(And the rise of Adolescent Civic Efficacy)
In the 1950’s, a film called the Fall of the House of Usher had a theme that a peculiar mix of strange actors possessed a lot of power. Eventually, through abuse of their power, they saw their temple destroyed largely in response to their outdated and inappropriate habits of mind. Today, our temple of democracy, which optimally ensures equal opportunity and universal participation by all, is being eroded and destabilized by divisive states of mind. People are increasingly feeling invisible and exercising few options for utilizing their civic options.
The word hush has been defined as an action resulting in making another person quiet or silent. The term hush-up refers to keeping facts or truths from being told. Opportunists and deniers suppress evidence or discussion about the urgency for needed change. The theme of this blog is to reveal, or perhaps better said, add to the discussion, about the habits of mind and civic actions which have resulted in stifling teen voice, shaming them using dismissive narrative, and suppression of the authentic nature of adolescence. After presenting this problem briefly, I focus on healthy habits and communal approaches improving the qualities of personal and social outcomes.
Salman Rushdie, an award-winning author has written frequently about the damages and danger of promoting rigid belief systems and hostile actions in the name of Islam. Mr. Rushdie also wrote a book called The Wizard of Oz, in which he offers an alternative interpretation of its hidden message. In his view, “the Wizard of Oz is more than a children’s film, and more than a fantasy. It is a story whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even good adults, in which the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies.” It is a film that speaks to the exile (of the young) and that restorative imagination can become reality.” (Rushdie,2012). This blog proudly provides highlights about the civic contributions of teens who have, given the ultra-threatening projections of futures constructed by adults, begun to take matters into their own hands. Their creatively constructive actions have become a mandate ensuring a more viable path towards having meaningful lives and a sustainable planet. As further elaborated upon by Rushdie, when Dorothy confronts the weakness of the Wizard of Oz, she does not run away, as she recognizes the ineffectiveness of the Wizard’s false promises and misdirection. Teen leaders have come to recognize the wizards in our society, those who propose violence as a solution for public safety, unlimited consumption as a precondition for happiness, and the social construction of racism (and other socially toxic isms) as a destructive diversion from just and equitable civic relationships. It is not teens who are problems to be solved, but rather the fading of dysfunctional institutions and mindsets that lead only to a dystopic future.
I choose not to focus so much on the negative consequences of outdated societal belief systems, as this ground has been amply covered by modern day researchers, scientists, and social ethicists. Robert Epstein, Ph.D. is a pathbreaking writer who details the historical social construction of adolescence as being based on poor scientific practices. Scientifically discredited ideas such as recapitulation (i.e., physical, mental, and emotional defects are inherent in deficient others) is cited by Dr. Epstein as typical to the questionable practice of attributing a direct cause and effect relationship between the body/brain and social outcomes. He also offers ample documentation about the low incidence of dysfunctional behavior by teens in societies not labeled as western or modern societies, and the amply demonstrated sets of multiple intelligences and productive skills that are a set of formative characteristics of adolescents ’problem solving repertoires. (Epstein, 2010). As affirmed by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., neither the brain nor the mind is a rigid construct of unchanging neurons nor fixed ideas. Rather, the brain is continuously shaped by the mind, which is “emergent as a self-organizing system, located as a mindscape within, AND a mindscape between (other people and the environment).” Dr. Epstein conceives of the adolescent period of life as a period of awakening, in which “the essence of adolescent includes an emotional spark, social engagement, novelty seeking and creative exploration.” He believes that if adults keep their inner adolescent alive, that their brains can continue to grow and re-structure “well throughout their lives.” (Siegel, 2017) As I profile in my book, and strive to nurture in my civic work with teens, keeping my inner adolescent not just alive, but thriving, is my key to finding rewarding and life-sustaining outcomes by participation in the civic realm. When empathetic adults team up with adolescent civic activists, as guides on the side and not just sages at the front of stages, we co-create a New Deal for Prime-Time Citizenship.
Amy and Arnold Mindell share valuable thoughts about the value of what they label as “Deep Democracy”. (Mindell, Deep Democracy, 2022) Amy and Arnold Mindell hold that in addition to the importance of political dialogue and mutually affirming relationships for democracy, we need to build in the practices of mutual recognition and equitable exchange. We need to increase awareness for and become accountable to not just our conscious beliefs, but also the hidden prejudices within ourselves that unconsciously drive our actions. The Mindells also propose that democratic activists need to be time rebels, those actively challenging dysfunctional practices in the present which, if left unattended will result in negative outcomes in the future. Those who propose positive change should not be “prisoners of the past or the present, but rather “redesign democracy for the benefit of future generations.” (Mindell, Deep Democracy, 2022). The Mindells cite newly developed political practices in European countries, such as Intergenerational Right Movements and Guardians of the Future, which seek transformation of inequitable practices which, if ignored or dealt with inadequately, inevitably lead to unjust practices in the future.
The experience of living the life of a teen is enhanced when both teens and their civic mentors exercise and experiment with what I call orphan work. I define this work as that of overcoming the illusion of separation, i.e., becoming divorced from one’s life purpose, and isolated from nurturing relationships with allies. Our society has a long history of not dealing with our historical shadows, where dominant groups inflict hardship and shame on maligned and marginalized groups of “others”. Movements such as those led by abolitionists and suffragists, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ+ are teaching us all to feel the pain of isolation, despair, and injustice, as well as to honor what those no longer abandoned and ostracized have to offer us all.
Another attribute of adolescence is that of developing the rebel within. Norman O. Douglas, a political organizer from the early 1900’s stated the goal succinctly when he said that distrust of authority is the first civic duty of a citizen practicing with democracy. With the help of adult civic co-mentors, and assistance from their social justice promoting peers, teens learn to deconstruct, and discard practices engineered by cultures of contempt. As was stated by the early woman’s right activist in the 1700’s, Mary Wollstonecraft, it is not the duty of woman, nor the right of men to insist that they remain “slaves and playthings in support of the creature comforts of men”. (Rowbotham, 2019) Rebel work is an exercise in positive discrimination, where self -aware, and expressive civic actors, distinguish between the oppressive belief systems impressed upon subjects of injustice, leading to what W.E.B. described as a “double-consciousness). The process of rebel-work, and its unfolding sets of goals, is to embark on an insightful journey home, where one develops authentic story, and where one creates oral and written expressions of potency from one’s own perspective. I collaborated for years with an agency promoting student led civic change from classroom platforms. This agency, called Generation Citizen, worked with social studies teachers, from hundreds of schools across the USA, one semester at a time. Each class trained students to identify a pressing issue, search for allies supporting the cause, and then to propose an intervention to address the problem. Students changed their societal positions from being passive and paralyzed clients to being agents of change who became recognized and supported by educational system and community authority. ( www.generationcitizen.org).
Civic co-mentors facilitate this developmental process with teaching/learning practices called project- based learning. There are hundreds of these PBL initiatives in our nation. Students engaged in this process learn skills such as “dealing with complex, real-life issues, which are selected and defined by students themselves as issues to be addressed; where students learn to use inquiry, research and planning skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills; and where students practice using a broad array of these skills which are also essential to leading productive adult lives and success in their careers. (Center for Youth Development and Education: Project-Based Learning, 1999). In New York City, a teen led advocacy group called Teens Take Charge has organized conferences in which teens define and present problems to an audience of elected officials and municipal agency representatives. Two of the major areas they address is the lack of college readiness work at the high school level, and the seemingly intractable condition resulting in our NYC School system being one of the most segregated in the United States. ( https://www.teenstakecharge.com )
As teens align with the ideal of establishing permission to be oneself, and manifest their self-generated powers of potency, their energies for being helpful to themselves and others multiply. A holistically derived and communally embraced relationship develops, and teens develop heartfelt, intelligent, and empathetic partnerships, in which they promote a culture of civic love. Holistic individual development aligns with communal establishment of mutually affirming relationships. Put another way by the political commentor Benjamin Barber, this would be institutionalizing the mutuality of you and me. Teens have come to be defined by adults using negative stereotyping which assumes their having diminished civic capabilities and their being labeled by disparaging categories. The American Friends Service Committee sponsors a teen-led initiative called We Are Not at Risk, which trains young leaders to identify disabling labels about themselves, and to changes negative labels into positive identity. We are not at risk; we take the challenge to promote change. ( https://www.afsc.org )
As an action-civics organizer with teens over the course of thirty years, I have seen the challenging and dark sides of youth lives. I have developed a keen sense of the persistence of melancholy and continue to feel the stifling reigns of low expectations. I have shared with youth the promise of the new becoming drowned in the stew of judgement. I lived the grief of the young as hope becomes subdued in the stew of condescending judgements. Yet I have also soared with my fellow civic change agents who stayed determined to obtain fully inclusive participation, and belonging with and for each other, and a sharing of progressive possibilities and programs which will never be abandoned. As succinctly written by the democratic professor, Cornell West, “the Socratic love of wisdom holds not only that the unexamined life is not worth living ‘Apology 38a’, but that to be human and a democratic citizen requires that one muster the courage to think critically for oneself. This love of wisdom is a perennial pursuit into the dark corners of one’s soul, the night alleys of one’s society, and the backroads of the world in order to grasp the deep truths about one’s soul, society, and the world.” (West, 2004).
I have witnessed these truths in the works of teen activists and their civic co-mentors. I have highlighted just a few of these adolescent activist initiatives, and provided links for your exploration and hopefully, your support. In the coming blogs to be written in this site, I will profile these beacons of hope and mindful communal change. These will include the work of uptown Manhattan’s Dreamers, who transformed neglected public spaces into healthy and vibrant communal gathering spaces and provided opportunities to transform “scrubs into stars. (Uptown Dreamers.com). I will dig deep into the work of Generation Citizen, which has, in hundreds of classrooms, transformed social studies classroom experience from the memorization of remote dates and abstract historical figures into laboratories for connecting the higher ideals and practices of American Democracy with their school and community improvement projects. Generation Citizen is also a leader in the movement called Vote 16! ( www.generationcitizen.org). I will invite readers, to become supporters for the work of Public Agenda/Youth Agenda (CUNY Intergenerational Change Project and Y Vote – who have trained teen leaders to use research, collaboration, and advocacy to propose agendas from the younger generations point of view. (http://www.intergenerationalchange.org and www.yvoteny.org )
I have found a parallel between the assumptions and challenges faced by our nation’s founders and those faced today by our teen social change leaders. As pointed out by the historian Bernard Bailyn in his book, to Begin the World Anew: “Again and again, they (American patriots fighting for independence) were warned of the folly of defying the received traditions, the sheer unlikelihood that they, obscure people on the outer borders of European civilization, knew better than the established authorities who ruled them…” ( Bailyn,2008 )
I have found, as have the civic co-mentors who have steadfastly supported their teen allies, that our adolescent activists, just as our nation’s founders were, ready for the times that have met them. They are cunning yet idealistic, and willing to serve as citizen-patriots. They are doubted for the likelihood of obtaining their desired outcomes yet have launched movements ,such as the Dreamers and March for Our Lives, that have begun to transform outdated practices. Teen leaders today are creative constructivists, exercising their forward-leaning idealism and maintaining common sense. Our teen leaders, who, if adults learn to discard outworn slogans and obstructionist practices, are creating an evolving deep democracy appropriate for the needs of all of us struggling with the challenges of the 21st Century. As Senator Robert F. Kennedy, one of my mentors during my teen years stated in a commencement address in 1968, during these times, when many of our institutions are outdated and already dying, to dismiss patronizing relationships and old ideas, and rather to incorporate a practice of co-leadership with the young. It is time to create co-leadership on horizontal platforms of advocacy and change. As adult civic mentors, the time has met us.