Sunday, February 26, 2017

Young Organizers Respond To My Open Letter

From Our Children's Trust: "Youth Climate Lawsuit -- Youth plaintiffs and their legal team stand outside the Federal Courthouse in Eugene after a case management conference in the landmark federal lawsuit brought by 21 young plaintiffs against the federal government. The lawsuit, brought by the non-profit legal firm of Our Children's Trust, is moving through the federal courts." (photo by Robin Loznak) 

Two young organizers in Maine were kind enough to meet with me this week during my school break. They contacted me to respond to my Open Letter To Young Organizers: I'm Against Imperial Wars, How About You? which had been making the rounds. 

In reporting some of what they said I will protect their anonymity (unless they want to out themselves) because they both are organizing in areas where the empire pushes back, hard. 

My favorite fortune cookie ever contained this wisdom: Failure is feedback, and feedback is the breakfast of champions. It is in this spirit that I reflect on the failure of older antiwar activists to work well with young activists.

Some of what I heard:

  • My post seemed designed to annoy young people, and was condescending in tone.
  • Peace advocacy and/or opposing wars is a white, middle class phenomenon. Young people in central Maine are generally either working class or wealthy. 
  • Antiwar activists, at least in Maine, are quite old. This leads to several problems:
    • They infantilize younger activists; for example, by exclaiming fondly when an activist shows up at an event they (the activist) helped organize.
    • They often won't learn to using gendered pronouns no matter how many times they are reminded. 
    • They need a lot of coaching in order to learn to use basic technology tools like online collaborative writing platforms i.e. Google docs.
    • Communication styles exhibit a significant generation gap.
  • Opposing wars doesn't have a clear location where activists can gather. To oppose the North Dakota Access Pipeline, one could go to Standing Rock. To push for divestment, one could go to a bank. 
  • Young people have grown up in a nation perpetually at war. It is hard to perceive this because it is the air we breathe. Impacts like the environmental costs of war or the gigantic Pentagon budget are hidden from sight.
  • Identity politics drives much of the activism young people engage in, and this approach does not apply well to antiwar organizing.
These are all good things for me to think about. I'll add them to my own perceptions of how often young people are silenced in group discussions where elders seem to dominate the air time. I saw this at a training I participated in recently as a learner around an issue that was not related to antiwar work; a retired white male college professor who wanted to talk a lot was allowed to speak multiple times while facilitators passed over a female high school student with her hand up.

Did older people marginalize our voices thus when we were young? Of course they did. Remember the 1960's aphorism: "Don't trust anyone over 30."

From USUncut: "Black Lives Matter activists protest police killings of black women"

Many of the strong and effective movements of our day are led by young people: Black Lives Matter, fossil fuel divestment, solidarity with Palestinian human rights via Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). 

From Yes! Magazine "the front lines of protesters blocking the Dakota Access pipeline" photo by Desiree Kane

A final thought I'll ponder is the contrast my young critics noted between the U.S. and cultures where multi-generational organizing is the norm rather than the exception. My perception of the dedicated water protectors at Standing Rock includes grandparents, parents and young people standing together. White culture in the U.S. lacks this element as it lacks so many other sources of depth, wisdom and understanding, so I accepted with pleasure an invitation to engage in mentoring that flows across generations.

I look forward to hearing what readers have to say about these ideas.


Mary said...

Thank you for hearing them, sharing what you heard, and taking the time to ponder their words. I have worried about and dealt with just these things for so long. There is something that I have learned while watching, listening to, readings from Standing Rock. There is no judgement. All are welcome. There is no condescending tones even though they are one group that has every right to treat us with such. I do not feel that way about other organizations that are working so hard today. Some groups would do well to remember the old saying that goes, "You get a lot more bees with honey then you do with vinegar." As far as the youth who met with you, what an honor for you!! I applaud the bravery, courage, and wisdom these young environmental warriors have. I am in awe of them. They bring me great hope. That brings me to the second point, youth as leaders. Thank god for our youth. I've worked/mentored with youth for years and it continues to amaze, embarrasses, anger me the way some (many?) elders treat our youth. Rather than saying , "Sure let's try it," they shut them down. Tell them it won't work. Well maybe it will. And really, is being right more important than empowering our youth, giving them encouragement to try things a new way, a different way?? I've had youth that I work with tell me how frustrating the lack of imagination and open mindedness of their elders is. I have witnessed this, shutting down our youth many, many times. This is not how we welcome them into the work of activism. It's their turn now. Instead of shutting them down we should be encouraging them to be bold, experiment, be brave. Thank you again Lisa for this incredibly important post. Viva our youth!

Lisa Savage said...

I agree, Mary, there is much we can learn from Native people and their intergenerational approach.

Anonymous said...

The Native Peoples of North America are only one of many groups of Indigenous People throughout the world. All have in common the truth that we must all live in harmony with all that is around us (nature). In these days, pretty much all Indigenous People have been conquered by outside forces. Where these forces originally came from is difficult to determine. In all cases, they were technologically superior to the Indigenous and at the same time were spiritually inferior to those whom they labeled "barbarian". Until we learn to live in harmony through a spiritual connection with Mother Earth, we stand to be destroyed by the technology many have come to worship. A case in point. The Aborigines of New Zealand communicated with each other over long distances long before cell phones existed. Pete Sirois

Lisa Savage said...

This comment is from Tom Whitney:
At issue is why being against US wars is a hard sell for younger people. I think it’s a hard sell for people of all ages; regular people , both old and young, are turning a blind eye to the wars, most unfortunately. And, the comment that “opposing wars is a white, middle class phenomenon,” which adds, “Young people in central Maine are generally either working class or wealthy,” is intriguing.

In my view the working class, or regular people, have good reason to be anti-war . US wars are fought to further the interests of the high and mighty – control the oil, make profits from war industries, and use wars to distract people from changing things at home.

And the US system profits from extracting wealth from distant places, and wars are fought for that purpose, and that works to keep peoples there poor and in bad shape. So if the top dogs are beating up on working people here at home and are doing so also abroad and doing that to be able to abuse people here, then regular people at home and abroad have a common interest in no wars. Conclusion? We oppose US wars out of international solidarity with fellow workers. (There are other good reasons , morally wrong, takes money away from human needs etc.)

Lastly, the comment “Identity politics drives much of the activism young people engage in, and this approach does not apply well to antiwar organizing” is on target, I think. It doesn’t apply well because social class is left out, and class-based solidarity says no wars.