Don’t overlook the way fired up young people can make change
It’s an interesting time to be growing up in the world.
While clashes between generations have probably always existed, it seems like some generations get dealt an especially dramatic set of cards. I think of the students of the 1960s, who shifted opinions about Civil Rights and the war. In the ‘90s, South African students gave the fight against apartheid its needed momentum.
I wonder if we’re back in one of those times.
A little while ago, I gave a presentation for Plant With Purpose at a local high school. It was the type of school that did things a little differently, like putting RuPaul quotes on the wall.
Before my talk, I took a walk around the hallways to look at some of the student art. Provocative stuff.
The student drawings were intense. Political. I could’ve snuck them over to a contemporary art museum and nobody would question it. Captain America reimagined as Kim Jong Un. A Confederate Kermit the Frog.
I didn’t even understand how to interpret most drawings exactly, but I did understand that to young eyes, the world around them is a broken one. They aren’t wrong.
I was immediately snapped out of that moment to speak with educators about global poverty and how to engage students. I started talking about fundraising and spreading awareness and found myself on an unexpected roll.
“I’m convinced. The enthusiasm of students is what it takes to solve major problems that have been at a standstill.”
Don’t doubt what energized young people can accomplish.
Just a few weeks after that talk came the shooting in Parkland, Florida. It left me sad, of course, but I was surprised by another feeling. Hope.
I don’t usually feel that way after mass shootings, because usually nothing gets done to prevent the next one.
But this one felt different because of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students like Emma Gonzalez calling for action so boldly that she and her classmates have captured the attention of a nation, its media and government.
“When we've had our say with the government—and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying 'it is what it is,' but if us students have learned anything, it's that if you don't study, you will fail.”
While there’s something cathartic about high schoolers speak truth in the face of a U.S. Senator, I try to remain cautiously optimistic. After all, that same week, a background check bill was voted out by the state legislature. But this group brought new life to a cause that had started to feel hopeless over the past few years.
This group reminds me that a big change to the status quo is at most a generation away.
If not sooner.
Lets make sure an emerging generation is empowered, not ignored.
As often as I have the opportunity, I insist that organizations, individuals, and educators don’t overlook students as an audience group worth engaging.
I insist, because when I was in high school, some people and groups thought it was worthwhile to introduce me to problems like child soldiers and Darfur. I knew I wouldn’t have really lived my life if I didn’t do something to make sure nobody had to live those sorts of experiences.
Here are three things we can do immediately to help empower an emerging bunch of leaders.
Listen - I love what Brad Montague did right after a tumultuous election season. He went on a tour to classrooms, not to lecture, but to listen. So many of us think our way help is to instruct, and sometimes it is, but we can also learn so much from younger people.
Mentor - Some of the most annoying people are those with plenty of rants about the young, but zero exposure to them whatsoever. The opposite of unproductive complaining? Actually spending time with them. Great mentoring always benefits both parties.
Invest - There are a number of great organizations to support that help make sure more doors are open for young people of all backgrounds. Two of my favorites in my neighborhood? Whatever It Takes and Outdoor Outreach.
In whatever work you do, keep this generation in mind. Ten years can pass quickly, and in that time, they’ll be the ones making decisions that impact everybody for years to come. Comparing the status quo to their vision... I’m totally okay with that.