“Why Do They Hate Us?”

“Our schools look like shopping malls.”
“My school looks like a prison.”
“People at shopping malls follow me around like I’m stealing things.”
“The army wants me to join them and then go to college.”
“The army wants to send you to die in Iraq.”
“For 100 years!”
“The curfew in my town is 10pm every night, and I have to get permission from the sheriff’s office to get a job.”
“I can’t find a job.”
“Social Security won’t be there for me when I’m old anyway.”
“They won’t hire me.”

“What is wrong with this country,” I thought to myself as I sat in on this classroom conversation last week. And suddenly, like a scene in a movie, a young woman in the back of the room blurted out,

“Why do they hate us?!?”

The rest of the class laughed, almost nervously. They’d heard the line on TV or seen it in print or on the Internet so many times that it was cliche now.

In the 1990s we were derisive about the sentiment that “youth are the future.” My colleagues and I, coworkers in nonprofits across the country who were barely out of our teens, thought that sentiment was old-fashioned and didn’t address the “hope/energy/creativity trust” that young people embody, that could be expended on positive, powerful solutions for today. Unfortunately, even concentrating on that idea seems to pale in comparison to the cold, harsh reality that young people face today.

The simple fact of the matter is that young people in the U.S. today face a net deficit of social prospects: the jobs, schooling, social fabric and democratic governance enjoyed by past generations appears to be falling apart right in front of their eyes. You and I both know they’re not ignorant to those changes, and last week I was jarred into feeling that again when I heard the follow-up to the rhetorical quip made by the high school junior in that class. After she asked, “Why do they hate us,” everyone laughed, then quieted down. As the room became hushed one guy spoke up and said, “Because we’re young.” As everyone smirked and someone said, “Huh,” the bell rang and the class shot out of their seats.

We, any youth activist or adult ally who is reading this right now, have work to do. It is urgent and it is vital. I am not talking in a metaphorical sense either: The young people of America need hope right now if the democratic experiment we have enjoyed, in any sense, is to continue. There are glimpses of possibility out there; its our responsibility to lift them up, share them out and help move them forward.

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