America’s Youth Have Always Provided a Glimpse Into the Nation’s Dreams or Its Nightmares

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My Mentoring History

Before I began my time at The North Star as a writer and editor, I was a 13-year youth development professional and creative writing teaching artist. At various points of my career, I have been a long-term substitute teacher, a manager of a hip-hop influenced afterschool program, a marketing director for a youth spoken word nonprofit, a coach or assistant coach of youth poetry slam teams and most consistently, a teaching artist.

I spent nearly a decade and a half going into hundreds of middle and high school classes teaching spoken word poetry workshops to thousands of students. My work as a teaching artist in Louisiana, a state that bottoms out in education, was always a work of wonder. I taught students of every socioeconomic level imaginable. Whether my workshops were teaching poetic form and device to all-Black public schools in Baton Rouge’s poorest and most disenfranchised neighborhoods or majority white private schools where classrooms consisted of children of policy makers, my goal was always the same: to assist young writers in telling their stories through verse and with vivid detail.

I had the privilege of watching a few generations of young people grow into young adults. The earliest groups of young people I worked with crossed into their thirties at the top of the decade. Many of them are parents raising facsimiles of who they were as kids. A handful went on to pursue careers in the arts. Some have attained advanced degrees, and some are productive blue-collar workers.

A lot of them still occasionally reach out to me for advice, which tells me that I did not totally fail at my job as a mentor.

There are also young people I mentored who became ensnared by the prison industrial complex. Young people I mentored who transitioned from this life before they were able to manifest destiny. Young people that neither I nor my colleagues could save from being consumed by a world that existed outside of the juice boxes and stale chips they received during snack time at our afterschool programs.

I am often haunted by the thoughts of youth that slipped beyond my reach. Any mentor or teacher that considers themselves to be good at their job understands that it is not just the immediate lesson you want your students to walk away with. You hope to be able to pass on long-standing wisdom that will be of service to them for the remainder of their days.

Sometimes you get to bask in their gratitude as they soar beyond your greatest imagination of their potential. Sometimes you end up grieving the greatness they were unable to reach.

Defining Youth

The United Nations categorizes youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The legal age of adulthood is 18, but according to studies by neuroscientists, the human brain is not fully developed until age 25. This means that even though 18-year-olds are old enough to vote and fight in wars, there are still seven more years of cognitive development their brain will undergo before reaching its maximum maturity.

America as a country is obsessed with youth culture. It is where we look to adopt new language, new fashion and often provides ideological direction for where we are headed as a society. It is often said that a person grows more conservative as they age, not per se in their political views, but in their temperament and rationale. America’s youth, no matter what side of the political spectrum they land on, largely embodies a freedom of exploration in their views as their boundaries have not been stifled by life experiences that give pause for older adults.

It is that unbridled youthful energy has guided this nation to new frontiers and forged a path of progress for elders to follow. It is also this energy that has fueled the resistance of the privileged to fight off any semblance of progress to the bloody end.

Young Heroes, Young Villains

Last month 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled from Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed with an assault rifle. He had been watching protests that erupted in Kenosha over the police shooting of Jacob Blake and decided he would stand in defense of law and order. Rittenhouse would ultimately end up killing two protesters and wounding another. His since deleted Facebook page uncovered an image of him holding a rifle with the words “Blue Lives Matter” captioned in the photo.

His actions were the latest in recent history of young white American men who are often radicalized online by white supremacist groups. Senior members of these groups rely on the youthful exuberance of these young men to be “foot soldiers” in their mission to terrorize people of color. They sell them on the idea of white identity being on the brink of extinction and embolden these young men to take action to prevent a rise of “others” taking dominance from them.

In the case of Rittenhouse, his mission was emboldened by area law enforcement who opted to step aside and allow the carnage to take place.

Dylann Roof was 21-years-old when he entered the historic Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2015 and killed nine parishioners. He had written manifestos that detailed his disgust for Black people, Jews and Latinx people. He sat in wait as Black members of Mother Emmanuel completed their weekly bible study, prayed with them after they opened their doors to him and then murdered nine innocent souls.

He had also been radicalized online and was clear in what he felt was necessary to sustaining racial purity in America.

But just as America has seen its worst ideals enacted by its youth, some of its boldest and most righteous leaders have also been young people who envisioned a greater America for themselves and future generations.

Black Panther Party chairman, Fred Hampton, was only 21-years-old when he was gunned down by Chicago police in his apartment on December 4, 1969. His first experience with leadership was in the Chicago suburb of Maywood’s NAACP Youth Council, where he helped grow its membership from seven to 700 in a town only consisting of 27,000 people.

Hampton would later join the Black Panther Party and played an integral role in organizing Chicago’s gang leaders and transformed them into community organizers. He harnessed the energy of young people in his age range by getting them to recognize that their real enemies were not rival gangs, but rich and powerful who controlled Chicago and marginalized them.

He believed in the idea of intersectionality well before it was a commonly used term and championed the rights of all disenfranchised peoples. He was young, dangerous and under FBI surveillance. He was killed because of his ability to galvanize the masses to demand change.

And while a young Fred Hampton was beginning to develop his organizer ability, a less militant group of young activists was forming to give young Black people a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized “freedom rides” during the push to desegregate public transportation and directed many of the South’s Black registration voter drives.

Members of SNCC were often at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. over differing approaches to acquiring civil liberties. King was no longer considered a youth in the early 1960s, and SNCC was powered by college advocates who were at a crossroads between the Civil Rights movement that was already in motion and the emergence of a more aggressive Black Power politics.

In modern times, young activists have utilized the expansive reach of social media to raise awareness on a wide range of issues. From calling out issues related to climate change to gun control to racial and gender disparities, the youth of America are channeling the spirit of their predecessors.

And just like those who came before them, today’s youth are bold in their positions and often at odds with elders who were formerly more radical in their visioning.

Picking Up the Pieces Left Behind

Every generation of American youth finds themselves at an intersection when determining how much of the previous generation’s ideals they will keep and how much they will discard. Belief systems and cultural norms are shaped in homes, schools, churches, communities and social circles, and much of American youth navigate adolescence and young adulthood with clear thoughts on how they believe the prior generation served or failed them.

For those of us who exist in the realm of righteousness, justice, and equality, we can recognize when our young people are pivoting to resolve beyond our imagination, whether we agree with them or not. The same can be assumed for young people who have been indoctrinated with hate, fear, nationalism, and violence. We often subscribe to the belief of a more evolved future, when the reality is the next generation of oppressors are also assessing the failings of those who came before them.

There are blood-stained receipts from the youth of this generation that prove many of them were not satisfied with how oppressive their ancestors were, and that they are looking to up the ante of destruction, marginalization, and chaos.

Responsibility of Elders

It is the responsibility of those of us who are fully matured adults to guide the energy of our young people towards progress and equality. It is also imperative that we listen closely to their concerns and demands, respond with wise counsel, all while recognizing that we do not have all the answers and are not becoming of age during this history. We are all enthralled in a culture-shifting moment in time. There are young people who are lighting the path towards freedom and there are young people who are setting fire to any modicum of progress that has been made.

What will this generation of youth say about the parents, guardians, mentors and teachers who raised them when reflecting on the America they will inherit? Will they say we helped them forge a path of freedom or that we played a hand in upholding their oppression? Are we satisfied with what was left to us, or could we have benefitted from a better inheritance?

Some of us will live long enough to see the world in the hands of those we raised.

How comfortable will we be when the keys are handed over?