June 27, 2017

Lift Every Voice

“I know there shouldn’t be so many guns in the neighborhood, but I “get” it; I understand why people have guns. People need to protect themselves in this community.”

“Everyday we are treated like criminals when we go to schools. We have to go through metal detectors, take off our shoes and belts and be wanded. I never get into trouble; I have always been an honor student. I don’t deserve this treatment but I understand why they treat us this way. I understand but don’t agree with it.

These quotes came from 10th grade African American males as they and three adult advisors (I being one of the three) were debriefing a recent neighborhood forum organized by the youth leadership council of The Advocate Center for Culture and Education. We were debriefing one completed series of community stakeholder neighborhood forums and we were beginning to shape the next forum series.

The first forum series was on housing and gentrification while the next will be on education. The expertise of students in the area of public education frequently goes unrecognized but they are experts. Their expertise is not in areas such as funding or policy or curricula but certainly they are experts in the lived dynamics and applied outcomes of our public education system. They know how it ‘feels’ to navigate this system on a daily basis. They carry this experience in their hearts, minds, and bodies and this experience is a powerful shaper of who they believe they can become and who they actually will become. That’s why the question of the nature of their understanding of this system continues to churn inside of me.

As I listened I wondered what they understood about their lives as students and citizens. They are experts about their life, their present reality, but what do they understand about the American experience that has brought us to this moment? What do they understand about the fight and persistence of the generations of mothers and fathers who lived determined lives for their children? Do they understand that ‘understanding’ alone can never be enough but understanding coupled with action can generate hope? And then it clicked; that’s why we were having this conversation in the first place.

We need to listen to each other, to question, to challenge and to dream because our young people, with us walking beside them, want to increase the community's capacity to shape its future. Our job is to help create the next generation of leaders/thinkers/activists who are organic, educated and community oriented.

What value is to be found in the adults shaping the conversation by telling youth leaders what to think or how they feel? We want to walk with them as they wrestle with topics to help sharpen their articulation and their critique. We want to honor their experience and position them among other community stakeholders who will also hear and value the youth voice.

There is something powerful and humbling about these conversations. Powerful because they push us to critical engagement knowing that God can use us to create something promising and hopeful; humbling because we adults sitting with the students know we took for granted something these young people might consider a luxury, i.e. a solid education in a school that felt and was safe.

I pray there is truth in the axiom ‘the bigger the challenge the greater the reward’. Our young experts are more than due.