5 Ways to Engage Youth in the Fight for Civil Rights

A few days ago, I placed my cell phone, keys, and wallet in a small plastic bin and slowly walked through a set of large metal detectors. After making my way through the machine, I was asked to raise my hands as an officer scanned me with a hand held device. As soon as she was finished, I was told to wait for a few seconds for the items I placed in the bin. A minute later, my belongings rolled through a conveyor belt and the bin was handed to me. I nodded and smiled at the officer who handed me the bin, hoping to break the tension that filled the lines in her brow. I received an emotionless stare in return.

In an attempt to recover from what had quickly become an awful morning, I quickly made my way through a long hallway to my destination. Unfortunately, it wasn't an airline terminal. It was a science classroom. I walked into the classroom, made my way to the back of the class, and prepared to begin my work -- observing and then coaching a new teacher.

Before long, and after seeing the notes on the screen in front of the classroom, I realized that I had accidentally walked into a social studies classroom. I gathered my books to walk out, but realized realized that the teacher was preparing for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by teaching about civil rights. I decided to remain in my seat and observe the lesson.

As the lesson ensued, I was shocked to hear youth discuss civil rights as a thing of the past. In this classroom, with bars on windows and walls that thirsted for paint, youth described civil rights as "what people did back in the days when white people didn't like us." In this school, where metal detectors and police searches ensured that the students' rights were violated daily, they described civil rights as "marching and protesting and not what we do today."

I quickly realized that as long as the fight for civil rights is presented as something historical, but not seen as literal, youth will learn to become comfortable with inequity. Many youth who know that they aren't treated fairly, and know that life isn't the way it should be, do not see themselves in a fight for their civil rights. They have been taught to turn a blind eye to institutional racism and structural inequity, and don't see that their civil rights are being violated in more subtle and dangerous ways than ever before.

In response, our work as educators and parents is to teach youth to see and speak to the inequity they experience every day. Most importantly, they must see that the tools that have been used to distract them from fighting for their rights must be re-purposed and used to fight for equity.

Here, I outline five ways that the next generation may carry on the fight for civil rights.

1) Utilize Art and Culture: Hip-Hop as Voice

In a world where voices that speak truth are drowned out by media pundits whose versions of reality reinforce the notion that the fight for civil rights is over, it is absolutely necessary for youth to use their own cultural forms to share the many ways that their rights are violated.

This is exactly why hip-hop is important. This art-form allows youth to describe their realities and share it with their peers and others. When youth don't see themselves marching, they do see themselves creating a song, acting out an experience, and using these cultural forms to share their struggle.

To get his point across, I often tell young people that Martin Luther King Jr.'s complex voice inflections and cadence made him the early ancestor of the modern day rapper. This means that they have the responsibility to be the modern day civil rights activist.

2) Enter the Blogosphere

To engage in civil rights in this era means that youth must share their thoughts and reflections with the world. They should know that the writer has always been at the core of the civil rights movement. They should also know that entering the blogosphere and joining/creating an online community that reads and writes about inequity continues the traditions of civil rights activists from previous generations.

3) Be Selective With the Media You Consume and Promote

Young people must know that being a civil rights activist does not always mean being vocal or being a prolific writer. Part of the process is standing behind the scenes and selecting what messages you choose to promote. We must lead them to ask what messages they Tweet and what articles and videos they share on Facebook. Young people must know that promoting civil rights via social media is a significant piece of the fight for equity. They must know that it is possible to use contemporary tools to fight longstanding inequity.

4) Engage in Silent Protest

One of the aspects of the civil rights era that many young people don't know about is the act of silent protest. We often tell them about historic marches and violent protest but fail to tell them about the power of effecting change by silently protesting. In the class I visited, I asked the youth to imagine the change they could make by quietly refusing to participate in activities/processes that they found unfair. They quickly began talking about the police officers and metal detectors in the school. As soon as they began this discussion, I allowed them to decide how they would silently address these issues. We must help them to imagine the power they can wield by guiding them to find new ways to protest.

5) Join Groups of Fighters and Thinkers

I often say that the revolution will not be televised, but it may be tweeted. My final suggestion is to suggest that youth join existing groups that speak their language, and are pushing for change and equity. This happens within communities like the #HipHopEd chat on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on Twitter. Connecting youth to these communities teaches them to identify the everyday inequities they experience, and allows them to use the four tools mentioned above to continue the fight for civil rights.