Edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow, Nation Books 2005
We all write letters to ourselves. Sometimes they’re uncomplicated, designed to promote direct action: “Pick up a loaf of bread on the way home.” Or perhaps the word “bread” on a Post-it note would suffice – a shorthand message easily understood, but as “pumpernickel” to one person and “sourdough” to another. Sometimes the words we write are meant to clarify tumultuous inner thoughts, such as words in a private journal, or a letter to a loved one, hoping to provide the reader with greater insight into our minds and lives.
Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out is a collection of letters written by concerned individuals aged 10 to 31, addressed to generations past and future, to those who can or could make a difference, and to social movements in general. The goal is to create a book in which the authors express themselves in a very personal voice about the issues that inspire them. All the letters convey a contagious energy and a fervent belief that a better world is possible. Taken as a whole the book is an uneven assembly, occasionally providing well-articulated strategy but just as often demonstrating misguided enthusiasm.
The book hits its target best in letters that weave the accomplishments of the writers with a sense of purpose, as in a letter to Condoleezza Rice by Kenyon Farrow, one of the book’s three editors. Also worth noting, in an otherwise lackluster letter addressing “Punk Rock Activism,” – in which participants attempt to remove themselves from the mainstream – is Andy Cornell’s criticism of that strategy: “Effective organizing requires being rooted in a defined community, and (at least initially) minimizing differences between oneself and those one is trying to move to action.”
But occasionally the letters are so emotional and directionless as to be virtually incomprehensible to the reader, requiring further research to make sense of the message. Some writers seem so immersed in their work that they assume the reader knows more than he or she might really know. The biographies are all at the back of the book. Without a lot of cross-checking on the readers’ part, the connection between the letter and the person behind it is lost. While the book’s informal tone lends a conspiratorial intimacy, readers still need details and contextual information. Some letters, blending awkward exposition and conversation, the cutesiness of the format diffuses what should be a hard-hitting message, as in Kat Aaron’s letter on leadership. These letters lack the dynamism that has driven these individuals to success in their chosen battles. It would be more inspirational to focus instead on the achievements of these extraordinary individuals, who collectively have made incredible gains.
The book’s greatest strength is its demonstration of the vulnerability of any social movement, which is only as strong as the people in it. The writers are not afraid to identify their own frustrations with efforts to eliminate society’s shortcomings. A few letters are outpourings of grief from people who are burned out and disillusioned before they even get going, a sad but natural endpoint when firm goals and strategies are not in place.
The book’s strongest message is an unintentional one:
With all the problems activists hope to correct, and all the styles and
personalities involved, the movement’s biggest task will be to learn to
speak in one voice. For this reason alone, read this book. Write
yourself a note: “Book.” You’ll know what you mean.
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