In 2000 I was working as the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction‘s Youth Ambassador position where I was responsible for coordinating the statewide essay contest for K-12 students focused on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also met Sasha Rabkin, who has worked for the Institute for Community Leadership for a long time. Between the contest and Sasha’s influence I became acutely aware of the power Dr. King had over the lifeblood of this nation, as well as people around the world. Beyond the mythologizing of King’s work, there is a deep power inside of his words and actions, and they resonated deeply in me.
The other thing that happened that year is that after spending a few years previous reading John Holt, Grace Llewellyn and Billy Upski, among others, I decided to become involved in the youth rights movement. That year I submitted a poem to be included on the National Youth Rights Association‘s website, and I named it after Dr. King’s 1963 book called Why We Can’t Wait.
Following is that poem, with a few revisions. There are strands about adultism, systemic oppression and alienation throughout. Another NYRA supporter felt moved enough to make a song from it a few years later. Let me know what you think of either one!
Why We Can’t Wait
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I look at the people around me
and see the prisons and traps
we are all stuck.
From an early age we are taught and trained:
sit still, hold on, walk (don’t run),
and be quiet.
Whatever you do, be quiet.
So we do. We go to polite schools or content jobs.
We type and read and feel nice.
Our hair is nice and our hearts are nice.
We live nice lives.
But what if…
what if we were shown the whole picture
from the first day?
What if they said
“Hey, when you’re poor, you’re screwed.
If you’re black, you’re facing an uphill road.
If you’re female, you’re up a creek.
Oh, yeah, and you’ll be young too!
Let’s not even go there!”
What if we could awaken all people to the chains that tie them down?
What if everyone saw that
we are responsible for holding ourselves down?
What if the message of systematic and deliberate oppression
was exposed and the entire society
– everyone everywhere-
saw that young people are
looked down upon,
and shat upon?
Then they become adults.
The world turns.
They start pooping on youth…
and the cycle continues.
We’ve gotta speak up, act up, and quit
putting up, giving up and settling down.
We cannot wait any longer.
Its time to get up, stand up, scream out loud and dream out loud.
We’ve gotta break outta the chains that hold us down.
We’ve gotta stand up for what is ours:
To earn, to learn, to speak, to serve.
We’ve gotta tie people together
instead of tearing them apart.
We’re taught that we’re not the same because we are
young and old
black and white
educated and ignorant
rich and poor.
But we’re the same.
And that’s why young people have got t be free.
No one is free until everyone is free. Free Youth Now.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below!