Evolving Roles for Young People

“Education should not be the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a flame.”– William Butler Yates

In the early 1800s it was common for non-enslaved Blacks in the United States to take the last name “Freeman” as a testimony to their freedom. Since that time young people have become bound by the ongoing structuring of society, through school, afterschool programs, church activities, and family life. These shared legacies led a group of Olympia-based youth activists and allies to create a new youth empowerment resource organization called The Freechild Project in April 2001. Today, Freechild is an internationally-renowned advocacy organization.

Freechild’s mission is to advocate, inform, and celebrate social change led by and with young people around the world. The organization serves as a not-for-profit learning space, think tank, resource center, and advocacy group that facilitates networking, training, resource-sharing, and technical assistance for young people and youth-serving organizations around the world.

By establishing a network of local and national organizations that includes Gateways for Incarcerated Youth at Evergreen, Fremont Public Association in Seattle, National Youth Rights Association in Washington, DC, and Projecto Juventude in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Freechild has reached tens of thousands of young people and their adult allies around the world. We have created dozens of unique publications, resource databases, and popular education workshops that promote children, youth, and adults working as equal partners in democratic social change.

Freechild believes that as a collective body within a global community, children and youth around the world are subject to segregation, alienation, and injustice without parallel. Further, as members of distinct ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups, many young people suffer unequalled oppression as the targets of genocide, hunger, and war. It is no wonder that in these times when the health of democracy is sacrificed for commercial gain and familial vendetta, many people find it hard to have hope. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the “World House”, it is almost certain that he didn’t intend for children and youth to inherit a decrepit house, slipped from its foundation, stripped of its siding, plastered with billboards, and crumbling apart inside.

What is that slipped foundation upon which the World House is built? Is it a higher authority charged with morality and righteousness, or a man-made composite of economy and education, government and military? The Freechild Project believes that it is Community, that common connection of diverse people for a collective purpose. The citizens of modern communities tend to neglect or deny that collective purpose; worse still, many people deny that young people have any purpose at all.

Popular culture seems to exacerbate this situation repeatedly by constantly railing against youth. While corporate marketing to children and youth infiltrates every facet of our culture, movies simultaneously glamorize and degrade the collective image of young people today. Two recent books summarize young people today as “The Scapegoat Generation,” and as “The Abandoned Generation,” while a popular website portrays them as a shapeless, placeless, and an unknowable “Fluid Generation.”

Other culprits to perpetuating negative stereotypes about youth include politicians and government officials who continually attempt to pin vandalism, loitering, and other crime on young people. It is ironic that this demonization actually benefits, and is sometimes perpetuated by, the very nonprofit agencies that purport to provide prevention and intervention programs for young people. Finally, in this period of federally-mandated and locally-supported standardized testing, it is of little surprise that children and youth themselves are often blamed for the failures of the education system. This, despite the reality that most students never have the actual opportunity to make significant decisions or advocate for what is important to themselves in schools.

Demonstrating the wisdom of youth, one young leader recently said, “I’ve never met an apathetic young person, [but] I’ve met a lot of hopeless and discouraged young people, who think that they are not big enough to change things.” This assessment summarizes the raison d’etre of dozens of youth-driven groups in Washington today. Benefiting communities across the state, young people and their adult allies are working together to engage children and youth as social justice activists, action researchers, community planners, popular educators, democratic decision-makers, and as empowered advocates as never before. They are calling for the knowledge, experience, ideas and opinions of young people to get heard now, for their own benefit and for the benefit of democracy.

The issues that young people are addressing across today are as diverse as the children and youth who are engaged. Coming from every walk in society, young people are addressing issues of economic injustice, racism, education reform, sustainable agriculture, disproportionate incarceration, affordable housing, gay youth rights, lowering the voting age, homelessness, among hundreds of topics. Their action is sophisticated, appropriate, and increasingly sustainable; by creating media, joining community boards, distributing foundation funding, creating global technology networks, activating the hip hop community, and politicizing traditional youth programs, young social change agents are radically transforming two pillars of society’s treatment of children and youth: namely, adults’ expectations and the role of young people in democracy.

It is said two different people will rarely interpret a master’s art the same way. Social change led by and with young people usually has the same effect. Some adults scoff at children and youth who lead action, declaring their actions idealistic and simplistic, while many others maintain the standard of ignoring their contributions totally. Some see young social change agents as anarchists and rebels, while others see them as peons and kiss-ups. Fortunately for our society as a whole, still other adults proclaim that engaging young people is a matter of effectiveness, civil rights, youth development, and ultimately, ensuring democracy. The following examples from Washington can provide a proving ground for readers to decide for themselves what this action really is.

The Olympia Youth/Teen New Media Fest seeks to foster the vitality of the Olympia community by providing a venue for vivacious and creative youth. This festival is a weekend long celebration of youth-teen culture; showcasing films, videos, comic books and zines, websites, spoken word and bands made and performed by folks 21 and younger. Young people express their opinions, ideas, knowledge and experience by becoming the creators of media that reflects their true beliefs.

Anak Bayan is a collective founded in 2000 by Filipino and Filipino American youth and students who are concerned about the global oppression of their people. According to their website, www.anakbayan.org, they study and educate others about the culture and heritage of the Filipino people. They also study, expose, and oppose US imperialist intervention in the Philippines. Through this action, the young people in Anak Bayan are engaged as teachers and advocates, and are driving social change that can enrich our state’s cultural heritage and promote social justice for all people.

A nonprofit organization in Kent, Washington is engaging young people as advocates for democracy through poetry/nonviolence workshops. The Institute for Community Leadership (ICL) works to empower children and youth to create a vision of a more just nation and world. Their website features stories of programs that develop and sustain strength, hope, leadership, and relationships for young people and adults in schools, community organizations, and governmental programs.

A variety of communities across the state have opportunities for young people to engage in government decision-making activities. Cities including Lacey, Colville, Kirkland, Vancouver, and Spokane have youth councils that engage diverse young people in making important and meaningful decisions affecting youth throughout their communities. Several American Indian tribes in Washington also have opportunities for youth to participate in decision-making activities, including Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe, Yakama Nation, and Muckleshoot tribe.

The Seattle Young Peoples Project (SYPP) is perhaps the most vibrant organization in Washington state providing opportunities for young people to lead social change. Their fifteen-year-old organization has provided resources and support to youth-led initiatives throughout the city that have engaged thousands of young people, including conferences, workshops, concerts, and more. Their activities reflect the diversity of Seattle’s youth: whether focusing on queer youth rights, African immigrant youth solidarity, or young womens’ empowerment, SYPP continues to be a powerful example of the effectiveness and ability of youth-led social action across Washington.

The benefits to democracy in Washington, across the United States, and around the world are innumerable. Social change led by and with young people provides individual children and youth with important opportunities to experience and impact democracy first-hand; allows adults the chance to relax and learn from young people by working with them, instead of for them; and it gives our communities hope by developing lifelong expectations and opportunities for everyone. One of those expectations is that there are communities worth living in for everyone, including youth. One of those opportunities is that democracy needs to be constantly reinvigorated through social change.

In his last book before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote,

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Activists, educators, youth workers, young people, and all people across Washington must stay awake and vigilant to the challenges facing society today. The need to strengthen democracy has never been greater, and the resources have never been so limited. Communities can no longer afford to ignore the power of children and youth, either morally or fiscally. As Henry Giroux writes, “The stakes have never been so high and the future so dark.” Young people provide light in that darkness – let’s encourage their flames to grow.

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