Gandhi, Young People, and Social Change

Finding heroes is a tough thing to do, and in these days I’m not sure we even need them anymore. At least the larger-than-life, superhero types like Mother Jones or Dr. King. Their flags have flown, and today’s movements for social justice are a lot broader and more diverse than those times.

That much said, I do think that we still have a lot to learn from those heroes. My thought for the today comes from Mohandas Gandhi, the larger-than-life leader of the Indian independence movement. Gandhi was quoted in a newspaper article that I read this morning, and the quote kind of sticks to my ribs.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

That’s a pretty quick, accessible assessment of this movement for youth involvement that we’re embarked on. When I think about it, most of the local efforts that I know of that are fighting for acknowledgement and engagement of young people throughout larger society are right around the fighting stage, and that is pretty cool. The irony, though, is that at this “meta-level”, in the national and international scene, there is still a lot of ignorance. Young people and adults are still fighting for attention amid a plethora of issues – even among our own.

For instance, Mr. Bush’s wife Laura has spent the last two years being concerned about America’s youth. From the beginning, her initiative focused on the problems young people face. In a rather traditional and completely conservative fashion, the program, “Helping America’s Youth“, has identified young people as broken objects in need of being helped, instead of seeing them as complete people who are ready to help others. This type of deficit model is really tricky, primarily because it decieves a large number of adults into justifying their own patriarchial, top-down models of youth development and education. (For a more “historic” model of this, see Colin Powell’s America’s Promise). Its also tricky because, as a recent article from Youth Outlook, a youth-created newspaper in LA, pointed out, “by and large, they are based on promising ideas, but have little scientific evidence of effectiveness.”

Ironically, one of the best examples of an alternative to this perspective, as in one that blends acknowledging community needs with youth abilities, comes from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her energy and commitment led to the creation of the National Youth Administration, which was a youth-inclusive federal agency responsible for coordinating youth development throughout the US. The NYA died an early death; however, that is another story I’ll explore a different day.

Which takes us back to Gandhi. I believe that, on the whole, engaging young people in social change is largely ignored by the masses: the federal government, larger foundations, many national nonprofits, and any mainstream press. However, Gandhi also gives me hope, as he shows a progression through which this movement can move forward.

Next time I’ll begin exploring what we’re involved in as a “Movement”. Until then…

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