The United States is a backwards democracy. Rather than distributing the power to all of its citizens, it throws it into the hands of the few. Instead of bringing opportunities to the under-resourced, it lavishes chances upon those who already have access. In this post, I am concerned most with the reality that instead of engaging its youth in democracy, the US is most focused on engaging its middle-aged and seniors. That process is languishing.
For more than a century children and youth across the country have called for active roles: They have protested as suffragettes, lobbied in Congress, marched against child labor and sat in for civil rights. They have led Internet campaigns, political campaigns, Amnesty International campaigns and anti-war campaigns. While the adults who ally with them have been exceptional (Mother Jones, J.D. Salinger, Tom Hayden) the young people themselves have made huge strides for young people and for the communities they represent – even if they are unacknowledged for their contributions to society. When was the last time you heard of the American Army of Two, Joseph P. Lash, Barbara Rose Johns, Billy Wimsatt, Alex Koricknay Palicz or Tully Satre?
In the meantime there is growing international support for youth involvement, youth voice, youth activism and youth rights. Instead of being an occasional, one-off activity or an underfunded, underutilized grassroots movement, these efforts are systemic, operationalized and powerful. That’s not always good – but its a completely different place than exists in the United States.
Almost all of Europe has young people participating and represented by the European Youth Forum. In 2006 I talked with one of the founders when I was at a Brazilian youth conference in Sao Paulo. While he was older, it was awesome because he was one of the founders. Think of it: having opportunities for 50-year-olds to actively advocate for young people, youth rights, youth involvement and other issues all of their professional career. Even if that’s not attractive to you, what if it was just an option? The National Youth Council of Singapore is almost 20 years old; the Sangguniang Kabataan of the Philippines is more than 15 years old. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which acknowledges and extends all of the areas we’re interested in, has been signed into law by more than 190 countries around the world! As I’ve said before, the U.S. is one of two countries that haven’t signed it. This nation doesn’t really see Somalia as good company to be compared to in international relations , does it?!?
The United States is no country for young people, and that has to change.