Looking for Heroes

I’m doing three things right now: 1. Watching The Life of Brian, a spectacularly funny movie by Monty Python; 2. Checking my email, and; 3. Writing this blog. Not surprisingly, I’m going to tie all three together. You see, we keep looking for heroes.

I just read this in my inbox:

Nominate a Young Hero for the Barron Prize: The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes seeks nominations for its 2006 awards. The Barron Prize honors young people ages eight to eighteen who have shown leadership and courage in public service to people and our planet. Each year, ten national winners each receive $2,000 to support their service work or higher education. Nomination deadline is April 30. For more information and to make a nomination, visit http://www.barronprize.org/.

This is the fifth year I’ve seen this prize come around, both online and at conferences. While seeing prizes as interesting, I am always torn by the necessity of awarding volunteerism and/or activism.

I agree with renowned educator Alfie Kohn, who consistently implores parents and teachers to stop rewarding students for learning. Kohn says this behavior, “Manipulates children… creates praise junkies… steals a child’s pleasure… robs [a child’s interest]… and reduces achievement” I think the same is true of these awards.

By marking action with a star and elevating youth to a false plane above their peers, these awards actually serve to damage the intrinsic motivation many young people feel. Young activists quickly become reliant upon funding and kudos for their ventures, managing to steer clearer of authentic responses and closer to awarder-approved responses. Perhaps that’s an underlying reason for these awards: create a generation of junkies that won’t question or analyze the premise of funders, or wonder whether there are alternatives to corporate-generated or government-sanctioned social change.

I do understand the need to get paid. When I was growing up in North Omaha, I constantly needed money, and for all kinds of reasons. The first “activist” postures I took didn’t cost money, and when they did I had to recycle cans to get it. If I was getting paid things would have surely been different. But these awards are rewards and they aren’t about getting paid: they’re about crass acknowledgement for the sake of acknowledgement.

Which brings me back to The Life of Brian. There’s a line in the movie where Brian says, “I am NOT the Messiah!” to which a follower replies, “I say you are Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.”

Young people don’t need to be pointed out and held above their peers; rather, they need authentic responses, including celebrations, to the very real situations they face. Let’s take the money from the Barron Prize, the Do Something awards, the Youth Service Day awards, the State Farm awards, all these awards, and put it towards some youth-led movements, like what we’ve seen from the Youth Empowerment Center in Oakland, the Seattle Young People’s Project, and the National Youth Rights Association. Let’s put the money where it needs to go – not just another reward.

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