Two weeks ago Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after spending almost two decades locked up for promoting democracy in Burma. She has been on a furious campaign to continue her movement as the visible and singular leader for real democracy, setting an example for the West in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
I’m reading and listening to as much of her direct words as I can find. This morning I found this video from Foriegn Policy magazine, in which she awakened an understanding in my mind that I want to elaborate on here. I recommend that you watch the video and draw your own conclusions; here’s what I’m thinking.
For too long, youth involvement advocates have sought to change the structures of our society in order to accommodate young people. We have believed that in order to promote civic engagement or cultural awareness, educational efficacy or familial bonds, all we need to do is create youth councils, youth forums, youth newspapers, youth websites, and other youth-specific outlets for youth voice. This thinking maintains that mechanisms and structures give youth a particular position and specific opportunities through which they can become involved in the health and well-being of the communities, organizations, issues, and activities they care about.
One of the main challenges with this thinking is that it relies on difference rather than similarities. It dichotomizes children and youth from adults, segregating each from the other, seemingly in order to connect the two better. Ironically, frequently this does nothing but pits them further against each other. Without appropriate opportunities to interact and relate to one another, young people come to see adults as alienating and differential, and adults often deepen their perspectives of children and youth as pitiful and incapable.
Another challenge is that this type of structural change, when done without context, presents youth voice in a vacuum. Young people end up only being challenged by each other, rather than the larger communities they are parts of. This encourages young people to see their actions in a myopic and exclusionary bubble that fails to reveal and emphasize the interrelated nature of society and community.
It can be said that these approaches generally reinforce the anti-democratic nature of many institutions throughout our society today. Ironically, by trying to change the adultist regimes in our society, these activities reinforce adultism and adultcentrism. Rather than interact with adults as a collective or in a connected sense, these structural activities extinguish the truly revolutionary nature of youth voice by presenting it solo and without context in the larger world around children and youth. In order to change society, we don’t need regime change; we need value changes.
By focusing on value changes, individual advocates, programs, and organizations that support youth voice can focus on core skill building, knowledge sharing, and movement making. We promote communication, connection, and collaboration directly between adults and young people. We develop new opportunities to challenge oppressive mechanisms between adults, children, and youth, and we identify and challenge discrimination against children and youth whenever, whenever, and however they surface.
Chuck D once rapped that, “The real revolution is the evolution of the mind.” I want to suggest that Suu Kyi wants to expand that, and I want to support her through our movement. The REAL revolution is the evolution of the heart – let’s get busy evolving!