Does Every Youth Ask “Why Is The World So Mean?”

Sitting in a circle after our activity, an eighth grader asks me bluntly, “Why is the world so mean?”

After a game, I was facilitating a conversation with a group. I’d asked the students to brainstorm different problems they saw around them, and name some of the ways they were affected by them. Someone said homelessness, and talked about an uncle who was living on the streets; someone else talked about their family going to the food bank. They were an honest group, and after a few missteps, my effort to create safe space was rewarded.

After ten minutes of questions, this young woman summed it all up very succinctly. She wasn’t mad and she wasn’t pitiful. Instead, she was simply sharing a startlingly clear worldview that came into focus during an activity. The challenge is that her worldview isn’t uncommon. Instead, its predominant—and always has been.

The author with students from Santa Barbara, California, in 2011.

It’s A Mean World

 From 2Pac rapping that, “”It’s a mean world n—a; you strapped, or be a throwaway” in his song “Late Night” to BB King singing about, “It’s a Mean Old World“; from the cognitive bias towards violence called Mean World Syndrome to James Whitcomb Riley‘s 1897 poem describing our mean old world, our society generally agrees with the eighth grader I mentioned.

Before the United States, there’s little evidence to show that any society refuted the perception of the mean world. Europe’s Middle Ages, which lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries, were appropriately called “The Dark Ages”, while Asian cultures lived through a similar “Dark Ages” about 2,000 years prior to the Europeans. There have been predictions about apocalypses for thousands of years,  and believing the world is going to end seems like a firm part of the human story.

However, this perception is not wrong or bad, and may actually incite something much greater.

As I talked more with this eighth grader and her peers, I discovered something that bubbled through in this group. In the midst of being able to talk about the cold, hard realities they faced in a non-cynical, but truly aware and justly angry way, I heard glimpses of hopefulness. After carving out some more space for that conversation, I suddenly got floods of it.

“We Gotta Be The Ones Changing Things”

When they had the room to talk in a different way, suddenly they did.

“I’m doing my homework every day so I can get into college.”
“That’s why I play ball so much, so I can use real skills to get a scholarship to go to college.”
“I work at my dad’s shop on the weekends to fix cars, and I like that.”

The students went on like this, almost uninhibitedly, for ten minutes. When they were done, I asked why they wanted to do any of that. “Why do that if the things around you are so rough?”

“We gotta be the ones changing things,” a young man said, going on about his family and friends and everything that mattered to him. “Things might be hard, but this is our life, and we’re responsible for it.” His friends cheered him on, he got a “Preach!” from the group, and I clapped too. This encouraged him.

“I’m mad , and what is going on around me isn’t okay. I’m going to make things different.”

I beamed. This was the most brilliant thing I’d heard in a long time, and I had to write it down so I could write this piece later. I am glad I did that.

Driving Change

In his last book, the renowned Brazilian critical educator Paulo Freire wrote, “We have the right to be angry and to express that anger, to hold it as our motivation to fight, just as we have the right to love and to express our love for the world, to hold it as our motivation to fight, because while historical beings, we live history as a time of possibility, not predetermination.”

These students didn’t experience their history as a prison sentence, and they didn’t see themselves as incapable of changing the world they are part of. Instead, they named themselves as change agents who could see the challenges facing them, identify their place in respect to those problems, and from that position they could create new visions and take new action to change the situations.

This is the highest place social work can take young people, from being the passive recipients of adult-driven society, to becoming active partners throughout society. The homes, schools, communities, organizations, and other spaces where these students grew up were succeeding, and counter to what history says, they are ready for a positive, powerful future for themselves, their families, and all of us. Phew!

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