This semester I’ve been taking the time to listen to my students’ stories, the ones they never tell. I’ve been asking them what they’re afraid of and what’s on their minds. And they have started to tell me, because I’m listening. One thing is clear: They’re hurting. They’re burying their friends at alarming rates. They’re terrified that their cars will break down in the wrong neighborhood or that they’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the police are looking for a criminal and they’ll do just fine. They worry their fathers and mothers will be deported. They’re afraid their brothers will not come home and that a teacher will suspend their six-year-old brown child for biting or having a tantrum. They’re scared of being homeless because of the predatory housing situation in San Francisco. Each day they’re bleeding resources, looking for jobs that will allow them to live and care for their families and not merely survive moment to moment.
For the past eight years now I’ve been teaching young adults, and this year, something different is shining through the cracks in the veneer youth wear when confronting the scary new places in their lives—into the college and the world it represents. They are paying attention with their hearts to the pulse of these times, and they are answering with conviction, demanding to be heard and seen—demanding the right to live. The galvanizing force of injustice, personalized, is a powerful motivator. Reminiscent of the disenfranchised population of eligible Southern voters demanding their right to register and cast ballots a half century ago, young people are moving again in this country.
Once more, deep, prolonged and repeated psychological trauma, sustained within families has erupted into undeniable discomfort. They’re acting up and speaking out, entering the political debate from the margins, uninvited. They will not go quietly. They risk everything, their civil disobedience punishable by death by bombs in the night and bullets in daylight. Dr. Martin Luther King was asked to go quietly and wait for the right time and place to speak, not to make noise and not to agitate and draw attention to the suffering of millions of anonymous people. The time, it seems, is never right. History has repeatedly shown us how our collective silence only makes the oppressor’s work easier. Reflecting on the Jewish Holocaust, I imagine how many well-intentioned Germans sat silently in their living rooms, while their neighbors were hauled away by the train-full to concentration camps.
As we grapple with the notion of civic responsibility, who do we become? Our silences are no longer convenient, because if we remain mute and when we absent ourselves from compassionate witnessing, we heap the burden of the work on the youth, who both ready and willing to perform the tasks of resistance, suffer the consequences alone. They need allies in their struggle, voices of support, our intention to be present and defend, the collective memory and wisdom of years to push through the entanglement of business-as-usual. Dr. King was convinced “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” To me those values must shift to include all the human beings within our borders, whose lives and presence make up of the tapestry of a loving society. People must come first.
In August, when Bernie Sanders was interrupted by young activists—ordinary and plain young women with brown skin, the children of the Black Lives Matter revolution, on fire with indignity, the public’s response was familiar if disappointing. Why were people outraged when they interrupted the status quo with their fiery hearts, conjuring up wet streets, soaked with the blood of their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, their palpable rage appropriately directed to a society blindly looking away from unspeakable violence doled out lavishly in their communities? As the comfortable and affluent sit shaking their heads at their audacity, these girls have shown up on their TV sets, ordained as themselves, speaking for the nameless and voiceless masses, resisting the irresistible urge to comply, to behave and be silent—that age-old mantra girls are still taught to adhere to all their lives—putting their lives on the line while we ask them to sit passively, ask them to be more appropriate, to wait.
I’m reminded of the infamous letter written to Dr. King by eight clergymen and printed in the newspaper asking King and the entire African-American community to wait for justice and to which he famously responded with his letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s obvious that those young women are walking in the footsteps of the greats, using their very bodies as the front line of change as their predecessors Fanny Lou Hamer, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Lucy Burns, Cesar Chavez.
History seems to have weighed in on Dr. King’s side. Too many of us are all too ready to cry at cartoons depicting the loss of childhood of innocence, only to turn a blind eye to the real pain of people living under the daily strain of grief and oppression. We have to learn to feel the same pain in our guts when people are hurting, regardless of the color of their skin. People of color have become refugees of compassion in this country, ignored by ordinary citizens and pushed up against the corrugated steel borders by politicians.
Everything that can be lost to this generation, has already been lost to them: education is compromised; ministered by a jaded justice, prisons swell with their ranks; lynching has all but supplanted policing; people of color are relegated to vast food deserts, where fresh vegetables do not exist. And through it all we ask young people not to riot, not to act up, to wait patiently for jobs, housing, respect, the right to walk down the street alone at night with a hoodie on or to blast a stereo in their own cars. We have grown intolerant of ordinary youth when it is wrapped in hues not labeled “white”. We move these young people into the category of other, while we demand equal opportunity, but we mean only that room should be made at the table for white women to join white men in positions of leadership and power. We continue to delay the imperatives of diversity and plurality in the workplace, school, college and government, moving them down on the agenda when a woman is named CEO of a tech firm. We define this ‘progress,’ even while infant-mortality and unemployment rates for Black and Latino/a families surpass their white counterparts at shocking rates for an industrialized superpower nation such as ours.
The question is, how do we support the young people in our communities and encourage them in their uncharted courses toward justice? To start, we must step into the awkward spaces with a voice of dissent, displacing our indifference in the process, and embracing the notion that our lives are intertwined, for better or worse, so we ought to try for the best-possible scenario. It is of vital importance to shield young people from random bullets and comfort the parents of children slaughtered on the way home. We have to place a new bounty on their heads, one that reads “Wanted Alive.” But first, we have to hear what they’re saying. We have to listen. We have to soften our hearts when we see their suffering explode during a political debate, just as we’re willing to tolerate the demeaning and inappropriate presidential candidate who is constantly given the right to speak even as he has earned our censure.
The recent political unrest and mass unease around the world has led to both organized and disorganized resistance, protest and strife. The waves of this emotional and psychic upheaval have swept the globe from the Middle East to Europe and Asia. Even the 99% movement has taken us by storm. People are no longer content with their lots in life. The status quo has become passé. The trend has not stopped at our carefully guarded borders, nor has it missed its target in the hearts and minds of Americans, particularly young people, who continue to connect with their own causes and bring them to the attention of the nation. We are called to stand with them, however we are able, as they struggle to create a brave new world.
Devastated by my students’ stories, I listen all the same. I’m learning to ask how I can be of service, but I offer something specific: A book, a cup of coffee, a hug or my undivided attention. I acknowledge their pain with a touch and my own regret. I offer condolences and let the heavy words land where they will. I mentor, feed and look at each one. I insist they tell it again and write it down. I share my own story, jagged edges and all. I congratulate them for showing up in distress, broke and physically broken, hungry and grieving. Sometimes, I’m struck dumb with listening-heart pain, but I don’t turn away. They need to know their pain is real and that their lives really matter.