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Saturday, 12 October 2013

Where are the Young People?

By: Liberate Zealot

It's been several months since I've been able to write for Feminist Armchair Regime.  During this time I've been taking classes and teaching, first at a summer school, and now at an all girls public high school.  I've been so busy that actually seeing my live in partner is a struggle never mind writing for this blog.

But during this time I've seen and heard such amazing things from these teenagers.  Thoughts and beliefs and concerns that society seems so bent on refusing to acknowledge teenagers can have, especially the teenagers I work with. The vast majority of my students are black and living in or near poverty.  Some of them are teen moms, or homeless, or practicing Muslims who wear hijab.

Society has so many ideas about what teenagers like my students are like. Stereotypes about black people, and teen girls, and Muslim women, and poor children, and teen moms.  That they're unengaged and don't care about politics or feminism or LGBTQ rights.  I've heard so many people in power decrying the youth and their values.  And I constantly wonder what world these people are living in.

Because I live in a world where every feminist org or protest or rally I've been involved in has had at least half of the people participating be under the age of 30, and depending on the time there are a significant number of teenagers involved.

Some of my students regularly discuss if characters in the stories we read are feminist, none of my 150 students have ever questioned the importance of feminism.  Most find Malala Yousafzai inspirational and want to learn more about her.  Many are doing extra work to research women in literature.  They love Rosa Parks and are disappointed that more black women aren't commemorated in the Civil Rights movement.

And it isn't only the girls who are interested in these discussions.  Several black young men in my summer school class discussed the relationships between power and masculinity, wealth, and mental illness.  One knew the term and concept of Patriarchy as it's used in academia and social justice and was enthused to learn of Kyriarchy and the articulation of power structures that he was struggling to name.

And this high school I work at, full of African American teenagers, is one of the most LGBTQ friendly places I've been outside of official LGBTQ spaces.  Students who present in gender queer or butch ways are accepted.  The girls speak as positively about the lesbian relationships as they do about straight ones.  There is an active GSA.

And numerous students are interested in local and national politics, specially the government shutdown.  The day that happened several students came in to homeroom early to ask about the repercussions of the shutdown, and were horrified at museums being closed.  Some of my 13 and 14 year old students discussed the possibility of defaulting on our loans triggering another Great Depression.  And every single student is concerned about what this means of WIC and Head Start.

And one reason so many of these students are engaged, and so knowledgeable is because these concerns touch their lives so intimately. The pay gap is a much more pressing concern for black teenage girls than 20 and 30 something college educated white women.  It's the same for limitations to sex education, birth control, and abortion.  WIC and Head Start are what provided for many of my students when they were younger, some need it now for their children, otherwise they'd have to drop out of school and work full-time.

Police abuse and institutionalize racism in the legal system is something these children grow up knowing, elementary students can discuss Trayvon Martin, and not one of my freshman was unaware of lynchings or segregation or have hope for Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mocking Bird. My sophomores understand the struggle of Malala for an education much more so than the white kids in the suburbs that I've worked with, they understand it more personally than I do myself.

They also understand the concerns of health care and mental illness more personally than I do. They know what lack of health care feels like, they know the value of having it.  They know the importance of getting diagnosed and treated for mental health issues.  They know because they see their family members, or themselves, lacking that care, being under diagnosed.  They see that mental illness in poor black people is as likely to lead to prison as a psychiatrist.

They're much more knowledgeable and engaged than I was at their age. They care so much.  But their knowledge and experience and concerns are ignored by the very people in power who claim to lament their absence.
"Where are the young people?" they ask, "why don't young people care?" while they broadcast another interview with Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber or other wealthy, white, young people for whom feminism or politics can be concepts where engagement is unnecessary.

These people in power, very often white and middle class themselves rarely engage with the teen activists of TAP who are taking a stand in New York against Stop and Frisk. Or De'Jaun Correia a teenager who speaks internationally against the death penalty, and whose uncle is on death row, and remains unacknowledged outside of The ROOT.  A quick google for "black teen activists" contains more first page hits about the Trayvon Martin activists not speaking out against the beating of a white student than about current teenage African American activists.

So we have to look at the reality.  The young people are there, already as activists, or with all the passion ready to be engaged.  The issue isn't with them.  It's with us, the people in power who don't want to reach out.  Who don't want to work with poor black or immigrant teenagers.  Whose feminism or political activism doesn't actually care about the concerns of the passionate and informed youths in the US.  We'd rather maintain our privilege and decry the lack of youth engagement than admit it's not young people who are the problem, it's us.