Co-authored by Michael Kokozos, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania
Heavy hearts walked into our classroom -- an amalgam of fear, anger, and paralysis over incessant injustice. Our students -- 100 young leaders from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds across the United States -- arrived for LEDA's* Aspects of Leadership Summer Institute at Princeton University during the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, followed shortly by a week of heightened violence towards black and brown lives in Baton Rouge, San Jose, and Falcon Heights -- conjuring painful memories of Baltimore and Ferguson, among others.
In some ways this feels like a new normal and yet violence towards marginalized others is not a recent phenomenon. The symbolic manifestation to three straight days of police brutality, however, was palpable. Not to mention that in their communities, young people -- particularly those who are queer, disabled and/or of color -- are increasingly the targets of heightened surveillance, unjust stop-and-frisk policies, and excessive policing, practices which effectively push youth out of schools and into the criminal justice system.
Young people recognize that efforts to correct these and other injustices take time, but in their evolving mindset there's an audacious urgency fueled by the recognition that any moment is a chance to challenge injustice - to change wills, change course. If we are to support youth as they exercise higher levels of personal freedom and social responsibility, the parameters of engagement and mobilization can no longer be set by and for adults. How can we then support youth social action in a synergistic and compassionate manner?
We posed this question to our LEDA Scholars. To start, they asserted, adults need to #PassTheMic. And listen -- sincerely listen -- to the collection of young voices calling for change. So we did. And here is what we learned:
Despite their participation and leadership in progressive social movements throughout modern history, young people are all too often dismissed by adults as either overly idealistic on the one hand or apathetic and civically disengaged on the other. In working with young people, a willingness to continuously examine and challenge our youth-related biases is paramount. Equally important is an awareness of our adult privilege (in addition to our other privileged social identities) and the ways in which the power inherent in said privilege impacts our interactions with youth. Related to this is the need to consider the role of identity and culture in shaping how young people engage in social action. We must also know when to step back and when to leverage our privilege to ostensibly legitimate and/or bring attention to youth-led efforts.
Reconceptualize adult/youth relationships.
When it comes to adult/youth relationships, learning and leadership are often viewed as unilateral, whereby young people are treated as empty vessels meant to consume -- rather than contribute -- information and ideas. Reconceptualizing adult/youth relationships begins with validation of and respect for young people's ideas, experiences, and insights. It necessitates a passionate and unyielding faith in their capacity to create real, positive change and the acknowledgment that leadership takes many different forms. And it means working in collaboration and solidarity with young people rather than for them. For educators, a reimagined adult/youth relationship means transforming the classroom into a cooperative and reflective space where students feel empowered to develop a critical understanding of society and its processes to take informed social action.
In our experience as educators, we (i.e. the authors) have been afforded opportunities to collaborate with youth whose voices have shifted the way in which we view the world; students who have led movements to change hearts and open minds; and who have made the impossible seem possible. Indeed, young people possess a diversity of talents, insights, and creative approaches for addressing injustice -- among them their unique knowledge of social media as a tool for education and mobilization (as one student reminded us, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement began as a hashtag). Even when young people are given a seat at the table, their presence is often treated as window dressing: praised but not taken seriously and used primarily for optics. Youth representation is not enough; young people's ideas should warrant the same level of respect and consideration as their adult counterparts -- more so when the decision(s) directly impacts young lives. Moving beyond tokenization to active participation and youth-led initiatives means, among other things, involving young people in the decision-making process.
Foster communities of care.
The practice of self-care is vital to the work of social justice. In a society that values some lives more than others, self-care, as Audre Lorde claimed, is "political warfare." But to build sustainable movements, care must extend beyond the self. Indeed, the cumulative trauma of oppression cuts deep and should not be addressed in a silo. Youth need spaces where they can be vulnerable, where they can speak authentically, laugh, cry, hold one another accountable, and celebrate their resilience -- particularly when the burden of oppression becomes too heavy to bear. As adults, we must be intentional about helping to foster communities of care and compassion, with the recognition that for many youth, support is not readily available.
Our students' voices call upon adults to be more intentional in the ways they approach youth-related resources, policies, and initiatives while making such information and opportunities accessible (e.g. with regard to language) and available to young people. Such collaborations can lead to new pathways for generational scaffolding, transmitting a vision of cooperation and support for a better today and tomorrow. To engage with a system larger than just our experience, we need those relationships. It is imperative that we continue to explore ways that youth and adults can learn from each other and work together towards positive change.
Let's extend the conversation by sharing ideas for supporting youth-led efforts, using the hashtag #PassTheMic.
We would like to thank Daniel, Faith, Fatima, Jassary, Danielle, Ambi, Andrea, Malikah, Natalie, Charlotte, William, Mina, Lucy, Ghawayne, Iram, Zandro, and Shannen for their contributions to this article and all LEDA Scholars for their leadership efforts in cultivating a more just world.
*Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) is is a national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying and developing the academic and leadership potential of exceptional public high school students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. These students are currently underrepresented in our nation's top colleges, universities, and ultimately, leadership sectors. For more information on LEDA's programs, including the Aspects of Leadership Summer Institute at Princeton University, please visit ledascholars.org.