In the film Skyfall, a director of British intelligence named M informs James Bond that her agency’s best recruits are orphans – those separated at a young age from parental guidance and suffering from emotional wounds and social inflicted pain of separation. Those orphans had developed the keenest of survival skills and had become Great Britain’s most loyal civic servants. During my thirty years of teen civic empowerment work, I have found many orphans, who have been crushed by the loss of parental figures after our nation’s war on crime (and drugs), and left out of life’s opportunities, and denied the resources necessary for their schools and communities to provide adequate support for their career development. This also true for the educational preparation, which has left a void in preparation for and practice with the essential tools of democracy. As suggested by the writer and social critic Salman Rushdie, the theme of the book (and film) called The Wizard of Oz is a “story whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, in which the ‘weakness of adults forces children to take control of their own destinies’”. Teen leaders whom I have guided (and who have guided me), as well as scores of teen -led social justice initiatives, have been practicing the alchemy of transforming pain and loss, and civic separation, into personal and social assets which have guided them on successful career and civic pathways, and at the same time helped to keep communities and municipalities sustainable and vibrant.
As suggested by the writer and Indie-spiritualist Chris Grasso, today’s teen leaders have learned to cease believing in remote and unjust authority, and to “believe in each other”. Adolescent civic advocates have stepped up. As written by political reformer David Korten, they have learned to take a leadership role to help fill the void left by “the actual rules of governance (which) seem to increasingly favor absentee owners”. It is adolescent leadership that unshackles the dependency of rigidly regimented governance, and rather transforms our institutions and communities into laboratories of local democratic practice, valuing the contributions of young leaders. Through their valued experience and experimentation, teen leaders are creating an institution of enfranchisement which is universally inclusive. In what follows I profile just a few of these initiatives. I also attach an expanded list at the end of this blog.
Generation Citizen is a nationally based action-civics youth agency which has established a base of civic learning laboratories in social studies classrooms in seven cities across the United States. They have also launched a campaign called Vote16USA, in which they profile the value of civic participatory agency by high school students. Their goal is to support local vote 16 campaigns in all 50 states, starting at the local level, in municipalities and within city operated agencies such as school boards. ( www.generationcitizen.org)
The San Francisco Youth Commission is an established governmental institution which has been in operation since 1994. Youth, ages 14 and above, are vetted and selected to serve on this commission by being paired with members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The commission’s work provides for a youth perspective on citywide concerns and issues; encourages the professional development of Youth Commissioners; and is helping to create a legacy that will be passed down to future generations. One example of a fine Youth Commissioner serving this year is Emily Ngu Yen, who serves as the Commission chair. She also advises the executive branch of the California Department of Education. ( www.sfgov.org/youthcommission).
In 2021, Congressperson Grace Meng reintroduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16. As she testified in her supportive remarks, “they have been tremendously engaged in issues that effect THEIR lives, and THEIR futures. It is time to give them a voice in our democracy, through participation at the ballot box.” In 2022, Congressperson Ayanna Pressley introduced a companion bill as an amendment to HR 1, the For the People Act. It is supported by 125 Democrat member Congress people, including the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and NYC local representatives Adriano Espaillat, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Richie Torres. A NY State level bill has been introduced into the NY State Senate by State Senator Brad Hoylman (S 478 – [email protected]).
Young environmentalists such as leaders in the Sunrise movement have provided energy and sunshine for the hope of maintaining a sustainable planet. Leaders from the Dreamers have helped us to promote a safe home for all citizens, old and new, as well as inspire reconnecting to our founder’s vision for maintaining a democracy based on the consent of the governed. Leaders from Black Lives Matter have driven home the point that reconciliation through social and political justice tips the scale toward greater opportunity for all who have been marginalized and ostracized. In NYC, a collaboration amongst teen civic leaders, sponsored by the CUNY School of Professional Studies through its Intergenerational Initiative (www.intergenerationalchange.org) and Y Vote (https://yvoteny.org) have trained high school students from across NYC to become advocates and negotiators on behalf of issues who have begun dialogue with agency leadership in New York City. Teens today are not the problem, they are developing into teams of problem solvers who improve their personal opportunities as well pathways towards community, municipal, and national progress. Our teen agents for change are serving as servants, who are re-designing what it means to have the young as equal civic partners and developing a culture that welcomes prime time citizenship.