A historic luncheon at which Mrs. Opal Lee, 95, who is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” because of her activism to make June 19 a federally recognized holiday, met with Raveen Arora, 72, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, for the first time on November 10 at Hackberry Creek Country Club in Irving.
Before the luncheon, Arora released this statement:
This meeting today with Ms. Opal Lee is one of the highlights of my life. The circumstances of our lives have been different, yet we have much in common. We both have experienced the pain of discrimination and racism at an early age, she from white supremacists who burned down her home when she was a child—racism made worse by violence. My family experienced institutional racism left over from British rule of India, the same racism that I had to overcome as a child. I was present when my grandfather was forbidden to enter a “whites only” cricket club because “Indians and dogs were not allowed.”
But those same circumstances of my life led me to meet many famous people who helped shape the person I am today. These have included Mother Teresa when I was six years old. She became my mentor and teacher as I was growing up, teaching me compassion, humility, dignity, and respect. Later in life, at the age of 11, I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom I discussed the inequality that I had experience in India, and which had triggered my passion for helping others. He taught me that it is good to be blessed, but it is better to be a blessing. Much later, I met Muhammad Ali and then Congressman John Lewis, and learned much from both men.
All these people left a profound impact on me and the way I lived my life and operated my businesses. I think the results can be seen in some of the awards I was lucky to receive and that were the underpinning of my nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. These included the Mother Teresa International Service Award; the Martin Luther King Jr Diversity Award; National Restaurant Association Face of Diversity – American Dream Award; and the National Diversity Council’s Diversity First Award.
I list these awards not to highlight myself, but to show the similarities between what I work towards and what Ms. Lee also works towards and what she has achieved—she is already in the history books for her achievements! Our similarities lie in our beliefs about equality, diversity, opportunity.
My signature phrase is “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me" Hers is “None of us are free until we’re all free.” We are in fundamental agreement on both phrases.
Both high-achieving people share the same message of freedom and basic human rights.
“This was totally mutual,” said Arora. “I can call it the mutual admiration society. We are the two people committee. Because I always say you can be a one-man army. You can make a difference.”
“When the slaves were told they were free, they had to make decisions right then. And information is power. So that's what's empowering of the individual because you can give somebody food. But if you're not giving them the tools in which to make changes and decisions to better their lives, then you're crippling them,” said Dione Sims, Lee’s granddaughter, and publicist.
Sims also said that the news of the end of slavery didn’t take two-and-a-half years to reach Texas.
“That's the thing that we have to get people to understand. It is not that [slaves] didn't know. It was a lack of enforcement. The slave owners did know. They got newspapers, just like everybody else.
“[Slave owners] wanted to keep [slaves] as long as they could. And so, with enforcement came freedom. But they knew, and even the slaves had heard about it. But if I were a runaway slave, I might get brought back and something worse happens to me. So, it's not that they didn't know,” Sims explained. “And this was way before the social media that we're so used to getting. There was no news 24 hours a day. There was no Twitter. There was no Instagram. There was no internet,” Sims said.
“So, our goal is to empower folks by giving them the tools to be successful or to inspire them to want more or to seek out the best life they can have. Because the slaves had decisions to make when they were freed. They had to make decisions and information was their best tool. And so, some chose to stay in work, some chose to go find their family, some chose to go even further north, where they heard opportunity was. They just didn't have to go by way of the Underground Railroad. So, we just want to give folks the tools to live,” Sims said.
“And I kind of think like other people have, whatever their ethnicity, they're sort of enslaved by society, media, social media. The only time we were born free was when we were born. We were born men and women. We were born free. But there are boxes everywhere that keep us in chains,” said Arora.
“This is the bane of society for the future. You know, when you bring politics into life, instead of humanity, instead of God, who made us all equal, the real message gets lost. We smile the same way. We laugh the same way. We cry the same way. Our tears are the same.
“The face of tomorrow is not just why it's black, brown, and yellow. We are a melting pot. And that's what tomorrow is about, is about hope. It's about togetherness. It's about inclusivity. “Gone are the days when we were just black and white. Because color is only in our eyes. God has no color. God has no religion. God has no calendar. We were all born free, and we laugh the same way. We cry the same way. Our tears are the same. There are no black tears or colored tears; tears are tears. So, if we believe in shared humanity, if we believe in this, we will definitely have a brighter tomorrow. Today may not look as bright. But tomorrow, I shall assure you if our kids are taught tolerance, that we will have a brighter tomorrow because once you're looking here [at us], we’re black, brown, and yellow and white. This is your face,” Arora concluded.
Lee also spoke about her views about the pandemic.
“I'm saying be cautious. I'm assuming that people my age have already gotten their shots and the booster shots. And then we'll go on to spend time with family. But then, we still need to wear the mask. We still need to do whatever we are told to help keep the family safe because [COVID] seems to be in an uptick. And then it slows down again. I have no idea when it's going to all be over,” Lee said.
Both Arora and Lee described their plans for Thanksgiving.
Mrs. Lee has a Thanksgiving tradition of gathering and delivering turkeys.
“I still have things to do. Today was my day to take Thanksgiving boxes to 20 odd people who rely on my getting it to them. I usually do 10 boxes the first of the month and 50 boxes the 15th of the month for this Thanksgiving. So, I've got 20 boxes, and I've got a young man who's going to do the delivery. And he's going to check with me because I'd rather be here,” Lee said.
“I am going to Mexico for microfinance, education, to have a lot of meetings, but the message is the same. You give where you live. You get where you live. I live here,” Arora said. “And what you gave is not just money; what you gave is hope and dignity to people. We have to die, and the one word that I am trying to share in my holiday message is ‘dignity.’ Give people that dignity. They may be down. They may be out. They may be depressed, but don't steal that dignity. Don't take the dignity away. Because I know how I was excluded. I know how our self-esteem was when we were refugees. We had to go to those food banks, the ration shops, and people thought they're giving you food, but actually, they were dispensing poverty.
“So, to me, as a kid whose first full breakfast was with Mother Teresa at the age of eight, you can imagine if poverty is your best friend, if hunger is the only thing you know, you also will know what it does to people. I can empathize. Okay, give them food. Give them food, give them hope. Give them dignity. Because that is what is lacking today is a sense of dignity. We can give them money but, give them dignity. That's shared humanity. I'm sure Miss Lee, in the way we are people of color, understands. Is our self-esteem low now? We stand tall. We are people rising like the Phoenix, trying to make a difference. Are we able to keep going despite our age? Yes, because we don't believe that this is the last day of our life. But this is the first day of our life and we have lot more miles to go,” Arora concluded.
Both honorees plan to create more humanitarian events in the future, both separately and together.
For more information about Ms. Lee, click HERE.
For more information about Mr. Arora, click HERE.