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Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

“It’s just love, that’s it.”

To support my writing habit, I teach high school. More specifically, I facilitate learning to a curated group of curious, passionate, eager, and unsure young people. It’s an alternative school, small and family-like, with students from all over Central Ohio—New Albany to Groveport, Bexley to Grove City. We meet downtown and use the city as our campus, discussing, debating, and growing into an engaged learning community. Speak with any alumni and they will tell you that one of the most memorable learning experiences is the white privilege panel, during which we invite a group of people of color, from OSU professors to activists, to share personal stories about navigating the world in their skin. The students, in general, have a tough time with the concept of privilege—any privilege—as they’re desperate to believe in the American myth of meritocracy.

One year, a group of students was walking to the parking lot after the panel. No doubt there was a lot of discussion amongst them, a lot of goofing around, the loopy kind that only kids can do on a sunny fall day after being released from school. As they crossed Broad Street, an older woman was yelling that her purse had just been snatched. Sure enough, a young man was running away, purse straps flying behind him. One of our students threw down his backpack and ran after the thief. Two young men, running through the streets of downtown? Sure enough, a police cruiser rolled up—and stopped my student. The thief was white; my student, African-American. My kids were screaming, “It’s not him! It’s not him!” to deaf ears. Needless to say, that day the lesson of white privilege was punctuated out in the real world.

The student who dropped everything to help the victim? MarShawn McCarrel.

With his suicide last month on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, MarShawn’s name has been all over the world and back, in news stories and virtual vigils throughout social media, including a tweet by his celebrity crush, Kerry Washington. The Pyer Moss fashion show, styled by Erykah Badu, sent a model down the runway holding a sign printed with MarShawn’s last status update, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

MarShawn’s demons are our demons. A society riddled with systemic racism, classism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia. A society that refuses to take a good long difficult look in the mirror and acknowledge the roiling injustice underneath the surface, the murky miasma of history and power that allows for incidents such as Ferguson and Sandy Hook to go unchecked. A society wherein the stigma of mental illness goes largely unchecked.

As his teacher, I watched MarShawn discover the spoken word community. His poems lit whole rooms on fire and he eventually went on to compete with Columbus’s national slam team. After his graduation, I watched him grow into his voice as a community leader, often coming back to my classroom to speak to students about his experiences at the mic, both as a poet and as a burgeoning leader of the social justice movement. I would see him, from down in the crowd, at Black Lives Matter rallies, and marvel at a pure intensity for justice—matched only by his genuine smile and a warmth that welcomed all.

He was—and still is—a beacon.

He shone so bright because he was about love, not hate. Hate is easy; love is hard.

As a writer, I wrote about his organization, Pursuing Our Dreams, and its monthly Feed the Streets event. It’s important to note that Feed the Streets is not a charity. MarShawn was adamant that the group not take money from organizations, religious or corporate; that Feed the Streets would be youth-fueled.

“Our generation gets put on the back burner … the media loves the thought of us being out of control, they blame us for everything that’s wrong … ‘let’s blame the youth!’” he said. “I wanted to do something that was youth-led, something that shows leadership and shows people that we’re here, we care, and we know. It’s important that this is community taking care of community.”

And it’s important now that MarShawn’s death not be the end of his story, or even its focus. At a vigil held at Dodge Park last month, a speaker demanded of the crowd, what are you going to do tomorrow for MarShawn? It’s more than what we are going to do tomorrow, it’s what are we going to do in six months, a year, for the rest of our lives. Are we going to take our grief and turn it into action? Taking action need not be intimidating; it can be anything from helping a neighbor, tutoring young people at the rec center, to marching for equality.

For MarShawn, beyond the rallies, the arrests, the free meals, the mentoring, the organizing, it was all about one thing:

“It’s just love, that’s it.”

MarShawn’s legacy carries on in more ways than one. His foundation Pursuing Our Dreams is accepting donations that will be in the care of his mother, and Feed the Streets meets to distribute food to the community every Saturday. For more, visit facebook.com/PursuingOurDreams.