In his 1967 speech, “A Time To Break The Silence,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
Life is a journey that molds each one of us as it will. We live as determined or resigned as we want, some fully conscious while others live unconsciously. I have been a troublesome troublemaker, a father and a son, in so many roles a guide while other times I’ve slogged through my days. On those days, it’s been the king of love Dr. King described that gave me the courage to resist.
The resistance I’ve felt has been towards maintaining status quo. Forged like steel in a fire, my love came from childhood homelessness, growing up as a strange minority, and living in a violence-filled world as a teen. I didn’t want to suffer the death of self, literal and metaphorical, that so many of my friends and some of my family had. It seemed like so many people lost themselves to the world, mainstream society, high social expectations. It seemed like they never changed.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that instead of a shout, there’s a whisper that calls to me. It’s a quiet voice that goes to the middle of me and moves me to walk out into the street with my arms out. A world without fault, I’ve seen that life is not about being down or out. It’s not about pain or joy, loss or happiness. It is all about love. Love of others, and finding love for yourself through loving others. There’s nothing anyone else has that I need; my only desire is to love.
Remember: “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
I’ve experienced real disengagement in my life, because I’ve stopped loving others in this way. I threw away the key Dr. King mentioned. It wasn’t because of anything anyone else ever did to me, either. It wasn’t anything that was taken from me, or anything committed. It was a scar upon my heart that grew because I kept scratching at it with my finger, picking the hurts until they bled more. A closed hand made into a fist and closed arms met to resist were wounds to my love.
Now I share open hands and an open face, and I hope that we can rewrite history as love, the kind that Dr. King taught about.
People want to accumulate engagement and experiences of engagement like they collect stuff, thinking all the time that the more they gather, do, think, talk about, wonder, and dream, the more engaged they’ll become. The Heartspace Teachings show that engagement is happening here, right now, in our day-to-day movements and ways of being. All of it, sacred and profane. There’s nothing more to do. Striving as we do though, people always want something more. That’s not wrong, but it’s not true to engagement. We are already engaged right now. If we want to become more so, then so be it. But we’re all already engaged right now. As I often do, I look to history to teach me about these things.
Monday is the official MLK Day holiday here in the US, and millions of people across the country we be doing community volunteering work with King’s adage, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve” hanging in their imaginations. They believe that by doing community service work, they are becoming more engaged in their communities, and that is true.
What isn’t true is that community service is the only way to become connected to the people around us. Dr. King was well aware of this, as he acknowledged it too. He wrote, “In a real sense, all life in interrelated… We are inevitably our brother’s keepers because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This interrelatedness means that anything you do with another person, place, thing, or idea, that leads to a sustainable connection is something that engages you to others. You might be volunteering or giving money to strangers, and those things are engaging you in your community. But King’s philosophy of interdependence shows how we might also become engaged by helping a neighbor hang Christmas lights, babysitting a baby niece, or helping your disabled friend go grocery shopping.
So don’t worry about it! Just keep doing the things that you’re doing right now, unless you want to do something else. Then do that. But either way, don’t rely on any prescriptions, pathways, or perspectives that would force you to follow a particular avenue towards becoming engaged. Heartspace always shows the way.
We as a people take the little things for granted. Life may be moving fast but that doesn’t mean we neglect the things that are important to us.
Young people from the MLK Center touring the Mission District.
For those of us committed to engagement within ourselves and throughout the world around us, it may seem important to constantly be doing things. We think we need to connect and share and talk and act and respond and interact, consul and consult and reply and do, do, do. None of this is wrong, per se. However, the MLK Center shares an important point.
We should all stop and do what matters- what really matters- every day. The moments we engage in are exactly that, moments. A few years ago my daughter learned the meaning of the word savor. Since then she’s talked about savoring food, savoring walks in the forest, savoring playing with toys, and savoring music. That’s what I want to do, savor the moments that are individual and priceless.
How many books have you never read, but just started? How many meals have you rushed and never tasted? Conversations, lovemaking, dish washing, brainstorming, flower smelling, tickling, laundry, walking, articles, all these moments… Our lives are filled with this and so much more. But how much do we ever savor, adore, revel in, lap up, and simply be with the moments in our lives?
Engagement at its best means embracing the small things as whole parts that are the world themselves, in addition to being part of the whole world too. Whenever I’m worried about the world, I should be concerned with myself. “If the path you walk keeps leading back to you, it is time to change your course.” If we keeping working from this wisdom, we can discover that when we can savor the small things (namely, our own lives) we will in time learn to savor the whole world. Its an amazing circle we walk.
CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360)489-9680.
A fellow traveler from the 13th century once wrote,
“I once had a thousand desires, but in my one desire to know you all else melted away.”
That was the Sufi poet Rumi, and the “You” he was addressing may have been a love, Allah, or himself. Over the last few years, all have become the same for me as I’ve discovered the meaning of my life.
If you are having a hard time moving into Heartspace or if you want to re-engage in your own life, stop running from yourself. There came a point in my own life when I ran into a wall that I wanted to move past. Moving through that desire, I found that the only way to move beyond the life I lived in the past was to consciously engage to the life I live right now, in every instant. That is my journey today.
Turned Off By Personal Engagement?
A year ago I wrote the following questions for myself in my journal. If you find yourself disenchanted, turned off, or pushed away from Heartspace, consider these:
Do you love being right?
Are you playing to keep?
Do things fall apart in your life?
Are you hungry?
Is constant movement most comfortable for you?
Do you hear voices?
What are you hanging onto?
Today, I’ve learned to answer these questions honestly to myself.
7 More Ways to Re-Engage
Here are five more ways to re-engage that I’ve learned from my explorations in personal engagement.
1. Be wrong and learn to love your mistakes.
Having to be right is keeping you from being fully engaged within yourself right now. Life isn’t school, and there’s nobody to mark your mistakes wrong. You can use every engagement in your life as learning steps. Take risks, learn more than you think you need to know, and get past what you think may be right or wrong. Being right is hardly the end goal. Instead, live fully and wholly by your ethics and morals. Among my friends, those include being wrong sometimes. I screw up and make mistakes. But the fun of it might be what John Lennon said: “There’s no problems, only solutions.” Each mistake is an opportunity to get correct, and to learn. So let’s love our mistakes instead of running from them. Here’s a good post on how to be wrong gracefully.
2. Share with others.
We don’t have to live our lives in our journals and in our own heads. We shouldn’t close the notebooks in our minds and put them away, just to keep our lives to ourselves. Engaging within ourselves means engaging in the world around us. One way we can do is by sharing with other people, including our struggles, successes, challenges, and methods. This is the way our world can work better! Let’s open ourselves, our minds, hearts, and hands and let others know we’re human beings having human experiences, good, bad and all points in between! By learning to be transparent with others we engage with others, their knowledge and experience, and draw Heartspace nearer to our own hearts. The Johari Window is a useful tool for knowing what and how we share with others.
3. Build it again and again.
One of the benefits of being personally engaged within yourself is the ability to not only get deeper inside your own life, but to get deeper with others too. The community you creating through personal engagement will emerge slowly, surely, and obviously within moments of your journey inwards. It will allow you to engage deeply and meaningfully as you’re capable, and award you with the sustainability of your lifetime if that is what you choose. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. charged us with building this, saying “Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” This is the soulchange he spoke of. The King Center has shared an essay showing how we can continue to create beloved community.
4. Eat mangos.
The very nature of an engaged existence is bound within the skin of an Ataulfo mango. Grown in the Michoacan, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Veracruz and Chiapas states of Mexico, the Ataulfo is silky smooth and wonderfully sweet, and is a dessert all engaged people need to eat. Enjoy it. Mmm mmm!
5. Move on.
Engage with new people, new ideas and new culture whenever you can, however you can. Get your people, including family and friends, involved in coming up with ways that you can move on from the Old and into the New. Create a life that is engaging for you, move further within yourself, and you will find more people more engaged all around you in turn. Here’s a useful article on how to move on, what to move on from, and more.
6. Listen to your inner voice.
Personal engagement is alive within you right now. Growing quiet and learning to listen to you will lead you further within you, engaging you deeply in the reality that is you right now. The jumbled opinions of the world are interesting fodder if you want to live unconsciously, but within you right now are all the answers to all the questions you have ever had, ever. Do what you know is right, right now. The road you walk is your road, and yours alone. That same voice will teach you to laugh at the way you respond to life too. If you find yourself in a hard place, that voice won’t laugh at the hard place, but at your reaction to that hard place. Learn to smile at it and be kind, and let your inner voice move you to action right now. I thought this how to article was useful for listening to my inner voice.
7. Let go.
We cannot fix what isn’t broken. Your life is working in absolute perfection right now. You are perfectly engaged in a linear, sequential order that makes sense in a universal way. While that might be beyond your comprehension, ultimately the reality is that peronal engagement is beyond everyone’s comprehension to some extent.
If it feels like you’re in a relationship or situation where you just cannot be engaged, then stop trying. That is exactly how its supposed to be. If you try to force yourself to get engaged, it might work for a minute. But ultimately it will not work- or maybe it will. Either way, it is exactly how its supposed to be. Sometimes it’s about letting go and trusting personal engagement to operate in its infinitely harmonious ways, whatever they are. Other times it’s about taking action and making change. You will become more engaged through your intent and action, surrender and trust. Personal engagement has the infinite ability to persist. Know that by simply letting go. Here’s 40 ways to let go.
You’re on the perfect road to personal engagement right now. Enjoy your walk, run, skip, crawl, or slog- its all waiting for you right now. The challenge is optional, the journey is exceptional, and you are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now. Change, remain, transform, transpire, or expire: Personal engagement is yours.
Let me know what you think by responding in the comment section below, and please share these tip sheets with your friends!
In order for any community engagement to be successful, it must be deeply rooted in personal engagement. We have to have lasting connections to the world within us before we can be connected outside ourselves. The 21st century provided many great examples of social change leaders who did this work thoroughly, including Caesar Chavez, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and many others around the world.
Many of the major social change leaders throughout the ages worked from Heartspace. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. both taught their followers that change began within them personally, and echoed out socially. They urged people to change themselves in order to change the world, and that’s what Heartspace reinforces.
Gandhi focused on personal engagement by calling on his followers to make their own clothes, as this was the surest way to throw off the shackles of the Empire. This connected people directly to the humongous issue of overthrowing the English Empire by having them focus on something they contact everyday- their clothes. That simply charge- and massive metaphor- was demeaning to Indians who were successfully dressed in rich Western clothes. However, in wearing simple homemade shirts or pants or whatever, Gandhi believed every Indian could play a role in independence. He made meaning of the simple, humble act of making your own clothes. In this way, the Mahatma taught a direct lesson from Heartspace: By developing lasting connections with the issues that matter with you, you can directly affect those who would treat you superficially and ignore you entirely. Personal engagement ensures the deepening of purpose and meaning, securing clear understanding of complex social issues though directly connection with the apparent challenge. Gandhi’s work freed one nation and birthed another, and his connection to Heartspace was obvious from the connections Indians developedwithin themselves.
When Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he moved the African American community in his city towards personal engagement. He simply asked people to stay off public busing until public busing was integrated. While that came at an expensive cost to working class African Americans throughout the city, the economic crisis nearly crushed the city government in the city. The whites controlling the buses were forced to recognize African Americans as a powerful economic and human force within their community. That human force was realized through Heartspace as the community increasingly succeeded by relying on their neighbors, church mates, and other places people met people. Their personal engagement deepened by necessity, and the human power in the community surged.
Students cleaning a school in Japan. This is a process through which participants in the learning community can become personally engaged in their buildings.
This same action can occur within your own life, right now, without a Dr. King or Gandhi to lead you. Instead, you can change your life right now. Go out and consciously connect to something you’re engaged with. No matter what you do, anytime you are personally engaged you will benefit your family, neighbors, nation, and planet, whether it is entirely private, community service, business, religion, or art. In the course of those actions we become more personally engaged, and the depth of our feeling becomes richer and more rewarding. This is true of anyplace, anyway you become connected: Some schools in Japan engage students deeply by having them clean classrooms. Dr. King engaged his followers by getting sprayed with firehoses, sicced on by police dogs, arrested, and beaten. Many of these people say this personal engagement wasthe most meaningful thing in the lives.
The world does not need us to change it. Despite it’s dire circumstances and apparently worsening conditions, the Earth is fully capable of taking care of itself. It has already done this over a million years, and it’s ability to recover is so thorough that it disallows us from finding physical evidence of existence earlier than trilobites. Who knows what existed before? Nobody can say for sure. Now, if you’re concerned about saving the manatees or stopping genocide or fighting government corruption now is the time to deeply connect within those issues. However, don’t mistake your desire and want with the world’s needs. They are two different things.
Living in Heartspace requires us to explore what we’re lastingly connected to throughout our lives, and then becoming more engaged in those things. No matter what the size of the action, idea, issue, or outcomes you’re engaged in, you can change the world by changing yourself.
In case you’re interested, here’s a post I wrote about a year ago my journey into this process.
Those of us who have engaged in changing the world or in changing ourselves may have the experience of running out of steam occasionally. The days get longer, the forces get more challenging, and the culture seems more hardened than ever before. Despite being passionate about the topic we’re working on, our jobs just seem harder. Or funding ran dry and now we’re out of a job. Or this, that, and the other thing simply makes staying connected to change more challenging than ever before. We get tired quicker, snap faster, feel more stressed, and want to quit what we’re doing in order to do something else.
These are the times when we need to purposefully acknowledge Heartspace. These are times when we need to lean on our lasting connections within ourselves. What is it that you’re most passionate about? What makes you tick or rock-n-roll? Name those things, literally, right now. Make a list. If you name the work that you’re doing right now, then you should keep doing it, even through the hard times. There are few places in our society that reinforce the idea that you should stay with something when it is rough in order to grow through it. However, you will grow through it. If your job or the issue you address or the thing in you you’re trying to change does not make the list of things that you’re lastingly connected to, then it is time to reconsider your engagement with them. Recognize that the people around you are engaged too, each in their own way, and forgive them if you need to do that.
Marching countless miles, getting arrested dozens of times, facing constant death threats, and always facing the barrel of whites in America, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regularly gathered his closest confidants and lieutenants to strategize, pray, relax, and rally themselves. Their religious faith was a driving force in their work, and their consciousness of the lasting connections they had within themselves, among their followers, and throughout their work supported them, too. It was this knowledge that powered them through hard times, even strengthening Dr. King as he went onto the balcony on that fatal afternoon in April in Memphis. Every time Dr. King and his immediate circle was done with one of their meetings, they would deliberately circle up, hands in the middle of the circle, and as a group shout one time, “Keep hope alive!”
Twenty years after his death, one of Dr. King’s lieutenants reminded America of his roots at the end of his presidential campaign race. Rallying the audience to support another candidate, Rev. Jesse Jackson said,
“I was born in the slum, but the slum was not born in me. And it wasn’t born in you, and you can make it. Wherever you are tonight, you can make it. Hold your head high; stick your chest out. You can make it. It gets dark sometimes, but the morning comes. Don’t you surrender! Suffering breeds character, character breeds faith. In the end faith will not disappoint. You must not surrender! You may or may not get there but just know that you’re qualified! And you hold on, and hold out! We must never surrender! America will get better and better. Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive!”
This chest-thumping, love-filled determination reminds me that Heartspace powers our most personal and social engagements, driving us towards a collective power and ability that we have not begun to realize. In times of personal struggle, group process, or community need we can rely on the engine of engagement to draw us nearer to our own forces by purposefully nurturing our most lasting connections.
In a fatalistic tone, Leonard Bernstein once said, “I think it is time we learned the lesson of our century: that the progress of the human spirit must keep pace with technological and scientific progress, or that spirit will die. It is incumbent on our educators to remember this; and music is at the top of the spiritual must list. When the study of the arts leads to the adoration of the formula (heaven forbid), we shall be lost. But as long as we insist on maintaining artistic vitality, we are able to hope in man.”
It might help you to get musical in order to re-ignite your personal engagement. You might consider creativity and reflection, or embrace childhood again, or just getting busy doing whatever you do. Whatever you are doing, no matter how frustrating, deflating, or disconnected it seems, if you have a lasting connection to it, do more of it. A long time ago, I suggested that if you’re struggling in the struggle, you need to get busier in the struggle. Do things for the movement you care about beyond the job you have. Do things to help develop other people instead of yourself. Move other peoples’ mountains instead of just your own.
Across our country and around the world there are burning crises that must be addressed right now. That is what Dr. King meant when he demanded we pay attention to The Fierce Urgency of Now. Sitting by the sidelines and watching life pass us by is the work of the dead who don’t have a choice. Luckily, we all have a choice. The question is whether we are engaged in making that choice.
Personal engagement insists that each of us take hold of our personal capacity to become engaged within and around ourselves. We must face our lives as they are right now, name them for what they are, and if necessary dig into where they came from (which is most likely not necessary). Then we must push forward and continue to move. The fierce urgency of now demands it’s due, and right now you are due for a change.
Paulo Freire once wrote, “I cannot permit myself to be a mere spectator. On the contrary, I must demand my place in the process of change.” This can feel really uncomfortable, especially when we really want to change but don’t feel like we can. We get into ruts where we feel incapable or stuck. Luckily, these are just illusions, slights of the hand. There is a force that would have us believe that we cannot do anything to make a difference. This is simply untrue. Personal engagement calls us to actively engage within our own lives and in the world around us, allowing personal engagement and community engagement to take center stage in making the world a better place.
One day Bruce Lee pushed an older friend to run further with him, saying, “…if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” This is true.
The expansive nature of community engagement calls for each of us to become actively, passionately aware of what we’re engaged to within ourselves. It is only through personal engagement that we can be engaged in our communities. If you see something in the world around you that is askew, name the roots of that concern within you. Once you have named those roots, you can change your own life. If you’re still concerned with the world around you afterwards, become engaged in the community and work to change it. Working through your personal engagement this way will draw you nearer to yourself, and strengthen your capacity to change the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” The core of this statement forms an essential understanding of Heartspace. Everyone should be connected to something larger than themselves. In order to be engaged in something larger than themselves, everyone should know about Heartspace.
The engine of engagement resides inside everyone, everything, all the time. Youth, children, moms, dads, teachers, workers, politicians, protesters, painters, palletmovers… everyone should stand taller than themselves. Heartspace seeks to position each of us squarely on the shoulders of the giants who lived before us. Each of us should get out of our own heads, out of our own bodies, and to find compassion, empathy, and ultimately, solidarity with others. We can only do this by sustainably connecting to the world around us. However, paradoxically, we can only do this by connecting to the world within us.
Where people are fighting for rights, many have fought before. When people are taking more responsibility, they are taking it from someone else. Everyone must learn to advocate for people and places other than themselves. This way our communities can educate against ignorance, learn from elders, and form global movements for unity. At the center of community is Heartspace, and everyone is an integral part of the larger whole. All sustained connections rely on all other sustained connections, which forms the Sphere of Engagement, which in turn overlap to create a mosaic of Spheres which we can only begin to fathom.
Rumi chastized his readers once, saying “Why cannot you who, as a people, can well claim to be the first practical exponent of this superb conception of humanity, live and move and have your being as a single individual?” He saw that as a people they were too concerned with their small engagements to be concerned about larger engagements. Heartspace encourages each of us to elastically reach from within to outside, all the while moving beyond “the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
The lessons within Heartspace have been taught before. Seeing them in their whole, instead of as their individual parts, is what is new. Lao Tzu wrote, “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” This is how personal engagement, community engagement, and universal engagement are interrelated. As strands of connectivity within Heartspace, each acts as a motivator, supporter, expander, and retractor according to how we act, interact, react, and detract from it. Heartspace supports our consciousness as we expand our understanding of the worlds within and around us.
This shows why it is true that when you have uncovered the things that anchor you to yourself, it immediately becomes necessary for you to reveal Heartspace to others. The knowledge and experience of engagement should compel each of us into the world to encourage others to connect within themselves and to the world around them. Heartspace is about getting over yourself by getting into yourself.
CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing email@example.com or calling (360) 489-9680.
The following quotes are about common action, working together, and the web of life to which we all belong. They help drive my work every single day.
”It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality… This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
― Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come to because your liberation is bound up in mine, we can work together.”
― Lilla Watson
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
― Eduardo Galeano
“Washing ones hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
― Paulo Freire
”I do not believe that I’m sacrificing. In fact, I feel very uneasy when others used the word sacrifice to describe my life. It sounds like I’m demanding returns for my investments. I chose to walk on this journey, because I solely believed in it and wholeheartedly decided to do so, and I’m willing and able to pay for the consequences…”
― Aung San Suu Kyi
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
― John Donne
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
― Herman Melville
In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.
― Henry Van Dyke
Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.
― Mohandas Gandhi
The least movement is of importance to all nature. The entire ocean is affected by a pebble.
― Blaise Pascal
All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this “In order to love you, I must make you something else”. That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.”
― bell hooks
“Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the center, because the center is the end. Each person is a strand of the story.”
In 2003 I was interviewed by a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League school for her dissertation on youth involvement in social justice movements. Following are some thoughts I shared with her worth sharing.
Question: So many of a person’s ideas and opinions about the world change- sometimes radically- over the course of childhood and adolescence. In your experience, how old does a person generally need to be before their understanding of issues is “sound”? Have you known children who were, say, younger than 8, who you felt had firmly-grounded and informed opinions of social justice issues?
Adam: I have learned that a person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age. As a youth I had a lot of friends who had deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti. Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed “youth advocates” pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk… Ignorance knows no age, either.
In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in. This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life. Paulo Freire, an acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors. I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people. The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak. Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions. Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.
Regarding your question about denoting an age of understanding, I think that there is a particular danger in saying, “[X] is the age.” That would give many adults permission to continue bombarding young people with the purposeless and meaningless activities that fill so much of their time already. I have seen extremely young people with extremely intelligent perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen many adults with extremely shallow understandings. Age shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.
Question: It’s very common to see young children holding signs or shouting slogans at all sorts of social and political actions — from KKK rallies to pro-life demonstrations to anti-war marches. How would you distinguish between adults allowing and encouraging children to share their voice, and adults using children as propaganda for their own causes?
Adam: I think that by focusing on the whether young peoples’ involvement is authentic, a lot of adults are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give children and youth their own space to speak, or how to engage them in community space. This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of involving young people.
The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voice of young people?” and “Are we really looking for young people who take risks and make decisions?”
After all, getting our adult ideas out of young people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful involvement and young people’s autonomy. As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to young people’s participation that the question of whether or not young people participate at all needs to be answered first.
Another question that should be asked is why are we considering young peoples’ involvement in protests and rallies, and not their further infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole? Where are young people in the planning and decision-making processes? In the recruitment and training of organizers and participants? My experience has shown me that it is vital to young peoples’ participation to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further involvement as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social justice.
I have found that youth involvement in activism is regularly trivialized by well-meaning adults who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination through “ageism,” patently denying young people the opportunity to participate meaningfully simply because of their age. The movement for peace and social justice must move from seeing children and youth as decorations and start seeing them as partners.
The Freechild Project’s webpage at http://freechild.org/SIYI is packed with useful tips on how to involve young people throughout organizations and activism.
Question: When the U.S. underwent school desegregation, armed guards sometimes had to escort children into school lest they be attacked. During anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1970s, white anti-riot police were photographed beating child protesters with clubs. Even in non-violent demonstrations, people are often injured by objects thrown by counter-protesters, or merely because of crowding. So children involved in actions have, in some instances, faced real threats to their safety. Do you think that it’s appropriate for children’s safety to be put at risk by involving them in marches, picketing, and similar actions?
Adam: As a way of re-envisioning this question, let me ask: Is it appropriate that in the richest country in the world, every night tens of thousands of kids go to sleep without a roof over their head? Is it appropriate that there are sweatshops across the U.S. that rely on child labor, 60 years after it was banned? Millions of young people across the country routinely attend schools that are falling apart, go to classes with teachers who are apathetic to their students and underpaid for their work, and rely on leadership from politicians who attend to their highest bidder instead of their constituencies. Are any of those situations appropriate? In many cases it has been up to young people to bring adults’ attention to issues of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.
Another poignant example from the civil rights movement: In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explicitly allowed and encouraged young people to march along with him for the first time during protests in Birmingham, Alabama. On May 2, 1963, over one thousand black children descended upon Birmingham. Close to nine hundred students were arrested, but a reserve army of close to twenty-five hundred demonstrated the following day. Bull Connor, who had up until this point “restrained” from violence against protesters, ordered firemen to use their hoses on the protesters and onlookers. As the youth fled from the power of the hoses, Connor directed officers and their dogs to pursue them. Guard dogs were sent into the crowd. Because people saw pictures on television and in newspapers, the whole world was horrified. A month later President Kennedy said he was introducing a civil rights bill to Congress that promised freedom for all. While no singular act moved Kennedy to take action, the images of children and youth being treated savagely pushed the majority of Americans over the edge. For the first time the average white American saw that the ravages of racism reached beyond the grown African Americans of the South and into the youngest members of society. Was putting those young peoples’ safety at risk worth it to the movement?
And therein lies the crux of the issue – whether or not young people truly understand why they are protesting. Similar to many adults, children and youth often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it, often without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions. This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S. Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work! In many of these same organizations young people are used as “safe” volunteers, picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows. Is this meaningful activism? No. Is it “safe”? Yes. Are young people told that it is valuable? Sure! And these things do have value – to the adults who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over children! To the recipients of the service they exhibit young peoples’ “proper” places in society (seen and not heard, etc). While this sounds sarcastic, I hope you understand the point I’m trying to make: young people need to be seen and heard. A youth-led organization in the San Francisco Bay area has a t-shirt slogan I love, “Young people can be the leaders of tomorrow – if we procrastinate.” And that’s the truth.