Getting Into ‘Good Trouble’

In his last words, published after his July 2020 passing, Congressman John Lewis appealed to the young people of America, noting that “ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century,” he continued, “let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war.”

A year after Lewis’ death, and a year after last summer’s great racial reckoning, we asked members of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power (STTP) Youth Advisory Board about what Lewis’ concept of “good trouble” meant to them and how it has had an impact on their own community organizing.

Zoel Boublil, a senior at George School in eastern Pennsylvania, said he sees “good trouble” as a phrase that boldly defies the status quo in favor of individual morality and lends legitimacy to those that people in power would love to brand as simple “troublemakers.” “For me, that means going out into the streets and protesting for what I believe in, no matter if that is in front of my town’s city hall or in front of the White House,” he said. “When I, or anyone else motivated to fight, makes their voice heard against what has been set down as absolute, they create a pathway for others to follow.”

Kevin Khadavi, a senior at Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, New York, said that he draws inspiration from Lewis, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, particularly the passage noting that “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Khadavi noted that both Lewis and King broke the law—they got into trouble according to the system’s definition, but the system was deeply flawed. Without people like fellow Freedom Rider Jerome Smith, Lewis, King, and other men and women who walked in their paths, the country would not have achieved the racial progress that it did.

What’s more, Khadavi noted, it takes persistence to achieve one’s goal. “John Lewis did not turn around back at the Pettus Bridge despite the demands of state troopers—he kept going,” he said. “It is precisely that type of courage and persistence that gives meaning to the words ‘good trouble.’”

Both teens, despite their youth, have years of experience in organizing. When asked to give advice to others interested in youth organizing, Boublil said it comes down to a simple word: “Try.”

“You may not feel that your voice is being heard, or that you aren’t making a difference, but what you do, whether you see it or not, may inspire someone like you to feel that they too can make a positive impact. In whatever small way you can, try to follow what you are passionate about, and soon enough the ways you can help will no longer be so small.”

Khadavi also stressed the importance of the “ability of youth to relate to other youth. When convincing others to become passionate about an issue, the greatest advantage one can ask for is the ability to relate to others. … If you have something good enough to say, others will surely hear it.”

Both young men also noted that the STTP program has connected them to other young people from around the world who are passionate and determined to fight for justice and equality.

“All of this passion begs the question, for me, What if we coordinated?” Boublil asked. “What if all of these driven young people could join forces? What if there was infrastructure to support youth in their efforts and help to give their fire some direction? That is what I believe my next effort should be. Organizing a community of young community organizers, a global network that can not only give people a path to youth organizing who don’t feel heard, not only help to coordinate global efforts, but also create a united front that can start some good trouble.”

Soon, Khadavi added, “the responsibilities of government will be entrusted to our generation, and it is imperative that we are informed, prepared, and passionate about the most pressing issues our nation faces.”