrate that we are united and will stay loud for our community anytime there is injustice. We stand together to illustrate that we come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, but at the end of the day we are all Americans. We are Kern County. We are California. We are America.

As Americans it is our duty to stand up against injustice. Regardless of religion, color, gender, citizenship status, or sexual orientation, today we stand as one. When there is hate or intolerance in our community, we must stop it in its tracks. When there are inequalities that exist within our own institutions we must not be afraid to speak out against them.

We must call upon our local leaders to step up to the plate and build the political courage to stand up to hatred and intolerance.

We need leadership to speak against hate crimes in our community and media outlets to not sugarcoat the truth. When my colleague Balmeet Sing was the victim of a hate crime, I waited for media outlets and representatives to call for an end to Islamophobia, I waited to even hear the word spoken just once….the words never came. I did not hear any reporter or elected official call it what it was. Instead I heard other things like “As a Sikh man, he was mistaken for being a Muslim…” As if Mr Sing was a Muslim that this attack would somehow be justified. To be clear: It wouldn’t.  When the Islamic Center received death threats, again, silence from our elected officials. When our leaders stay silent, it is up to we the people to stand up and be the voice for the voiceless, and I thank each and every one of you for being that voice today.

Perhaps some feel emboldened by the recent political rhetoric. We are here because we are going to stay loud for the health of our community. What does that mean? It means we are here to fight for health and justice for all. We are gathered here to say that no man or woman should fear walking down the street in public because of the clothing the wear, the religion they practice, their gender identity or the person they love.

We are here to stand and say that a nine digit social security number does not make anybody more or less of a human being than someone else. We are here to say that diversity in our community is what truly makes Kern County and the United States a beautiful place to live in. We are here to say that no matter what church you go to, what music you listen to, or whatever you may believe, we can all stand up for justice alongside our brothers and sisters in Kern. We are here to say that every child deserves an equal opportunity at obtaining their education and pursuing their own American Dream. We are here to say simply, that WE are America.

While leadership  in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arvin, and other California cities have committed to protecting undocumented members of our community, our local government has remained almost silent on the issue. School boards across the state and across the nation have committed to ensuring that their facilities will be a safe zone for their dreamers, but our local Kern High school district has remained silent. I applaud the efforts of Bakersfield College as they remain committed to supporting their dreamers, but we need more leadership to step up to the plate.

We need our local school board trustees to assure undocumented students they will be safe at the place where they go to learn and thrive. We need our local city council to assure people in our community that no matter who steps into the white house, they will be safe in our community, regardless of their race, religion, their gender identity, or the person that they love. We need to assure families in fear that we will do everything to help them, from offering sanctuary in places like churches and schools, to perhaps even raising money for legal fees.

California leadership as a whole has taken steps towards progress and protecting our communities. For far too long Kern County has gone ignored. We need leadership to step up and speak out for social justice. We are here, and we are calling you out.

We need intersectionality. As my good friend Whitney put it, we need to speak up on the issues, even if you feel it has no direct relation to you. All you need is compassion, empathy, and a belief in social justice and equality for all. Why am I hear today? I’m not gay. I’m not Muslim or Sikh. I am not undocumented. However, I don’t need to be religious in order to stand up for Muslims and Sikhs who have been targeted for hate crimes, and simply want to live in peace and pursue their own American dream. I don’t have to be gay in order to stand against the school board members who bullied Transgender students and I didn’t have to vote for a mayor that stated they “didn’t know” whether they’d participate at a Gay Pride Parade. I don’t have to be undocumented to know that a 9 digit social security number doesn’t make anyone more or less of a human being than someone else. Whether you are an African American, an Asian American, A Mexican American, a Native American, a Caucasian American, we are all Americans. That is why today my brothers and sisters we stand together for unity.

Regardless of the color of your skin, the religion you practice, or the person you love, I will stand by you. We will stand by you. And I hope you stand alongside me. There are dark days ahead. But all of you standing here today represent the light that will shine brightly through any rain that will come our way. You are the light that will bring true unity to our community. Together we will create a future to believe in.

This commentary originally ran in South Kern Sol. Click here to read it there. South Kern Sol is supported by a grant from The California Endowment.