For me, Kelly is a bright light in a dark room—heck, a bright light in any room. When I was happy, she was right there ready to magnify, and when I was sad, she was a hug waiting to happen. For all the years I knew her, she always seemed to have a divining rod for darkness: finding and illuminating the injustices suffered by the downtrodden, disenfranchised, marginalized, or targeted. My first glimpse of Kelly’s knack for this came in high school, in freshman debate, when we learned about the Rwandan genocide and discussed the extent to which the US should support UN Peacekeeping operations. Kelly’s debate just had a way about it, imputed with this fervor and expression that these stories were more than words on a page; they were people. The next year, the topic was unlawful detention, and that same fervor was present again in Kelly’s argument. No matter what the group or what the distance, it was as though Kelly’s heart was being shared with them.
This is the same feeling I always felt when Kelly was in the room—that her heart was being shared with me and with all of us. It didn’t matter if it was one-on-one or in a group. With Kelly, everyone was included; everyone had value and a voice; everyone mattered. This is one of the things I miss most about her and work ardently to seek out and to emulate. Sometimes when I’m in a random place and I least expect it, someone will do something or say something that is just “so Kelly” and, all of the sudden, I’m awash with a warmth and comfort of a friend in the room. A couple years ago, I was a press intern for the First Lady, and as I’m standing in the back of this ballroom full of kids and press and staff, the First Lady is up front taking questions from the kids. She selects a ten-year old girl in the front row named Charlotte, who stood up, went to the First Lady, handed her a piece of paper, and in a flurry of words said “my dad’s been out of a job for three years and I wanted to give you his resume.” The First Lady, without missing a beat, knelt down, gave Charlotte this engulfing embrace, and assured her “I got it.” So Kelly.
I’ve been working lately on a pro bono asylum case with a couple of attorneys, and the other day, one of them called me. I was buried in work, but answered like I always do, in a sort of chipper “how’s it going?” kind of way. We talked for maybe a minute, and then, out of the blue, the attorney asks me if everything is okay. She said I sounded stressed and asked if I’m being overworked or need a hand. It didn’t matter that she had way more on her plate than I did, that my work is not hers to do; she just heard it in my voice and offered a lifeline. So Kelly.
I try every day to see people and help people and listen to people the way Kelly did so naturally. While I’m nowhere near as good at it, I know that every bit of effort I put toward that goal is a positive step. Even though I will likely never be Kelly-level at this, it’s the little steps: helping others, speaking kindly, being compassionate. In the same way that one voice at a rally may seem inconsequential or like never enough, when paired with the other voices speaking out for the same cause, carrying forward the same positivity and the same light, that one voice is powerful. Kelly’s light was ultraviolet; we all know it. And if we strive to be ultraviolet, we may get there. Whether we get to that level or not though, our positive efforts, that positive force will bring light into spaces of the world that otherwise would be shrouded in darkness.
I’m not particularly good at expressing my emotions or sharing, but when Kelly passed, it felt like the lights in my room went off. It was my friends in New York and Kansas City, the warmth of Kelly’s family, and the little sparks of Kelly I see in others that turned the lights back on for me. Being a force for good in the world, to me, is not about scale so much as it is about persistence. Darkness, sadness, and injustice are everywhere, on scales large and small. Wherever you live, whatever you do, whenever you have an opportunity to make something better or make something brighter, if you take that opportunity to bring the greatest force and the brightest light to the situation, not only can we eliminate the darkness, we can inspire others to take up the light and spread it in their own situations and their own world. Sometimes, no matter how much positivity and good we bring to the world, we’ll stumble into black holes ourselves. The really cool thing about all this though is that if you’ve devote time to spreading light to your world and to those around you, those very same people will be there to relight your world.
I heard a lot of adages growing up like “leave things better than you found them,” “to think globally, act locally,” and “always pay it forward”. These sorts of things inspired me to be active in Boy Scouts and Relay For Life, to acknowledge the opportunities and privileges I have been fortunate to receive, and to use those opportunities as a chance to give others a voice, or to spread a positive message as far as possible. Kelly was an exemplar in this area, and I so admire her ability to find these causes and issues and just drive directly at them at 100 miles per hour. Her work with Amnesty International and the Global Justice Center shows Kelly’s immutable dedication to not only being the biggest force for good in her personal world, but to seeking out darkness elsewhere in order to shine light and be a voice in those crowds too. When we’d get together, we’d often talk about people we admired like Bryan Stevenson, Elizabeth Warren, and Justice Ginsburg. The remarkable thing about these individuals is that they spread good in their own spaces and, though some are more vocal than others, the values they represent are clear, the purity of their message is intact, and their positive impact on our national dialogue and forward steps is immeasurable.
What I’ve learned from Kelly is that it doesn’t matter what my area of focus is, what my profession is, where I live, or where I’m from. There is a world around all of us, and if we share love and kindness and compassion with everyone, and if we listen and act in ways that improve the lives of others, the world will be a better place. Kelly showed us the incredible impact one person can make, and if we can take what we’ve learned from her—to be a positive force for good, to be the light—and apply it to our own situations, perhaps we can fashion a world in which we see Kelly in a lot more places in a lot more ways. Then we can always look around and say to ourselves “Ah, so Kelly.”