Up with Young People
Back in 2009, when I was 13 years old, I started looking for ways to become engaged in political activism. I was just beginning to define my political identity and to feel out the personal meaning of unfamiliar terms like “social justice.” I didn’t have much of an agenda beyond the idea that I somehow wanted to live the Buddhist ideal of “right livelihood”: a way of supporting myself that was in harmony with nature. I ended up with the Worcester Roots Project, an organization whose work lies at the intersection of environmental justice, workplace democracy, and youth empowerment.
I quickly learned two things. First, that changing the world and building an organization takes an unholy number of long meetings. Second, that there was an urgent need for spaces where young people could exercise real control over their lives.
It seems to me that there is a kind of “War on Youth” underway in this country. Politicians and teachers and religious leaders might talk about how “the children are our future,” but scratch the surface and the rhetoric vanishes into so much smoke. Everywhere I look, I see youth aspirations being co-opted by adult agendas.
The war on youth occurs across many fronts. Companies use child labor in Bangladesh and China to make products that they then sell to an uncritical teen market here. For-profit prisons make good money off a system that primes many young people for a life in and out of the prison-industrial complex. The military promotes video games that glorify violence and then recruits young people who believe they have few options other than getting paid to carry a gun.
Adults often bemoan the political apathy, violence, and materialism of young people. When they do think of youth as an asset, they consider us just another interest group: a resource to be mined, a vote to be cornered. Rarely are the fundamental causes of youth disempowerment addressed. Few adults are willing to question the value of a compulsory industrial-model schooling system. Even fewer challenge the constant one-way transmission of warped values. Corporations’ constant marketing toward youth is seen as the healthy exercise of capitalism.
People love to talk about the unique voice of young people. Yet, despite outlets like Facebook and YouTube, youth have few ways to express themselves freely. What they are allowed to say in the media is restricted to the spectrum of acceptable debate. The narrative of a mass of apathetic youth on one hand and a few shining examples of “articulate” youth on the other fosters the racist and ageist caricatures that can divide us.
As I started to notice this systemic war on youth, I became outraged. I have since found ways to channel that anger in a productive direction. Doing so is hard, but it’s necessary if youth are to become a positive global force. True youth empowerment is inherently radical and counter to the entrenched power structure.
There are few issues on which youth empowerment is more badly needed than on protecting the environment. When it comes to sustaining the planet for future generations, youth like me have the most to lose. The sheer scale of environmental destruction is enough to daunt even the most idealistic and energetic youngster. Yet young people are often found on the frontlines of the environmental movement, taking leadership roles via groups like the Energy Action Coalition, 350.org, and Kids vs. Global Warming. Youth representation in the environmental movement is not just an issue of inclusion; it is an issue of survival.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my work with the Worcester Roots Project is to never take things at face value. Take my hometown, Worcester, MA. At first glance, it is just another decaying mid-sized city. But just beneath the surface there is a vibrant community of people working in solidarity to find sustainable ways of living. I think many adults’ views of young people are the same: We youth can seem disenchanted and disaffected from afar, but inside we’re humming with passion.
Youth, especially those from low-income communities, are too often thought of as the recipients of charity instead of potential agents of change. Here in Worcester, we’re creating a culture of inclusion, empowerment, and sustainability. We’re showing what can happen when young people really are put first. The most important thing is not what we’ve built for ourselves, but the relationships we have built with each other.
Asa Needle was one of the recipients of the 2012 Brower Youth Awards for his work with the Worcester Roots Project.