Sunday, April 3, 2011


Wow. After an extended period of disinterest in blogging -- I mean, what is there to say that others have not discussed, either with more clarity and insight or just clogging up the blogosphere -- I finally came across a topic that has pulled me back in.

I had the privilege of participating as a panelist in a Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle Freedom Forum titled "Can Youth Lead". Great topic, but my oh my did our unconscious "Western" philosophical perspectives show as we fell all over ourselves affirming youth leadership. We spoke about the leadership of youth in every movement in America while leaving out the strategic context of putting youth bodies on the front lines - not because youth were leaders (although some were) but because of the strategic hope that perhaps the white supremacist agents of the state would be more humanistic towards youth than adults (as history records, they weren't).

We spoke about the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and discussed them as "youth leaders" when in reality they were young ADULT leaders with families of their own. They were PARENTS, REAL PARENTS taking care of their children while facing real risks (not just "Baby Mamas" and "Baby Daddys" who paraded their children as new accessories before handing them off to grandparents or foster parents responsible for their day-to-day care . . .but I digress).

Finally, during the forum's Q & A period, one 17 year old stated that youth -- she in particular -- should be on panels like this because, after all, she was 17 and was a youth and had opinions while everyone else on the panel were adults. One panelist immediately ceded her seat to the youth, who went on to mis-characterize what panelists had said about youth leadership. Only one panelist dared to challenge her mis-framing of what the other adults on the panel had said, while the others watched in indulgence and affirmation. No one challenged her on her seeming belief that individuals with actual bodies of work and expertise on these issues that transcended the scope of personal experience, could actually be advocates with insights to share in this forum. As adults on the panel, we failed -- miserably and completely -- in our responsibility to make that happening a "teachable moment" and an example. Acknowledging this does not negate that 17 year old's point, but it is an example of how we adults fail in our roles of teachers of respect and models of appropriateness to younger generations.

There was much talk by panelists about getting back to the communal interdependent Afrikan model of community that has brought us so far in surviving and even thriving in this country. But in that model, adults were ADULTS who did not cede their responsibilities AS ADULTS to learning youth. ADULTS parented, educated, taught, nurtured, modeled, listened to and mentored youth, readying them for leadership and the assumption of their place as responsible adults in society. Youth LEARNED to lead. FROM ADULTS.

Have we so assimilated that we have fallen into the trap of believing that "children shall lead us" (and can we please acknowledge already that we so take this Bible quote out of context!)? If we truly believe that this is the case, then why parent youth? Why protect them? Why guide and nurture them, why impose standards and parameters for their safety? Western society tries to have it both ways -- on the one hand, it says that we need to protect, shield, and teach youth. On the other hand, it promotes an "our children shall lead us" philosophy that fuels the entitlement thinking among youth that youth for youth's sake is enough to lead and adults should just listen to and hear their wisdom and follow their lead.

Let me put it this way: if you are not willing to say that you will allow your teenage youth to lead in your home -- to run your home -- then why are we willing to sign on to the fiction that they are ready to lead in forums that are not appropriate to their levels of experience, expertise, or skills? As one panelist said, we should tell the truth! And the truth is that there are different scales of leadership and certainly arenas appropriate to youth who are learning to be leaders or who are leaders in some of those arenas. But leading outside of those arenas? Taking on the full scale of risk, responsibility, and accountability that those in the full bloom of leadership take? Don't try to sell me that putting youth leaders in those arenas is an Afrikan model or responsible behavior.

What is wrong with this picture? Are we afraid -- in a youth obsessed society -- to be adults, to be Elders, with all that means? Is that why we run from the responsibilities of those roles and from the voices of those individuals speaking unpopular truths in this society about the differences between youth and adults and about the critical role of experience gained from life's journey? Do we run because we are trying first and foremost to be friends with youth instead of stepping up to our central role of preparing them? Or do we run because we are still trying to BE them?

If we are still claiming -- at 24, 26, 30 and older -- that we are "youth" instead of young adults, adults, and Elders, we need to seriously take a look at ourselves and figure out why we are clinging to an extended state of self-described adolescence -- and whose model we are emulating and assimilating into -- even if and while we are stepping up to the work.

And if adults and Elders believe that youth can "lead" them in forums where experiences, expertise, a body of work, a wider worldview, and life "seasoning" greatly inform decisions as parents and leaders, then we have larger issues to discuss: namely the abdication of our own roles, as adults, in their lives.

Moving Forward!


1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog! It has so saddened me to see that young people seldom read or study, they seldom know the history, they simply get elevated – by ELDERS – to positions of authority as you indicate. Are we as elders are not willing to take the risks that are involved in calling out the system for what it is – or are we not willing enter the dialogue in a way that will cause some tension and controversy – whether it is with the young people or our peers? One thing we have recalled, in making presentations about the HANDS ON THE FREEDOM PLOW: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC book, was that we, as young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), did study, read, listen to and seek out elders, learn history as well as work on the front lines. We were elevated into leadership because we were walking the walk AS WELL AS talking the talk. Please continue to blog!