“If we represent knowledge as a tree, we know that things that are divided are yet connected. We know that to observe the divisions and to ignore the connections is to destroy the tree.” – Wendell Berry
Every day I hear reflections on the lack of youth engagement in schools, communities, and civil society. Daily is the refrain from parents, elected leaders, and community elders that times have changed; that young people are not as involved as the used to be, that they don’t volunteer, vote, or participate in local events. While I can certainly empathize with many of these concerns, I believe that oftentimes we place the blame for youth disengagement on the youth themselves, without considering the way we may be contributing to the crisis.
It is not only possible for young people to be civic leaders in our country, it is their legacy.
And it is imperative that we consider the way our actions may be influencing this issue, in order to ensure we are fulfilling our own civic responsibility of preserving and improving our way of life for the next generation. We have to learn to assess our democratic maturity in a cyclical way. Our community’s ability to self-actualize and self-govern does little good if it ends with us. We must be able to pass on its vitality in a sustainable manner. And that requires not only ensuring that the next generation possesses the competencies they need for our society to flourish, but providing them with opportunities to exercise these skills.
It is not only possible for young people to be civic leaders in our country, it is their legacy. It is easy to forget that many of our nation’s Founding Mothers and Father’s were in their teens and early twenties when the Declaration of Independence was written. Or that many of the names etched into the historical placards that line the streets of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham recognize not seasoned activists, but children, who were willing and able to speak out and stand up when adults were not.
Impactful civic change has often been ushered in by the young. But collectively, I believe we have lost sight of that. I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally different between the young people of the American Revolution or the Civil Rights movement and those of today, except – perhaps – the opportunities we have provided them with.
In order to reverse trends of youth disengagement, we need to focus on holistic civic education that ensures the experiences of young people are valued in the classroom and the Capitol. We need to immerse students in democratic practices and focus on providing them with a chance to not only learn about their community’s past and present but construct its future. We need to not only consider what we can do to better educate youth but how we can give youth more opportunities to educate us: What are we doing to ensure they have an impactful role in influencing the society they will soon inherit? How are we involving young people in policy discussions and community forums on issues that primarily affect them, such as educational inequality, economic development, and violence?
If we want young people to exercise their voices, we need to let them know they are valued.
This year I invite you, as individuals, communities, and municipalities, to not only observe the experiences of local youth but ask them to share their observations as well, from the living room to city hall. Start conversations, ask questions, and get their input. What is life like for them? What unique challenges are they facing? Are their perspectives included in local discourse? Are they even invited? If we want young people to exercise their voices, we need to let them know they are valued.
When left to their own devices, young people are nothing if not curious, adaptable, and willing to take risks. It is time to remove the civic training wheels and provide youth in our state the opportunity to rise to the democratic occasion. I am confident, when given a chance, that they will do what generations of young people before them have: affect great change.
– Gabrielle Lamplugh, DMC Assistant Program Director