Guest Post: Four years later, the family of Tyler Clementi is making a difference in all our lives

Today is the four year anniversary of the death by suicide of Tyler Clementi. Sean M. Kosofsky, the Executive Director for The Tyler Clementi Foundation, shares a reflection on how the Clementi turned a personal tragedy into a public call for action.

In 1994 I was in a production of “Quilt: A Musical Celebration” about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and my favorite line was, “Out of something terrible, there is something beautiful.” That was 20 years ago this month. Since I started with the Tyler Clementi Foundation in August, those words have been ringing in my ears.

Four years ago, today, Tyler Clementi took his own life after being humiliated by his college roommate at Rutgers University. A string of high profile bullying related suicides in the fall of 2010 galvanized international attention to bullying and victimization of LGBTQI young people. For some reason Tyler’s case garnered the most attention and the Clementi family was thrust into the national spotlight. Not only did the Clementi family have to deal with the loss of their son, but they also had to navigate the criminal prosecution, the media attention and the strong undercurrent of global anger about what happens to youth like Tyler.

The AP ran a great story this weekend about how the Clementi family never retreated. They instead dedicated their lives to service. They formed The Tyler Clementi Foundation with the goal of creating safe and welcoming spaces for marginalized and LGBTQI youth. Several years after forming, the organization is stronger than ever with a larger board, its first full-time executive director, a growing budget, and a tighter national programmatic focus. The public good will, generosity and careful planning of the organization, are helping to turn this organization into a valuable player in the anti-bullying field.

Tyler had people around him who knew about the humiliation and harassment but didn’t stand up for him, or offer a kind word of support. Our organization is laying the groundwork for how more people can become “upstanders” by not being “bystanders.” It starts with a simple pledge.  Pledges are interesting things. They focus us on a set of principles and behavior and give us a language about the world we want to create.  They allow us to take a stand and to share with others what we are willing to do.

If we are going to make something wonderful out of something terrible it will come from a collective public will to insist on online and offline compassion and kindness. It means taking the radical step to stop, think about our words and actions and our inactions. Indeed, in a world of vitriol and polarizing rhetoric, it could be the simplest and cheapest solution that has the most powerful and far reaching effect. Youth, like Tyler, didn’t (don’t) receive that and we must do better.