As I watched one state after another fall red on Tuesday night I was surrounded by an intergenerational, inter-racial, international gathering in my Midwestern family room where we had been poised to celebrate the historic election of America’s first female president. Instead, my thoughts moved from despair for my country to the children gathered with me that night.
I ducked out of the family room to find teenagers collected in an upstairs bedroom coiled together in a messy pile, tears streaming down faces. In my kitchen, a middle schooler was curled in fetal position on the floor. A younger child stumbled into the room with a practical question, “Do we need to move?”
As the map began to tumble like dominoes for Mr. Trump, my proudly independent college freshmen daughter phoned me from another state sobbing over the phone: “How is this happening, mom? What is this country? I want to come home.” My 16-year-old feminist son who has served as the youngest Clinton fellow in the state of Michigan, and who had poured his heart, soul, and every waking moment into helping midwife a woman to the presidency quietly slipped out the back door at midnight to go to Clinton campaign headquarters stunned silent for the first time in his life.
I am a mother of four kids, a college professor, and I serve as club advisor to intersectional feminist groups at a high school and a middle school. I am immersed among middle America’s most progressive young people. In the last 72 hours since the election, I have held meeting after meeting with these young people to help them come together, cope, grieve, find community and feel the feels. I tell myself I am doing it for them, but I know that through the raw dialogues that have emerged among these young people, I am gaining renewed strength for myself.
No one trained me in how to support youth in this new unchartered world, and frankly I had not sufficiently prepared myself for the outcome. I was not ready for an openly misogynistic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, fear-mongering, man accused of sexual assaulting more than a dozen women, race-baiting, orange haired president-elect with the vocabulary of a fifth grader to become our president.
As I stumbled through Wednesday, it became clear that I needed to do three things with my young colleagues: 1) Be real. Let them know that I didn’t know precisely what was going to happen next, and that I couldn’t promise them anything for certain, including for many of them, their own safety; 2) Be present. I told them, “I see you, I hear you, I love you.” The kids needed to talk, to be really listened to, and be in community with other like-minded stunned and grief-stricken people; and 3) Be a safe place. I needed to let them know that the only thing I could promise them with 100 percent certainty is that I would do my best to be a safe space and would do everything in my power to stand with them, come what may.
I believe that by allowing the young people to name their anger, their fear, their grief, their feelings of betrayal, also helps them develop the tools of their own salvation: strength, hope, and a new resolve. These are young people who have come of age during the Obama years. They know only the campaigns of hope, the politics of inclusivity, the cadence of a skilled orator and a brilliant, reflective leader. Most barely remember 9/11. The “Reagan revolution,” which catapulted me on my own progressive political life, is only a chapter in their history books.
In one gathering of young people, forty high schoolers found their way to my house “the night after.” They spent two hours sitting on my white shag carpet eating pizza and leftover cake and sharing their worries with one another. In another gathering, armed with food leftover from the previous night by those who didn’t have the stomach to touch it, I offered my college students a chance to huddle together in an impromptu meeting in the appropriately named “Serenity Lounge” in my college. Through tear-tracked faces, the students one by one shared their private thoughts with the collective. At yet another meeting, college RA’s came together to figure out how to provide support for their residents but those conversations turned inward: how can they support their charges if their own doors are closed in fear and loss? A refrain seems to be echoing among young people. When I met with a group of middle schoolers yesterday, they shared similar concerns.
Here are the words they are using, repeating, and feeling: terrified, traumatized, afraid, scared, depressed, anxious, betrayed, angry. Some major themes have begun to emerge: Our kids are worried about their parents, themselves, their kid sisters and brothers, their friends, and the big picture. They have existential concerns too. They don’t know what to do with people whom they love who voted against their very beings. They articulated the difference between disagreeing with someone’s ideology and casting a vote that violated their identity.
Here is how they put it:
• Worry for their parents: “I’m worried my mother will lose her job with the state.” “I’m worried my father with cancer will not have affordable medical care.” • Worry for themselves and their peers: “I’m worried that my black body will be harmed.” “I’m worried I won’t be able to get birth control.” “I’m worried that I won’t be able to continue to see my therapist.” “I’m worried that every white person I see on the street hates me.” “I’m worried about the guy with the Trump hat sitting in my lecture hall.” “I’m worried I’ll never earn what the guy sitting next to me will make.” “I’m traumatized as a Muslim.” “I fear for my own safety as an ally.” “I’m worried that if I’m sexually assaulted, I won’t get justice.” “As non-American student of color, I’m afraid to even go to the cafeteria to eat.” “I don’t trust nobody no more.” “I’m afraid for me, how I’ll react if I’m triggered by something a Trump supporter says.” “Everyone who voted for Trump is a spit in my black face.” “How can people hate me as a Black kid, without even knowing me?” “I’m worried that Trump will promote anti-LGBT policies and allow businesses to discriminate against me.” “I’m in the military and I don’t want to have go fight Trump’s war.” “My friend didn’t wear her hijab to school for the first time today, and I’m worried about her.” “I will go crazy if they make me go through conversion therapy.” • Worry for their younger brothers and especially their younger sisters: “How do I explain to my younger sister that my country is not ready for a woman president?” “I’m worried that my Black brother is going to doing something foolish and end up in prison.” “My five-year-old cousin woke up on Wednesday morning and said, “Is it ok for men to treat me like that now?” • Worry about being able to love their friends and relatives who supported Trump: “My white grandma voted for Trump because she doesn’t see me as her bi-racial granddaughter. She doesn’t see me for who I am.” “My best friend since kindergarten voted for Trump. How can I still be friends with someone who supported a candidate that denies my identity?” “My mother asked me why I am so sad this morning. My father was laughing.” • Worry about the big picture: “The biggest concern I have is that climate change will never be stopped now. In four years Trump will do irreparable damage to the environment.” “I’m afraid Trump’s Islamaphobic statements will incite ISIS to attack us.” “I’m afraid of what the Supreme Court under Trump will end to our access to birth control.” “I’m angry at adults who voted for Trump.” “Pence is even worse. He believes in conversion therapy.” • Existential worry: “Life feels so pointless now.” “I always wanted a ton of kids, but now I don’t want to bring kids into this world.” “America feels selfish.” “I saw a light and now I don’t.” “I’m afraid people will give up the struggle for equality because they will get tired.” “It was a private ballot, now I don’t trust anyone.” “I’m almost more afraid that it was possible for someone like him to become president than I am afraid for the policies he is going to implement.” “I hope allies don’t get tired.” • Others, many of the kids of color, expressed a different sort of awareness: “America has always been racist, now they can say those things out oud.” “It didn’t take Trump to tell me that America’s messed up.”
What I have noticed throughout these conversations is that all this heaviness and weight the kids are carrying becomes lighter through the dialogue process. At the end of these gatherings, I do a closing round and ask these young people to express in a few words what they are feeling now, after the dialogue. This is what I heard from those young people who just shared their concerns: “I feel inspired.” “I feel empowered.” “I want to start right now to do something.” “I don’t want you (white people) to give up.” “Love is what we are fighting for.” Wow.
The kids are gonna be alright.
Every year around this time I give a lecture to college students euphemistically entitled, “How to go home for Thanksgiving.” After nearly 12 weeks in college, many of my students are returning to their families for the first time in late November. They discover that their families haven’t changed in the same way that they, as college freshmen have, and often find a widening crevice dividing them. What I have preached over the years to my students is the importance of staying in dialogue despite difference. I have coached them on being curious, on actively listening to other side, on treating people with human dignity, on giving people the benefit of the doubt, but always also the importance of speaking their own truth. I have worked to give them tools for handling their triggers, for staying calm, and remind them of MLK’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I was grappling with that message in view of the election results with my 16-year-old, it seemed so insufficient to me. But it was clear to my son. “It all remains true, mom.” He is right.
Only now I will add that if the conversation around the Thanksgiving table turns toward Trump, rather than engage in shouting matches with their dear ones, my students should ask their Trump-supporting family members if they are OK with the hate being unleashed by Trump supporters on people like them, their friends, and their neighbors. I will suggest that my students ask their Trump-supporting family members to demand that the President-elect denounce all the hate groups who are celebrating his victory now. I will invite my students to gently, quietly, lovingly ask their relatives and friends who insist that their vote for Trump does not make them racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, anti-Gay, anti-Semitic, or anti-disabled, to stand up whenever those bad apples throw poisonous lobs at people who look like you, love like you. Empower the Trump supporters in your family to become activists on behalf of others. Tell them that it is up to them to condemn as un-American every act of violence and hatred done in Trump’s name.
But I will also add that this particular year, it might be safer when you go home for Thanksgiving to ask, with lovingkindness, that your dear ones simply not talk about Trump in front of you. The pain is too raw.
I remind them of the old Mexican proverb: “They thought they buried you. They didn’t know you were a seed.” Go off, disperse to the four winds and blossom.