Leelah’s Murder Is OUR Fault

Leelah Alcorn’s death was practically a murder. It shows how America’s legal system, which enshrines parental rights above children’s rights, has killed another young person.

More importantly though, we need to see that Leelah’s murder is our fault. We have not done enough, taught enough, said enough, or worked hard enough to stop this horror from happening. And it is a horror, and it was preventable.

Discrimination Against Youth

Leelah’s story shows us- yet again- the discrimination against youth that seems inherent in our society. The horribly preventable circumstance that led to Leelah’s death are unfortunately the norm for every single American youth today, regardless of how they identify. The fact that Leelah identified as trans exacerbated that reality for her. Follow me: Every single American youth today is targeted in the most malicious ways throughout society simply for being young. This is the case whether they are cis, straight or queer; wealthy, poor or working class; academically gifted, creatively driven or athletically poised. Youth are singularly denied their rights, oppressed for their identities, conscripted for their abilities, and completely downtrodden because of their because of their ages and our society. And its merely and entirely about their age.

Add distinguishing factors to their age such as race, gender identity, socio-economic class, and academic ability, and youth move from being “merely” enslaved to entirely oppressed. The enslaving factory of this adultocracy is so deeply entrenched that parents, teachers, youth workers and many many people who call themselves youth allies merely perpetuate it without ever knowing it. My book focuses on helping these individuals see beyond their own lenses and aspire to be something greater.

Personal Action

The most effective piece of this article focuses on you. Its what David Bond from The Trevor Project said at the end of the piece:

However, Bond told me, even just one supportive adult in a LGBT teen’s life decreases suicidal ideation. “Be consistent in that person’s life and check in in a genuine way – and don’t be afraid to ask if they’re thinking of killing themselves,” Bond advised would-be allies.

“There’s a misconception that if you ask the question you’re going to put the idea in someone’s head. But it’s more often a helpful question than a harmful one.”

Whatever the answer – and I believe more states banning so-called conversion therapy and easier legal and financial avenues for emancipation, especially for older teens, should be a big part of that – we need more action now.

“A year feels like forever when you’re young,” PFLAG’s Sanchez told me. It’s no longer good enough to remind LGBT kids that “it gets better”. We need to figure out more legal, safe alternatives for those who can’t wait that long.

Everyone of us can take action and do something about this, but we have to face the reality that everyone of us is responsible for Leelah’s death (and the unnoted deaths of so many other American youth) first, and then work from that place. THAT is the work to do, no matter who we are.

And none of that is meant to take away, minimize or otherwise continue the oppression of trans, cis, or anyone who identifies as “other” throughout society. Its meant to highlight the compounding factors that are attempting to decimate peoples’ senses of ability, possibility and hope. We can do better than mere survival, and Leelah’s story demonstrates another way that can happen. Each of us can take action.

Legal Action

America’s legal system must act to do several things:

  • Stop allowing abusive parents to kill youth;
  • Stop devious judges from profiteering off youth imprisonment;
  • Stop racist and classist educators from reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Stop social workers from placing youth in harms way;
  • Stop police from arbitrarily enforcing laws against youth;
  • Change laws to allow all youth everywhere to choose their living situations;
  • Develop a guaranteed income for all youth, everywhere;
  • Prevent youth oppression by acknowledging the full personhood of children and youth from birth.

When these things happen, horrific and preventable deaths like what happened to Leelah Alcorn will not happen again. But not before then. If you really want to change the situation, join the struggle to end discrimination against young people.

Thanks, Kate, for calling me to write about this.

Bastardizing Youth Voice

When considering youth as allies to educators, adults may be tempted to act as translators for youth voice. Concerned that youth are not capable of speaking “adult-ese”, well-meaning program staff, nonprofit administrators, researchers, government staff, youth advocates and teachers reword the ideas of youth, interpret them, or otherwise differentiate between what youth actually said and what adults believe they meant. Adults do this because we do not believe that the raw data represented by youth voice has actual value in the space of government policymaking, program teaching, organizational leadership, or community improvement. We do that because we do not trust youth at face value; without extracting what we think youth are actually saying, without reframing it into concepts, ideas, or beliefs we share, we think youth voice is foreign, alien, or immature and juvenile.

 

The challenge here is not that youth do not have valuable things to add to the conversation, but that adults do not have the ability to solicit the perspectives, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of youth without filtering, analyzing, or otherwise destabilizing their expressions. We have to accept that responsibility and build our capacity to to do this important work. We have to stop bastardizing youth voice.

 

I do not use that word lightly. To bastardize youth voice, adults corrupt how youth share their voices, however it is expressed. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, adults debase youth by adding new elements, their own ideas, moving their own agendas and forcing their own beliefs through the actions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. Bastardizing youth voice this way is not necessary, appropriate, or relevant to creating youth/adult partnerships.

 

All adults throughout the education system need to learn that all young people of all ages have the capacity and the ability to speak for themselves, albeit to different extents. Often this capacity may be undermined by the disbelief of otherwise good-hearted adults who honestly believe they know what youth think. Youth/adult partnerships creates appropriate platforms for youth experience, ideas and knowledge of the world without filtering those words through adult lenses. Youth can learn about the world they live in, the topics they should learn, the methods being tested on them, the roles of adults and students, and much more.

 

Questions to Ask

  • How do you interpret youth voice right now?
  • Does the idea of adults bastardizing youth voice offend you? Why or why not?
  • Where can you practice simply listening to youth voice today, without interpreting or bastardizing it?

 

Introduction to Youth Councils

Researching for a presentation in 2013, I identified fewer than 40 youth councils connected with city governments across Washington State. This state has over 280 municipal governments. There were also fewer than 10 counties that had youth councils, and only one state agency reported a youth council, in addition to the Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council.

Here is the presentation I made:

Youth are everywhere! According to the United Nations, young people between the ages of 12 and 21 account for more than 25% of the world’s population today.

In the United States, the Census reported in 2011 there are over 73 million people under 18 in the United States. 10 to 19 year olds make up more than 14% of the US population.

At that same point, the Census reported that young people ages 10 to 19 make up 13% of Washington’s population.

There are more than 281 municipalities in Washington State, including incorporated towns and cities. Research conducted by the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council has found that only 35 of those municipalities have Youth Councils.

Youth Councils have vast differences, and many different possibilities. Some of the differences depend on where they are located, who is on the Councils, and what the local municipality needs from them.

However, the missions of many Youth Councils aren’t generally informed by research-driven best practices, national trends or patterns, or other factually-based decisions. Instead, they are determined by well-intentioned adults who want to do the right thing, but are limited by their own imaginations, by their city or town leadership’s vision, or the way that everyday people see young people.

However, and luckily, we’re not limited to negative or challenging perceptions of youth. As one community organizer said, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” The way they’re going to do this? Youth Councils.

A youth council is a formal or informal body of young people that is driven by advocacy and decision-making. They address the absence of youth involvement in decision-making for any age of young people, with kids as young as 7 and young adults as old as 24 being involved in Youth Councils across Washington State.

There many different kinds of youth councils, including those sponsored by local governments, including towns, cities, and counties; state government agencies and legislatures; local nonprofit and community organizations; and national organizations.

Communities with Youth Councils in Washington

  • Auburn
  • Bellevue
  • Camas
  • Cheney
  • Colville
  • Des Moines
  • Everett
  • Federal Way
  • Grandview
  • Issaquah
  • Kirkland
  • Lacey
  • Lakewood
  • Liberty Lake
  • Marysville
  • Mercer Island
  • Mill Creek
  • Millwood
  • Mukilteo
  • Oak Harbor
  • Puyallup
  • Redmond
  • Renton
  • Sammamish
  • Seattle
  • Shoreline
  • University Place

The Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council had:

  • 22 students
  • Ages 14-18
  • All corners of Washington
  • All walks of life.
  • Two-year term.
  • Meet up to four times per year in Olympia.
  • Hold monthly conference calls to discuss projects and goals.
  • Hold an annual Action Day to meet with legislators and testify on important youth-related bills.
  • Advocate for youth-related bills. In 2013, lobbying efforts helped move three bills to be passed into law.
  • Partner with youth groups and organizations.

Other types of organizations have youth advisory councils. They include:

  • Community Development
  • Labor
  • Workforce Development
  • School Districts
  • Neighborhood Associations
  • Faith Communities
  • Ethnic and Cultural Groups
  • Performing Arts Orgs
  • And many others

Alfie Kohn once said, “Youth should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today.” Youth Councils allow young people to experience democracy in realtime.

The context for youth councils comes from many places. I find poetry inspiring, and in particular, Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom’s Plow:

Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

Would you build with young people? Youth councils provide one way to get that done.