I believe my own past, just as everyone’s, is a necessary part of the story we’re co-creating about re-envisioning the roles of youth throughout society. No matter how unpleasant, uncomfortable, or ugly it is, all of our actions, histories and outcomes affect all of our lives, from the beginning to the end, from better or worse. The people we’ve known, the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done make us who we are and what we’re becoming, whether or not we’re aware of it. Dr. King wrote, “The self cannot be self without other selves.” This is why.
I grew up in a family of marginality: we went from being really poor to temporarily comfortable; from being homeless in a car to living in a house throughout my teens where family friends flocked to for its steadiness and comfort. That neighborhood was a predominately African American community in the Midwest. This is also where I began my first paid work with youth. After moving away when I was 20 years old, I took a series of jobs that have allowed me to continuously work in low-income neighborhoods, and with communities of color for the next 10 years. The work was a privilege.
While I was living in Nebraska in the mid-1990s I created a tutoring and mentoring program for young people who were Kurdish and Iraqi refugees. Moving to Washington state shortly after, I worked as a ropes challenge course director for a high adventure program that brought low-income youth to the mountains. After that I worked for the Corporation for National Service with a service learning program in northern New Mexico. Between those jobs I also worked in a court-mandated drug treatment center and for an independent living skills program, both of which were packed with low-income youth and young people of color.
When I returned to Washington in 2000 I took a job promoting youth involvement in communities across the state. In my initial scan to learn what was going on I discovered that many of the long-standing youth involvement programs served middle class white youth. These programs were focused on activities that were highly controlled by adults, taking the form of youth councils, youth forums and youth newspapers. They focused on service learning, and generally impacted a very small segment of their local communities.
I didn’t like what I was seeing. None of the youth were my youth, the kids of color and poor teens who I’d worked with for a dozen years by then. They were absent from these sanctioned activities, and what was being said seemed to always fit conveniently into the agendas of the adults who were listening. I felt this kind of convenient youth voice was an affront to my experience, as I was used to young people tagging, protesting, and using other forms of civil disobedience in order to be heard.
Under the auspices of the state education agency I began scouring Washington’s communities for examples of inconvenient youth voice. I found them. I found high school students who walked out of schools to protest poor food; youth and adults who worked together to bring out youth voice on reservations; kids who were teaching parents about economics; and youth who were systematically leading social justice campaigns throughout their city. These impassioned acts of power routinely scared the whits out of adults, to say the least. But there was a reason they weren’t happening in the state’s middle class, predominately white communities.
There is a complacency that sets upon the comfort the middle class assumes. I only know of this comfort because I have been privileged enough to experience it; this is one way my experience drives my analyses and action. My challenge today is to honor this discomfort, and knowing how it has informed my present, to encourage the people who I encounter to experience that discomfort, too, no matter what their background. All of our actions inform all of our present; how is your past keeping you uncomfortable, and how is that discomfort informing your actions right now?