Exciting Youth Activism

People get excited watching the news. Like playing a fiddle, newscasters portray very depressing, very upsetting and slightly uplifting events as if they were regular, everyday events. Youth activism has fallen prey to this.

Using young activists as exceptional fodder to capture the attention of viewers and readers, sources including social media, newspapers, websites and television have taken comfort in knowing whenever they show a certain 16-year-old activist they’ll upset particular viewers into calling, emailing or responding somehow.

These same sources quickly post the latest protests, highlighting the picket signs and skin colors of the youth protesters. They are pulling on heartstrings of supporters, and pushing the buttons of haters.

Exciting youth activists aren’t to blame for this either. This isn’t a call to “get those kids off the stage.” Instead, I want to challenge the media to stop sensationalizing and tokenizing youth activism. This doesn’t mean they should normalize it, but it also means that they should quit with the alienation and separation of youth activists in the media. Infantilizing youth activists has to quit, too; when a large school district recently gave youth one day off yearly for civic engagement, a lot of media wrangled their hands at overwhelming the kids. Apparent indifference is no answer either, as was the media’s response to 20 years of activism before today.

Let’s move away from all the bogus responses to youth activism, and instead increase peaceful, kind and accepting responses that will benefit us all.

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The Role of Culture in Youth Action

Culture can seem like a hard thing to understand. We know that it includes the arts, like music and painting and sculpture. We know it includes our appearances, including whether we’re gender conforming, which clothes we have on, how we style our hair (or lack thereof!). Culture can be the songs, stories, beliefs, attitudes and abilities we share with others. It can mean a lot more, too.

Youth action happens in a lot of different ways, too. Consciously, connectedly and deliberately, young people around the world are organizing themselves, younger and older people to make a difference in so many different ways.

Culture connects youth action to longer traditions that are more inherent within society. By tapping into these rich veins of connectedness, children and youth build culture and change the world at the same time. Here are some examples of youth action through culture:

It’s about time we look for opportunities to do this work intentionally. Only when understand the power of culture can we truly make a difference.

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This Isn’t An “Ah-Ha” Moment

In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.

However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!

 


 

Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:

Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.

Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.

Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.

Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.

I have researched and written about dozens of other issues too, sharing examples and more, as well as actions taken and strategies employed to foster social change. THIS IS HAPPENING NOW.

 


 

Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.

Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.

Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.

However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.

 

How to keep youth changing the world by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World

  1. Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
  2. Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
  3. Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.

 


 

Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.

We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.

Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.

Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.

Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.

When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.

 

 


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Purpose, Empowerment and the Experience of Volunteerism in Community

“Volunteerism isn’t right! Matter of fact, it is not good at all.”

With that, the preacher ended his speech, complete with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” coming from the crowd gathered. I was a 19-year-old at a neighborhood meeting in the mid-sized Midwestern city where I grew up, and my ears were burning. Throughout the meeting I heard several perspectives from my friends and neighbors on the volunteers and missionaries who had come to rehabilitate houses, tutor kids and work at the food bank in my neighborhood.

This preacher was alluding to a belief that I hear repeated in many of the discussions I’ve been in where community volunteerism was addressed: that similar to other “isms” in our society, volunteerism has become an addiction that serves to reinforce the social, attitudinal and structural barriers facing “others” in American society – children and youth, homeless, LGBTQ, differently-abled, people of color. These barriers limit the recipients of said volunteerism in their ability to experience authentic self-driven change in the situations they occupy.

However, my experience has also shown me that there is hope for volunteerism. For the last three years The Freechild Project has operated under the motto of “By, not to; With, not for.” This motto is strengthened by our mission to build active democracy by engaging young people in social change, particularly those who have been historically denied participation.

When the purpose of service and volunteerism is to strengthen democratic participation and community empowerment, volunteerism can be wholly beneficial. As Ivan Illich once observed about international volunteerism, “[Volunteers] frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons…” When conducted as part of a deliberately revelatory cycle, volunteerism can become a process for empowerment, as long as it is not at the expense of others’ self-determination.

 


Experience

After growing up occasionally homeless, then in a low-income community where my family and friends were the subject of much volunteerism, I served three terms in the AmeriCorps national service program. I developed a tutoring and mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi kids in the Midwest, ran a ropes challenge course for low-income youth in the Northwest, and assisted in the leadership of a service learning program in the Southwest. I know service work, and I promoted volunteerism to all kinds of people. However, my most riveting experience came when I worked for a larger national foundation where I was responsible for teaching young people about volunteering. I discovered that the language of “service” covered an attitude that was pious at best; at worst, it perpetuated a sense of noblesse oblige, the royalty taking pity on the peasants and giving them alms.

My own concern was coupled with others who I met in this volunteering. After several years, I worked with a group of people from across the United States to develop a teaching practice called Activist Learning. After exploring the benefits and faults of service learning, we defined Activist Learning as community learning characterized by people taking action to realize a society based on just relationships by seeking to change unequal power structures throughout our communities. However, after promoting Activist Learning for several years I discovered that there is another need that extends beyond schools and into communities. I see that need as a re-visioning of experience of volunteers.

 


Examination

Below is a model through which volunteerism can start to become emancipatory for ALL of its participants, including the volunteer and the community, the “giver” and the “receiver.” The Freechild Project believes that this model represents the most radical and powerful possibilities for people’s participation throughout our society. One of the goals of The Freechild Project is to realize the full participation of all people throughout society as equal members in decision-making and action. We have developed this model in order to represent our vision of democratic, community-oriented participation for ALL people. Individuals and organizations can use this model to start thinking about how volunteers of all ages can be integrated as empowered, purposeful participants throughout society.

I have re-envisioned sociologist Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation for this model. According to Hart, he developed the Ladder to introduce community workers to the practice of children’s participation, and its importance for developing democracy and sustainable communities. The model presented here is done in the same context, except for the purpose of sharing the goal with a broader audience. I believe that the importance of developing democracy and sustainable communities must be spread to all people, including the homeless, the impoverished, and all those regarded as “others” in American society.

 


Ladder of Volunteer Participation

Following is the Ladder of Volunteer Participation, including a brief explanation and examination. In this Ladder, Community Members are “insiders” from any community of people who have been historically been “others” in the United States. Volunteers are “outsiders” who have traditionally come into communities to provide “service.” They may include non-profit staff, AmeriCorps Members, teachers and others.

 

2017 Ladder of Volunteerism
This is the Ladder of Volunteerism, © 2005-2017 by Adam Fletcher.

 

8) Equitable Partnerships with volunteers happen when projects or programs are initiated by community members and decision-making is shared among community members and volunteers. These projects empower community members while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the experience volunteers.

7) Self-Led Partnerships with volunteers happen awhen community members initiate and direct a project or program, and volunteers are involved in supportive roles only.

6) Equal Partnerships with community members happens when projects or programs are initiated by volunteers but the decision-making is shared 50/50 with community members

5) Community Consultation happens when community members give advice on projects or programs designed and run by volunteers. The community members are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by volunteers.

4) Community Assignments happen when someone else creates projects and community members are assigned specific roles and told about how and why they are being involved.

3) Tokenism happens when community members appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate.

2) Decoration happens community members are used to help or “bolster” a cause in a relatively indirect way, although volunteer do not pretend that the cause is inspired by community members.

1) Manipulation happens when volunteers use community members to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by community members.

 

This Ladder isn’t a static tool meant to describe whole programs or the entire experience of individuals. Instead, it is meant to help individuals identify where they are at any given point of their volunteering, and where they can aspire to. People can occupy many spots on the Ladder at the same time; organizations can engage different volunteers differently in order to meet their needs. The Ladder isn’t static.

 


Exploration

While many community organizations seek to “fix” or “heal” the wounds in our society, it has been often noted that rarely are these works more than band-aids. The after school basketball program I ran for young people in my neighborhood when I was 21 did help keep kids off the streets. However, it didn’t help their parents get better jobs so they didn’t have to work two shifts; it didn’t help their grandparents strengthen their parenting skills so they didn’t feel so frustrated; ultimately, it didn’t help the young people learn more skills or become more involved in their community so they felt a sense of hope and purpose.

Volunteerism oftentimes serves to perpetuate the worst of these characterizations, often with negative effects on both the volunteers and the community members themselves. Instead of engaging community members on the top rungs of the Ladder, at most some organizations relegate them to the bottom rungs. How many homeless shelters do you know of that are operated by homeless people? How many afterschool programs for young people do you know of that are operated by young people? In some programs, when the recipients of rehabilitated homes help carry out the framing, plumbing and painting of their homes, are they actually learning about places the water lines and helping to choose the colors, or are they just finishing the nailing?

The challenge of reaching higher rungs on the Ladder of Community Participation is one that faces all individuals and organizations committed to validating and uplifting the skills and abilities of the people who are served, whether they are young people, people of color, or others. However, the reality is that all organizations cannot all be at the top rungs. Sadly enough, when reliant on dysfunctional trends to justify their existence, some groups actually work to keep communities from being on the Ladder at all. That is reality.

 


Conclusion

When considering community members’ empowerment in Brazil, Paulo Freire once wrote “those invaded became convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” The implication that volunteerism is an engine for a degrading, delineating social design is not new, but the challenge that faces us is: to make volunteerism a relevant, purposeful engine for democracy and sustainable communities today, and by doing so, to create a vibrant, purposeful society tomorrow.
In his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published a year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about what he called the world house. “This is the great new problem of mankind,” he wrote. “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

“All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors,” King continued, predicting a time in which not only African Americans would be fully free, but peoples suffering discrimination everywhere. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” he wrote. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”

The challenge we face as responsible community workers, educators and other social providers is to build Dr. King’s world house, where he proposed a revolution of values. That is why we must aspire to lift volunteerism towards the poignancy which it could have. That is one where the community and the volunteer work with intention in unity for the common good. That is where I want to live.

 


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Elsewhere Online

  • To Hell With Good Intentions – A 1968 speech by Ivan Illich focusing on the injustice perpetuated by American volunteers working in Mexico, and when contextualized in the light of modern “service” work, offers a startling analysis of the volunteer movement in America.
  • Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? – In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King laid out a clear analysis of the painful divide facing activists and community organizers. The problem is that we’ve fulfilled his worst fears. 1960s Connections he drew between Black Power, affirmative action and American segregation provide a clear glimpse into modern American apartheid; his prescriptions for community building, nonviolence and unity offer a roadmap for a different America.
  • Mentoring the Mentor – This book is a written conversation between Paulo Freire and a number of promoters, practitioners and detractors who have beef with his analysis. “The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor’s goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history. This is how I understand the need that teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom, and development of those he or she mentors.” (from Chapter Sixteen: “A Response” by Paulo Freire).
  • In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning – In 1994 a pair of university faculty wrote an academic analysis of service learning. They provided a basis for a lot of the modern criticism underway today, and allowed the service learning movement to breathe enough to allow critical thinking within its ranks. While that movement seems to have exhaled lately, Kahn and Westhiemer’s analysis is just as applicable today, and provides a great construct to learn from.
  • Learning Through Activism – The Freechild Project’s action plan for powerful, purposeful learning through social change.  Includes guiding principles and resources for young people, educators and activists.

Stop Excluding People

When programs are developed, many people can be excluded. Among youth programs, community nonprofits and government agencies frequently cater only to particular children and youth. Same with activist organizations helping particular adult populations, and businesses doing outreach in their demographics. Our society is built on this type of exclusion.

In the name of social justice, many advocates frequently position their constituency above all others. In cities that are predominately white, people of color may be targeted for programs civic engagement, cultural enhancement and community-building activities. Women-focused nonprofits are offering more STEM programs for girls. Low-income and poor children are being provided free sports programs they couldn’t otherwise afford.

These programs are generally based on inclusionary assumptions: Where there’s a gap between haves and have-nots, they are bridged specifically for the communities where they’re happening. Programmers are literally trying to expand the in-crowd so there’s more room for more people to become active in things they want to, they could, or they should be involved in.

If we don’t remain vigilant, acute assumptions and prejudices can lurk in at about this point.

Exclusionary action of ANY kind is never the solution. These are not black OR white problems, rich OR poor, homeless OR homed, youth OR adult. We have to reach EVERYONE inclusively, everywhere, all the time. I’m NOT okay with segregation of any kind.

Our biases are ugly little hungry ghosts that come in from our pasts and invade our present. They have nasty names and do gross things, like excluding others and fostering dislike, in spite of our best intentions. Suddenly, we’re judging people by their skin color, socio-economic levels, cultural norms, gender identity and sexual orientations, and much more. In our attempts to make a better world, we actually serve to cheapen, lessen and otherwise tear apart the good things that exist right now. One of the good things about our world today is diversity.

Despite what some people would have us think, North America is not heading towards a giant pool of light-brown skin people who all earn middle class incomes, sharing loving families and equal lifestyles. That’s simply not ahead of us.

Instead, we’re going to continue being a pluralistic, spastic, dynamic and diverse society for a long time yet to come. Instead of forcing conformity, uniformity and singularity of any kind, we need to create new opportunities that foster dialogue, encourage interaction and give people chances to experience people from different backgrounds, different beliefs and different realities from our own.

From that place, we can build democracy. We got get behind positive, powerful social change. We can make a change. But not before then. Not before we stop segregating people for who they are, how they are, no matter what they are.

Don’t make new programs just for homeless people. Don’t facilitate new programs just for youth. Don’t target only rich kids. Instead, weave it all together and create new realities, new communities, new opportunities and new possibilities, everywhere, all the time.

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Critical Thinking Part 1

freedom1

A lot of people reduce critical thinking to simply telling people that what they’re doing is not enough or inadequate. That’s not what its about.

Instead, critical thinking engages people in identifying their assumptions, examining their beliefs, and supporting their personal development before, during, and after their actions.

Instead of right and wrong, critical thinking suggests we help shepherd individuals towards a grey space that is neither: Social change is about everyone benefiting. While that may murky the waters a lot of people wade through in order to volunteer, it doesn’t exclude anyone; rather, it builds their personal capacity to be successful.

Surely that can’t be wrong – can it?

Race and Responsibility

I live in the little city of Olympia, Washington. Its tucked away at the bottom of the Puget Sound, connected to the ocean but seeming a world apart from a lot of America. That is, until two days ago when two African American men were shot by a white officer.

Suspected of stealing beer from a grocery store, they were identified as suspects and confronted by a solitary officer. He has reported that one of them attacked him with a skate board, and to defend himself he shot the assailant. The second suspect was shot soon afterwards.

Overall, young Olympia regards itself to be a liberal group in a generally progressive town. The incident of a white officer shooting two black men for stealing beer doesn’t bode well, and consequently there was a march within 18 hours of the incident featuring many, many white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice in this case.

Much the same as the protesters yesterday, I am all concerned with the obvious pattern of police militarization, the criminalization of African American men, the school-to-prison pipeline and other clearly heinous acts of prejudice and discrimination against people of color by white people in America today.

However, I think we’re missing something.

One month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X said,

“All my life, I believed that the fundamental struggle was Black versus white. Now I realize that it is the haves against the have-nots.”

Most of us have yet to understand this.

I do believe in the power of Black solidarity. History teaches us through examples like Black Wall Street, Harlem, and my beloved North 24th Street in Omaha.

The fact is that it’s a white power structure that formed, molded and sustained the rotten economy of haves and have-nots in the US, and now more than ever, worldwide. Malcolm X wasn’t releasing anyone of their responsibility for the despicable condition we find ourselves in, and I refuse to as well. My fellow people of European descent appear largely incapable of imagining and implementing a world without inequity and disparity.

That said, the way forward is not based on race, per se. Its based on unity and umoja between races focused on the economic structure enforced by white privilege. Using our hands, hearts, minds and souls, we have to work together to dismantle prejudice, whether it is economic, social, cultural, racial, educational or otherwise.

Just beyond that, all of us everywhere on this planet have to realize that there really is no “them” and “us” – there’s only us. We actually are all in this together, and we are all completely interdependent upon one another.

But between here and there, I don’t think there’s a crime in recognizing culpability, complicity and connectivity. It all started somewhere, its going somewhere and almost all of us are going along with it, until we don’t anymore.

What we’re missing is that each of us, no matter what our race, has a role in doing something right now. If you’re a white mom at home, go meet people of color and introduce your kids to them. If you’re a person of color going to a predominantly white college, go meet some white people you never thought you would and just talk to them without educating them on race or economics, just listen to them. If you’re a Irish person in France go spend your money in businesses belonging to Middle Eastern immigrants. If you’re young, hold a sit-in in your school and teach people about overthrowing the white wealth structure that benefits white people – no matter what your skin color is. If you’re old, listen to some conscious hip hop and really let it teach you.

No matter who you are, DO something. Let’s stop acting so innocent through our ignorance and inaction, and start acknowledging our complicity and responsibility. Only then can we meet James Baldwin’s insistence that we can,

“insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others … we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

We HAVE TO change the history of the world. Starting… NOW.

Reflecting on Baltimore

geodesicdome1I have never been in a riot. I do love Baltimore though, and in all my travels I’ve become most attached to that city.

Growing up in a working class African American neighborhood in the Midwest, I constantly heard stories about the riots that destroyed my community in the 1960s and 1970s.

I didn’t believe it all, but saw what people talked about. A torched movie theater was the last one on our side of town, while more than a few churches moved to other parts of the city during and right after the riots.

A lot of the older guys around the block said they were involved. Clyde, who must’ve been 40 when I was 20 in 1995, said he threw Molotov cocktails at police cars. One of my mentors, Ernest, was a Black Panther when it was all going down. He taught me that politicized people are harder to control than economically-driven people, and that was in the late 1980s.

Long after I’d left the neighborhood, I studied my city to learn about the riots. A lesson came shining through: Riots happen a lot, and the majority are led by white people. But when white people riot, its quickly forgotten; when African Americans riot, its scraped in the psyche of the media, politicians, business owners and others.

Another lesson I discovered, at least in the city where I grew up, is that reinvestment in riot-scarred African American neighborhoods is hard to come by, even 20, 30 and 40 years later.

5 Reflections on Baltimore

The riots that happened in my city were strung along similar lines as what’s happening in Baltimore this week. Reflecting on what I know and have learned this week, here are my reflections on Baltimore:

  • Riots really are the language of the unheard. Repressed from decades of political, economic and social suffocation, entire communities are liable to make themselves heard no matter what. This is true for children at the age of 4, and entire communities that are more than a century old.
  • The mainstream media is grossly inadequate, irresponsible and out-of-step with the times. In whatever form they’re broadcasting, these organizations appear wholly incapable of responding to the genuine need for their existence. More than 10,000 people peacefully marched before and after the funeral, and yet the media didn’t report that; it reported the violence that erupted, led by 500 people. Inadequate at best.
  • Youth know what’s up. At the heart of both the peaceful protests and the violent rioting are youth of many ages and from different backgrounds. However, youth also reported on the situation like nobody else. Young people still know what’s up, and adults still need to learn to engage them in changing the world – the right way.
  • Racism is expressed through classism. There is so much evidence of government racism in these riots, which in turn is obviously protecting the socio-economic stratification in place from years of commercialism throughout these communities.
  • Put up or shut up. So many white people, myself included, have something they feel like they must say about these riots. We need to learn to shut up, unless we’re actually ready to put our skin in the game. When we’re ready to take action and do something to make a difference, we can voice up; until then, we need to shut up.

All this is to say that riots can teach all of us something, no matter what our distance or proximity to them is. Its our obligation to think critically, act consciously and move forward deliberately.

That is what riots demand.