I recently ran a diversity leadership workshop for youth in my hometown of Rockville, Md. This is an annual event sponsored by the city’s human rights commission. We brought together high school age young people from area schools as well as a few students from our local community college. Though I spend much of my time working with adults and professional groups, by far the most significant and rewarding work I do is with young people. Age is not a barrier to leadership. I’m reminded of Joan of Arc, who was in her teens when she led French forces against the English.
Youth activism is self-evident now. The rising up of youth — responding to President Donald Trump’s policies; advancing the #MeToo movement (consider the sexual assaults that were committed against young U.S. gymnasts); protesting for immigrant rights (in fear of the possible ending of DACA); advocating for Black Lives Matter; and the most noteworthy example, the March for Our Lives — demonstrates not only their passion, but in some ways, it shows how adults have been pushed out of leadership roles.
To some it might even appear that we have relinquished moral authority. Because our elected officials are beholden to interest groups, corporate bosses and fringe politics, important issues of social justice and racial and economic equality are mired in partisan gamesmanship. (Of course, having a president who needs cue cards to remind him to show empathy for young people doesn’t help.)
At times, we belittle the optimism and idealism of young people. We bestow our wisdom and remind them that to dream of a day when equality and justice prevail is unrealistic and that they will grow up and realize that it’s a tough cruel world out there. I’ve got news: They already know that. No one has to convince the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that the world is unfair.
Rather we grownups need to move beyond our cynicism and consider that just maybe the impracticality and idealism of young people is what we need right now and that we should start playing a nurturing role in fostering it and providing support for their causes. We should not rebuke them for engaging in democratic action, like school walkouts, that allows them to apply the civic education they learned in social studies class. Our failure to promote by example the type of action they are taking has led to the detachment we see by some today.
A recent national trend has been to lower the voting age in municipal elections to 16. The Maryland communities of Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Greenbelt have done that. Those who argue against it claim that young people don’t have the maturity to cast a vote. I would put the maturity of some of the 16 year olds I have worked with up against many supposedly mature baby boomers. While older Americans vote their present conditions (pocketbook issues: taxes, jobs, property values) often not considering the long-term future and the futures of their grandchildren, young people have no choice but to consider the future they are to inherit; their lives are largely ahead of them. Not only must they deal with the immediate worries of whether their school will be safe from guns, they must also consider what their prospects are for paying for college and career opportunities, and the impact on their lives of technology, global and cultural engagement and the ailing environment — not to mention how they are going to support the baby boomers.
The students I met with at the diversity program voiced many concerns but also felt optimistic about their future. They are up to the challenge and are prepared to lead. Let’s let them, and learn to be good followers.
David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. and the author of “Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.