What Cause Will You Fight For?

Activist Shaun King spoke to high school students at the International Baccalaureate World Student Conference about advocating for their beliefs and remaining hopeful for change.

July 16, 2018

Activist Shaun King. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Briahnna Brown

There are two reasons that activist and humanitarian Shaun King keeps fighting for what he believes in, and neither of them is righteous, he said.

He wants to create a better future for his five children, and he is unable to turn away or ignore the families who reach out to him for help.

Mr. King told his story to a group of about 200 high school students on Wednesday afternoon at the George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre as part of the International Baccalaureate World Student Conference. The weeklong conference, which was sponsored by Enrollment and the Student Experience, brought students from 12 countries, including Ecuador, Nigeria and Turkey, together to discuss student activism and social justice in a global context.

During Mr. King’s keynote talk, he addressed many of the questions the students had about making a difference in the world.

He had been an activist against police brutality in college and the years immediately after, when he organized and protested in response to the police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell in New York. But after getting married and having children, he became less active in social justice movements.

That changed in the summer of 2014 when a friend of his sent him a video that showed NYPD choking in a headlock a man he later learned was Eric Garner. Mr. King said he couldn’t forget it and shared it on his Facebook page, which back then only had a few friends following it compared to the 1.8 million followers Mr. King’s page has today. The video went viral a few days later, and he said he became obsessed with the case.

So Mr. King began fighting for justice in the aftermath of the death of Mr. Garner and other black men—including Michael Brown, John Crawford and Tamir Rice—at the hands of police that year.

Mr. King said he met the families of these victims, and he implored them to have faith that they would get justice.

“I didn't think I was lying, I didn't think I was exaggerating, I didn’t think I was overpromising,” Mr. King said. “I could not imagine a scenario in which none of those families would get justice.

“In fact, in 2014, about 1,100 people were killed by American police, and not a single family in the country got justice,” Mr. King added.

He said that rather than steadily improving over time in the way technology has, human history has peaks and dips. The country today is in a “disturbing, problematic dip in the quality of humanity,” Mr. King said.

He is discouraged by the fact that some of those dips last for generations but encouraged by the fact that Americans have always found their way out of every dip. It will take almost extreme effort to get out of the dip the country is currently in, Mr. King said.

“The hard lesson is that many of us thought that being right could get us out of some of our worse problems, and that's not how society works,” Mr. King said. “Being on the right side of an issue, being principled, having integrity is the right thing to do, but it also requires a level of strategy and organization to match your principles to find our way out of where we are.”

He said that there are four elements needed to effect real change in the world: energized people, organized people, sophisticated plans and a lot of money. He noted that it’s easy to get energized people together, but no change comes of it because of a failure to effectively organize and utilize people’s skills and passions to make a difference.

Even if people in a movement are energized and organized, Mr. King said, rarely is their plan as complex and sophisticated as the problem, especially when people are in a constant state of crisis. And ultimately, even with those three things, Mr. King said, no real progress can be made without significant resources.

“I still have hope because I don't believe for the worst problems in this country, we've gotten all four of those things moving at the same time,” Mr. King said. “If we had thrown all four of those things at our worst problems, and they still didn't go anywhere, I would be depressed, but we've mainly thrown energy at our problems.”

Mr. King encouraged the students to find one social issue to dedicate their lives to so they can effectively fight for it. He said that it’s a painful decision to choose one cause, but it’s a necessary decision to make any real progress.

He told them to think about what breaks their heart the most about the world, which is very connected to each individual’s human story, and dedicate themselves to making a difference in that cause.

“My dream for all of you is to be able to find the thing that makes you come alive, and for you to be able to do that in service of the thing that breaks your heart,” Mr. King said. “I hope that you can eventually bring your gifts with your frustrations together, and they can begin working in concert with one another.”