The Downfall of a millennium?

In 2003 I witnessed the rise and fall of another American youth activist. Scott Beale, a not-radical from the DC Beltway, caming roaring across the spectrum with the cry of youth activism. He wasn’t focused on social justice or even critical thinking; rather, he was from the romantic “youth can do anything because they should be able to do anything they want to” camp. Late in the year he released a book called “Milennial Politics,” and invited me to respond to its printing.

I am not a kind reader.

Rather, I am a critical reader. I devour books like some people eat steak: While ingesting their words, I look for blood to coming dripping out in the context and content of the text. That’s why I appreciate authors like Henry Giroux and Jose Saramago: left to my own imagination and their writing, I would never go hungry. Alas, when I am asked to read a book I do not spar my appetite. Instead, I want to whet it, quench it, and squash my thought-starved mind.

So, I read Scott’s book. Today I came across the email I shared with him, and here I will share it with you. As you read this, please remember I was 3 years less experienced than I am now; however, I find the intention of the email still rings true in my ears. Following is my response to Scott Beale’s “Millineal Politics.”

Hey Scott, I’ve got to come clean with you. I am let down by your book for several reasons, and I want to explain them. I hope you bear with me and read through this email.

I started down the “activist trail” when I was 16 and decided to start a guerilla environmental justice group in my neighborhood. After a bunch of failure I got ahold of an old 60’s youth activism book, full of essays and manifestos. I read it and felt alienated: seperated from the language of radicalism by my growing up a white kid in a black neighborhood, and repelled by the money these people threw at their causes, printing flyers and hosting speakers and just… resources everywhere. That pushed me away.

Later on, as a youth worker, I got ahold of Wendy Lesko’s 26% book. It was okay, but when I tried to share it with the young people I was working with, they were like “yeah, right”. That didn’t fly. I read Craig Kielburger’s “Free the Children,” and the sense of noblese oblige and 1st world righteousness really didn’t work for me. Then I did my AmeriCorps time, and read Bartlett’s “The Future is Ours,” which made me disown my own ‘activist’ title for a minute. After I got tied up in the national scene through Points of Light, I got all the youth involvement curricula and programs, and my head almost exploded. I tried dozens of trainings and ideas… I loved the CoMotion Manual, and Youth On Board’s material. Then I started Freechild.

In 2001 & 02, Linda Wolfe’s “Global Uprising” came out, and I was charged. Psyched. Partially because her book would’ve pissed me off before, and now I was excited about it. But also because I saw something else, something in between there and where I wanted to be. Oh, and Billy Wimsatt’s “Future 500” book looked just like Freechild! I was like, “Wow.”

I’ve read a ton of material in the last two years on student voice and involvement in schools, including whole toolkits with 1000s of pages, each seeking to influence 1000s of teachers to change. There were ups and downs there, too. “Fires in the Bathroom” by Kathleen Cushman is an up. “Listening to Student Voices” by NWREL is a down.

And now, your book.

I didn’t read anything new here Scott. I am going to share some critical reflections here, and you can take them or leave them. Here are my major concerns:

The book offers very little new material. It reads like a rehash of lots of the books I’ve already mentioned, with the exception that you’ve reduced the expanded points of many authors to soundbites, without explaining the rationale or sentiment present therein.

There is a lot of pandering to mass media’s opinions of young people. Some of your topic areas read like they’re out of a newspaper, or that the “Millennials” are just what they’re parents hoped they would be: “A Patriotic Generation” with a “Millennial Paul Revere” whose “Cultural Conservatism” is going to provide “Freedom’s Answer” for “The Choice Ahead of Us”.

Of the nine major issue areas, nothing directly addresses social justice, racism, sexism or homophobia.

There is very little mention of youth oppression, aside from highlighting it as a need for (not a cause of) youth activism.

Nothing addresses the classism that alienates young people from one another and from adults. After reading your book, I got the distinct feeling that youth activism is for white, middle and upper class kids who are fighting for the same thing everyone else is.

Smaller, community-oriented organizations are under-represented. These groups, who are often “under-the-radar” without formal 501c3 status or major foundation funding, are having massive effects on their communities. Your focus on large national and international organizations only re-inforces a sense of alienation and abandonment that many local youth activists feel.

The role of intergenerational interdependence is wholly dismissed throughout the book, especially by echoing Struass and Howe’s slamming Gen Xers. Ironically, GenX psuedo-hero Billy Wimsatt is elevated to some throne by quoting him in the first section of the book, and citing his work throughout.

A student activist is quoted as saying “We’ve got the university by the balls.” This actively reinforces negative media stereotypes and compells young people’s internalized oppression further.

Columbine is exploited by quoting a student who died. After that, a section on guns never attempts to dismiss the myth of youth violence, as Mike Males has so thoroughly done in his book, “Kids and Guns.”

You quote George Tenet.

Your book categorically denies the influence of past youth activism, including contributions and influences from the 1930s, 60s, or early 90s. You never once mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most famous and effective youth activist ever, who argueably employed the most effect youth activism campaign ever. You didn’t mention Students for a Democratic Society or the Port Huron Statement, likely the most tangible, intelligent thing youth activists have ever said.

Scott, I’m not trying to be flippant or caustic with this critique. Rather, I am genuinely concerned about the course of your book. I don’t believe that you are actually attempting to appeal to adults with a book that reinforces popular stereotypes young people and youth activism. I also don’t believe that you are deliberately attempting to shelter masses of young people out there from the issues that are truely destroying our society, including racism, classism, xenophobia, and class segregation. But I don’t see how you’re doing anything to address those issues. Paulo Freire (who you don’t cite, but should) wrote that, “Washing ones hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Don’t pretend to be neutral Scott. A group of young people that I work with has a sign above their door that says, “Observers from outerspace and journalists aren’t welcome. You either DO, or you DON’T.”

I know these comments are late, but I hope you’ll understand why. Aside from my baby being born in August, and me assuming primary childcare duties in November, its been crazy hectic days. I would really like to talk with you sometime, and I hope you’ll get in touch. Let me explain myself more.

Scott never has got back to me. Shortly after he released the book the listserve for the website went dead. I noticed a few years ago that he was using the website to get on a TV show – and the site still has that plea.

I will write more about the danger of these books in the near future. Oh, and I did notice the comment about nuetrality. Hah!

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