This was the morning the world received the announcement that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away. A larger-than-life yet down-to-earth poet of the people, Dr. Angelou is being mourned today by presidents and generals, rappers and musicians, and by the people, all of us, many of whom struggle to find our voices.
I first read Dr. Angelou’s classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was 23. Throughout my youth, I’d heard her name bandied about on the news, particularly in her role as the Poet Laureate of the United States. I decided to read her to understand the world better; she has repeatedly taught me how to understand myself.
“Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.” From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The reality that its easier to act grown up instead of actually being young has become a central point in my understanding of youth today. Faced with a world of adults cloning adulthood onto children and youth, Dr. Angelou helped me understand the need to grab a hold of “wavering purpose”, which is uncomfortable and unrelenting, and actually sit with it, let it be, and learn to live through it. On the other side? PURPOSE, BELONGING, and luckily, WISDOM. What comes on the other side of false adulthood but more falseness?
It seems meager to say that Dr. Angelou inspired millions; it’s a gross understatement that does her life little justice. Dr. Angelou literally changed the world, not only with words, but with actions. She was a civil rights activist all of her life; a spiritual seeker who stayed active on her pathway toward universal engagement; and a friend to many.
I ended up reading A Song Flung Up to Heaven, along with two of her poetry collections. One of those was called Poetry for Young People, and it held this poem, called “Still I Rise”:
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This poem holds the fire in the belly of youth throughout its mighty stanzas. Dr. Angelou masterfully gives life to the strength and glory of youth throughout it, celebrating the hopefulness, justice, and ability that makes up the hearts and minds and bodies of young women and young men. She justifies every person’s burning desires, calling us higher in our own thoughts and feelings, demanding that we hold true to our guts and demand the same of others.
Growing up in a struggling family in a depressed neighborhood, I learned the value of poetry at a young age. One of the very first poems I remember distinctly was actually Dr. Angelou’s classic, On the Pulse of the Morning, which she wrote for her Arkansas brethren Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I watched her read that poem on tv, and it left a permanent mark on my psyche. In the middle of it, she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Dr. Angelou challenged us to not live history again, again and again. I know in the deepest part of myself that we are capable of doing that. I learned that from many heroes, including Dr. Angelou. I remember her every single day because of that.
Oh, and the other heroes who I have known? They were likely influenced by her, too.
How about you?
Once again, we’ll see the media overhype these particular situations to serve their own purposes.
In reality, young people murder young people every day in the US. Young people murder older people, old people murder young people, and old people murder old people. People of European descent murder people of African descent, people of African descent murder people of European descent, people of European descent murder people of European descent, people of African descent murder people of African descent. Rich murder poor, poor murder rich, rich murder rich, poor murder poor.
Guess which of these will get news coverage? The ones that makes the most profit for the media, the advertisers, and the manufacturers who buy advertisements.
If it isn’t violence, there is a litany of other topics focused on children and youth that are hyped by the media too, including education, healthcare, pop culture, toys, fashion, employment, and much more.
This makes media outlets no different from the rappers they frequently disparage, or the politicians who demonize these events in order to further their careers. However, instead of sensationalizing youth violence today, we need to be talking about how, why, and where discrimination against young people is happening today.
In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People, I explore how the media, schools, governments, and others work together to make their hyperbole sell web ads, mold politicians, drive school agendas, and generally blow up democracy and public well-being every single day.
That’s the real conversation we need to have.
When I was 23, I started writing about my career. Studying at The Evergreen State College, I took a program there called Prior Learning From Experience. In that course, I was convinced that since I started working with youth professionally when I was 14, my decade-long career gave me something worth reflecting on. So I wrote and wrote, reflecting on the writing of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Michael Carrera, Grace Llewellyn, Kurt Hahn, Peter McLaren, bell hooks, and many of the authors my mentors suggested throughout my work.
|A scene from Wim Wenders’ The End Of The World, a fantastic||reflection on the role of memory in our lives.|
As I wrote, I found that my memories of youth work went back further than my formal work. I found stories in my memory of hanging a sign outside a hotel room for my advertising business; getting trapped in a tent at summer camp by an angry mob of boys from my neighborhood; campaigning for senior class president as an unpopular kid; and much more. This wasn’t youth work, so much as it was simply about growing up.
Claiming our memories is essential for reclaiming democracy and promoting nonviolence, as Henry Giroux shows in his latest article. My work is my attempt at doing exactly that, on many levels: critically reflecting on my own work allows me to ignite my imagination and enlivens my soul, while engaging others in doing the same allows me to fight what Giroux poetically calls the “disimagination machine”. We all have this creative capacity and responsibility.
Today, I recognize that I live in a space that’s made of my past and my future, both living in perfect tension right now. Seeing this has helped me know that my future is undetermined and that my past is constantly and consistently wide open for examination. I will know this all my life, and live this for the rest of my days.
Adultism is bias towards adults. Classism is discrimination against someone because of their social class. Class is the grouping of people according to their social, economic, or educational status.
When the middle class was built up in the 19th century, Western cultures designated 18 as the wholly arbitrary marker for admission to the new class. At 18, you could suddenly vote, sign contracts, drink alcohol, and so much more. The most important part though was access to money.
Instead of how it’d been for a thousand years earlier, class stratification made it suddenly wrong for children to earn money, and increasingly wrong to bond children of Western European descent into indentured servitude. Note that it was completely different for African American, Eastern European, and Native American children.
This new fiscal empowerment proved to mobilize whole families by showing kids can be in largely docile childcare and schooling rather than volatile work environments, showing the effects of ecology on children and youth. The stabilization of a middle class culture allowed for trickle down upper class attitudes, such as “children are better to be seen and not heard” and so on. This became the fetishization of childhood, and in modern times, the infantalization of youth.
I think these two phenomenon led to the amelioration and eventual glamorization of the image of white, middle class youth in America. Held on a pedestal, the image of Alex P. Keaton became the standard against which all others were measured. Too black or brown? Forget about it. Too poor? Nadda chance. Too gay? No way. If you weren’t a heterosexual, middle class, educated white male you weren’t worth a toot according to adults, and in many cases it’s still this way. There’s a reason why upper management in most major businesses, along with most politicians and the vast majority of lawyers, doctors, and others in the middle class are heterosexual, middle class, educated white male – and that reason is the intersection of adultism and classism.
Adultism is a tool of classism used to ensure the stagnation of social class status. The bias toward adults is always colored with perception of who the adults are; how the adults should behave, act, think, or feel; where the young people and adults are located; why they are there; and whether there are alternative social classes present.
Whether at home, in school, out of school, in community programs, through government, by the law and legal systems, or through cultural activities, young people of all ages are routinely made sure they stay in their social classes according to adults’ standards. In the U.S. and increasingly around the world, this is ensured through a system of commercialization which has ensured social class conformity. The way they’ve done this? Adultism. Marketers routinely and deftly mask classism in a cloak of adultism, often coupled with racism and sexism, in order to make sure young people “act right”.
This demonstrates why and how adultism and classism are inextricably linked. More complicated are the relationships between young people and adults that ensure they stay that way, if only because adultism is pervasive throughout all social classes – but for different reasons. Next time…
White middle class culture dominates youth engagement. As the predominant culture in the U.S. today, white people operate many of the nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and education institutions where youth engagement activities occur throughout our society.
In most communities, white people like me create the policy, write the grants, operate the programs, identify the participants, develop the activities, hire the workers, manage the budgets, discipline the participants, evaluate and assess the activities, and promote youth engagement as a concept.
Elements of white middle class dominant culture are the driving force in our notions, activities, knowledge, ideals, and outcomes from youth engagement. Our ways of operating, our systems of belief, and our culture drives the nature of the work we do. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
In their article “Elements of White Middle Class Dominant Culture“, authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identify the following traits as elements: Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, I’m the only one, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, and the right to comfort.
These traits are predominant in much of the youth engagement work I’ve seen across North America over the last decade. Perfectionism is typical of many organizations and programs that constantly strive to “get it right” without ever finding contentment among the ambiguity of young people. Many other traits, including quantity over quality; only one right way; either/or thinking; power hoarding; I’m the only one; bigger/more thinking; and the right to comfort are hallmarks for many programs and projects.
I find myself responsible for perpetuating many of these traits as I teach people about youth engagement. I constantly talk about the urgency of now, frequently inciting Dr. King’s work while railing against the perpetual disengagement of youth in most communities. The defensiveness implicit in my call extends from a sense of not-worthiness when I bring up the topic of youth engagement. Thinking about individualism and paternalism, I can see my entire practice as a consultant come into focus, as I work alone in many circumstances.
Identifying these traits isn’t about what is bad or wrong; instead, its an acknowledgment that there is another way to do things. Einstein’s insistence that doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity may be spot on; we need new visions for youth engagement if we’re ever going to achieve mainstream cultural and social change.
If nothing else, I am going to facilitate new conversations for people to talk about the white middle class hegemony of youth engagement. I am going to make space for more cultures to inform and motivate youth engagement. I am going to keep bringing more people into the conversation, and continue stepping out of the way when its time.
What are YOU going to do?
- 10 Tips for Affirming Diversity and Supporting Equity in New After School Programs – Written by California Tomorrow.
- Addressing Equity and Diversity: Tools for Change in After School and Youth Programs – Written by California Tomorrow.
- Structural Racism and Youth Development: Issues, Challenges and Implications – Written by the Aspen Institute.
- Youth Undoing Institutional Racism – YUIR is a multi-racial, intergenerational community organizing group that is a project of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and The People’s Institute Northwest (PINW).
- White Privilege Conference Youth Action Project – A team of experienced facilitators provide a safe and challenging space, geared toward youth of ALL ethnic backgrounds, who are committed to understanding and dismantling white supremacy white privilege, and other forms of oppression.
Changing our minds is necessary for successful youth engagement in schools and communities. Coming to understand the absolute dire necessity for youth engagement and understanding the inherent ethical demands therein is essential for everyone. This is particularly true for adults who work with and for young people everyday, including parents, teachers, youth workers, politicians, and others.
However, this strong personal transformation isn’t systematic or necessarily sustainable. Despite many well-meaning adults’ interest in engaging young people, they don’t have reliable structural and cultural supports within their environments to ensure their efforts have the impact they could or should have. Instead, students leave the classroom of one well-intended teacher only to face six others throughout the day where teachers aren’t committed to student/adult partnerships. Or the homeless youth voice project that empowered those youth has no follow-up once those youth have secure places to live, and so on.
The reality of these situations is that we have little puddles of youth engagement in the world today. There are some communities where those puddles for ponds, and only a couple where those ponds forms lakes. However, there are oceans of separation between these adult allies of children and youth, and we need something more.
I’ve written about this and studied systems supporting youth voice. Here are the main elements I’ve found consistently arise.
- Organizations Have Policy and Practice. There are ways to carry out the policies that support the objectives of goals of Youth Voice
- Data Driven Practice. Data related to Youth Voice as it affects the young people involved, their peers, adult allies, and the larger community is regularly collected.
- Budget Supports Action. Budgets include line items that support the implementation of Youth Voice activities.
- New Knowledge is Fostered. Regular training orients new youth participants and adults and strengthens existing youth and adult allies’ skills, knowledge and commitment to Youth Voice.
- Accountable Action at the Grassroots. Policies supporting Youth Voice activities have been published in a document available to youth, adult allies, youth workers, government officials, politicians and families.
- Accountable Action at the Treetops. The Youth Voice coordinator reports to a high-level administrator and the position is incorporated into the organizational chart.
- Change is Temporary; Support is Permanent. The Youth Voice program has survived a significant change of leadership among youth, adult allies and within the group, organization and/or community.
- Community Informed Action. Other groups, organizations and/or communities are assisted in designing, implementing, sustaining and/or evaluating their Youth Voice activities through conferences, workshops and/or local outreach.
- Policies and Practices are Shared and Compared. Organizations, groups, and communities actively “swap notes” about policies and practices in order to strengthen self-perception and grow beyond limited views.
- Networks and Coalitions are Formed. Like-minded individuals and organizations, including youth and adult allies, form networks for support and coalitions for advocacy. Tangible action, practical outcomes, and meaningful activities form and reform the bonds that unite them.
In the same way we honor public intellectuals such as “Barbara Ehrenreich to Tom Wolfe to Samuel Huntington” and my own mentor Henry Giroux, I want to heighten the role of the public student. This modern learner is the engine of democracy, fueling all other social, cultural, spiritual, educational, and economic developments throughout society.
That said, in a society that systematically segregates young people from adults, I think its important to acknowledge the unique role that only children and youth occupy, which is that of K-12 student. In our modern social construct, that has been the only place in society specifically designed for children and youth, and the role of student is the only formal role for them.
Acknowledging the distinct identity of students is vital to integrating them throughout the education system that serves them, which is the purpose of my work in schools. That identity is one as the public student.
Before class, ask students bring the following songs about school (or any combination of them) to class, both recorded on CD and the lyrics. (NOTE: Facilitators may allow students to bring their own choice of songs about schools, with consideration for lyrical content. Also, following many of these songs are linked to Youtube, and you can find all the lyrics on the internet.)
Appropriate Tone. The following songs have been chosen because they have appropriate lyrical content, including lyrics that are not violent and do not contain profanity.
- Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 by Pink Floyd
- Back to School Again by the Four Tops from Grease 2
- Grade 9 by Barenaked Ladies
- All Falls Down by Kanye West
- I Don’t Wanna Be Learned by The Ramones
- In My High School by Larsen Blaine
- The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths
- We’re Going to be Friends by The White Stripes
- We’re Going to be Friends by Jack Johnson
- You Can’t Blame the Youth by Peter Tosh
- Be True to Your School by The Beach Boys
- Graduation (Friends Forever) by Vitamin C
Objectionable Tone. The following songs have been chosen because they have appropriate subject matter, and often represent “alternative perspectives”; however, they also have objectionable content, including lyrics that may be violent or profane.
- Working Class Hero by John Lennon
- They Schools by Dead Prez
- Terminal Preppie by Dead Milkmen
- Rock Star by Hole
Gather students in the room and listen to 3-4 songs. After each, have students spend a few moments writing their immediate responses to the song, without talking or sharing their insight with their peers. After the class has heard each song, have a group discussion about images from the songs. You might have students share their responses to the songs, or have them discuss the following questions:
- What is the purpose of school, according to these songs?
- Do these songs show the reality of schools, or the exceptions?
- Why would anyone object to these songs?
After this discussion, challenge students to write a creative response to the lyrics they have heard. They can write a poem, prose, or a even a song. Provide students with the opportunity to share their creativity with their peers, giving everyone equal space to share in their own ways.
The bar is being raised in many ways, and the danger is becoming imminent as never before. One glaring example came across my radar recently. In the 1990s, when I was transitioning from local youth activism towards global systems change work, I was inspired and motivated by artists like Ben Harper and Public Enemy. They were mainstream musicians who pushed unpleasant messages onto the masses, and I appreciated them, listening for inspiration and reminders when I needed them.
Today I saw a video for Kanye West and Jay Z’s new single, “No Church In The Wild.” The song, which focuses what is right and wrong in the world, is teased by the visceral video. The visuals used pull the viewer into a riot, complete with masked protesters and shielded riot police and horse riding, club wielding cops.
Combined with the danger of these times we’re living in, the world’s most famous and successful rappers have effectively capitalized on the tension of the moment. Their paranoid lyricism, androidian beat, and hyper-crumpy chorus suck us into a painful world where the words of Dr. King have become irrelevant, and the present is disruptively ruled by grim militarism, painful corporatism, and hopeless anarchy. This is the art of the dangerous times we’re living in, and it may either prove prescient, motivating, or irrelevant. Only time will tell.
Write a response and let me know what you think of the video.