Power, Politics, and Youth

When God’s call came to the prophet Jeremiah, he protested: “But God! I do not know how to speak. I am too young!”

God replied with encouragement: “Do not be afraid. Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.”

***

Righteous anger liken to Biblical prophets has been fueling the activity of high school students in Florida.

Their voices have emerged from the wilderness of hollow, hypocritical leadership we see from both Democrats and Republicans.

As Congress stumbles and fumbles, unable to pass a simple piece of legislation that the people want (like the Dream Act), as they pile on debt that young people will inherit, as they — well, let me just use the words of Parkland survivor Cameron Kaskey:

“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”

If you didn’t see any of these students speaking over the weekend, or if you missed Emma Gonzalez’s rousing speech, you missed the arrival of the youngest and most authentic voices in politics.

They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t seek out the limelight. But they didn’t hesitate when tragedy put them on the national stage.

They’re speaking out and mobilizing. Since the shooting on February 14th, the students have organized themselves into groups and are planning marches and school walkouts. Among them have emerged compelling leaders and spokespersons — something missing from previous ‘hashtag’ movements we have seen.

Let’s put aside the gun control issue for a second. I know that’s the singular demand of this group right now — but to me there is a deeper and more important phenomenon at work.

So many of the mass shooters have had similar psychological profiles — disturbed, angry, depressed, troubled. Their resentment boiling for years before eventually getting the means and will to violently lash out.

When people talk about mental health, I’m always reminded of an important question asked by psychologist Abraham Maslow: What is actually “disordered,” the person or the environment? My first instinct is to look at the environment we have created, and question how it has impacted the emotional ecosystem.

Young people are largely disempowered. Yes, there are opportunities for leadership and decision-making, but these are small drops in an ocean of external pressures and requirements. Success is usually attained by way of compliance and submission. 

Some of those dynamics have always existed, but I think environments have become more structured and the external pressures have increased over time.

Young people who feel stressed, pressured, and powerless are going to react in different ways. Some schools have more supportive systems, some individuals have more supportive families. But everyone feels it.

Right now we are seeing students empowering themselves, and I think the effects could be huge. Not just potentially impacting policy, but inspiring young people across the country with a message. You are not helpless.

I know the adults will get nervous and politicians will try co-opting things for their own advantage. 

The young people will face challenges and make mistakes.

But they are already providing a sense of hope, belonging, and agency — the key ingredients missing from so many young lives.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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