The Basis of My Current Optimism About Youth Activism
A lot of people I respect have been extremely skeptical about my prediction that we are seeing , in its early stages, a new wave of youth activism. They think I am being a starry-eyed optimist based on my limited contacts in liberal NY, especially in the Bronx
But based on the same kind of contacts, in the same place, in the middle and late 1970’s, I predicted, correctly as it turned out, a long period of Conservative hegemony in American politics, with young people leading the way. Let me explain how I came to that conclusion before moving back to the current situation.
The early and mid 70’s were a rough time in New York City, in the Bronx in particular. We suffered deindustrialization and disinvestment, a heroin epidemic, rising crime rates, white and middle class flight and finally a fiscal crisis and bank takeover of city government which decimated education, recreation and youth services. I experienced all of these things, directly and indirectly, and also watched large sections of the Bronx burn as I took the 3rd Avenue El and the 4 Train from my apartment in Manhattan to my new job at Fordham
But what made me most pessimistic was not all of these real life tragedies, it was the attitude of my students at Fordham. By 1975 and 1976, the vast majority of my white students at Fordham had come to look at any form of idealism and social consciousness as a luxury they couldn’t afford ( my Black and Latino students, whose numbers were shrinking, still shared many of my views). They looked on me as comical and pathetic, a 60’s relic who still thought that the pursuit of justice and equality was a realistic life goal. Their strategy was clear. They were going to survive, and if possible prosper, by keeping as far away from the problems of the inner city as they could, and by not wasting any energy on causes that had no chance of succeeding. Whereas my first students and Fordham in 1970-71 were comrades in struggle who shared my dreams of a better world, these young people were going to make sure that they were untouched by the tragedies that surrounded them
The attitudes I encountered then lasted for at least ten years, not receding until the late 1980’s. It let me to withdraw much of my energy from teaching and put it into research , physical fitness ( I won 7 straight Brooklyn public parks tennis championships in the late 70’s/early 80’s) and bringing up my children as competitive athletes. I continued to work with students who were justice activists, but they were few and far between and virtually all of the people I worked with in community organizations were 60’s veterans.
Now fast forward to the present. My classes at Fordham are packed with students who are committed to justice work, and who do wonderful community service projects in the Bronx and all over the globe. More and more of these students are becoming radicalized by the inequalities that surround them and are thinking of ways they can make an impact through the work they do. Many have gone to work for non-profits, some have gone into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Peace Corps, some have helped found innovative social justice organizations in New York City, among them Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen, the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective and The Space at Tompkins. More than a few have decided to enter teaching as a career, some through graduate programs, some through alternate certification programs like the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America
Equally important, ever since I began writing and speaking in defense of public schools teachers, and challenging the testing/privatization model dominating mainstream education discourse, I have been literally deluged with emails from young teachers, in New York and around the country, fighting the same battles , some of them looking for support, some of them looking to connect with existing networks, some of them launching remarkable initiatives on their own. These emails have only accelerated since the Save Our Schools Conference and March, convincing me that event was only going to increase the level of organizing among teachers around the nation, especially among those new to the profession
So while the political situation in the nation today is at least as grim as it was in the middle and late 70’s it FEELS different to me because I am surrounded by young people who feel the same way about the injustices of this society that I do, and what’s more, are willing to do something about those problems.
Their energy and their passion gives me hope.