by Clare Wildhack-Nolan

Whenever I am fortunate enough to be facilitating a  group of young people, I first connect to them by acknowledging and lifting up their power as leaders, not in the future, but now. They are and can be leaders for peace. I  ask them to raise their hands if they believe that adults have created a problem-free world for them. I have had one younger child raise their hand, out of hundreds. I then ask them if they think adults have created problems that now they have to solve. Hands fly up. Then I let them know that I am sorry, and many of us are trying our best to solve them, but that we really need them. As my coworker Naeemah Jackson always points out, youth are the tip of the spear. They carry insights into the current times I often miss, and the energy, passion, and power to challenge the adults and innovate. Each generation has.

Getting to facilitate Social Justice based conversations with youth always gives me hope. The narrative that teens are off on their screens, wrapped up just in themselves, is a false one. Their deep care for their families, communities, and faith is always at the center of their conversation and work. And they have a keen awareness of where injustice may be taking place. My/Our approach to supporting youth leaders is in offering critical thinking practice, an opportunity to connect to the history of human rights or other resources, and a space to share ideas, experiences, and feelings. It is all that is needed to get the ball rolling.

Usually over the summers we hold a Social Justice Leadership Camp here at PLC. In this summer of Covid-19, we offered a workshop series focusing on the 4 I’s of oppression: Ideology, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internalized. Youth from last year’s camp helped develop it and lead it. Youth leaders involved said that teens are needing a place to let their emotions out around the racist violence, police brutality, fears of ICE, sexism, and heterosexism, and adultism that they are confronted by. They wanted to have a platform to voice their stance; to resist and dismantle that oppression, and to support each other in doing so. 

What I have heard in these conversations is commitment and leadership. I have seen youth persist, despite all the trauma of the adult world. And I have to lift up that the leaders who show up again and again for camp are Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Multi-Racial, Women, and Disabled, LGBTQ people, speaking up for the rights of everyone.  They are the leaders. They are leaders in and outside of programming. They are speaking truth to elected officials, holding them accountable to create just policy that is not hurting people. They speak out around everything from immigrant’s rights to gun control, to climate change. They are active in their student governments, they are starting Black Lives Matter Clubs at their school, they are advocating for Black History and Ethnic Studies, they are making powerful art, they are pursuing their dreams, they are seeking degrees in Social Work and Journalism, they are leading community conversations, they are loving themselves, and are bringing their friends and families with them. We see this across history and across our world. I am ready to listen and to follow! Are you?