I grew up in a low income community in the Midwest that was predominately African American with a few scattered white, Hispanic, and American Indian families. My immediate neighborhood was surrounded by old factories, highways and upper-low income and middle class neighborhoods. Our community was filled with folks experiencing generational poverty, which is the experience of being poor handed down from generation-to-generation, and situational poverty, which is an interuption thrust upon a generation of a family that can either go on and on or be interupted itself. There was also talk of collective depression, the product of wide-ranging alcoholism, drug addiction, parental incarceration, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other challenging experiences affecting many of the families where I lived, including my own. All these factors were made worse by terrible schools, weak social support structures and distressing patterns of policing and economic imbalance throughout our community.
When I was young my family started attending a church where the minister was a former radical black activist in the 1960s and early 70s. By the age of 12 I had a firm understanding of who Malcolm X was, and how his role was important to my life as a white kid growing up in my neighborhood. Later when I started attending a more mainline congregation in my neighborhood I learned from former hippies and young idealists whose visions for social change were a little more subdued, but no less intense. It was also there that I met the city’s most important black actor and director, the man who helped me understand my life’s desire to work with young people in empowering and engaging ways. He was no less radical than my first minister, and taught me lessons about white flight, community organizing and race relations when I was a teen wrestling with the racial tension in my high school and the apparent ignorance of the adults who worked in that environment.
In response to this stimulus, and many other experiences that included violence and crime, activism and protest, police harrassment and educational neglect, and parental support and community values, I found my commitment to social justice growing into a powerful force in my early 20s. All these experiences helped form my understanding of Youth Voice, civic engagement, community organizing, radical democracy and educational progress. Traveling and living across the United States and in Canada I have found that these same experiences, as well as many others lived by black, brown and white kids in urban, rural and suburban communities all over, form all of our understandings of Youth Voice, civic engagement, community organizing, radical democracy and educational process.
Each of us must explore where our roots in this work are, and how those roots affect our efforts to create change. With that consciousness we can move forward in a deliberate and intentional relationship to ourselves and the world around us. Only then can we meet Gandhi’s charge to, “Be the change you wish to be in the world.”