There has been a palpable rise in the hurt and anger of young people over the past year. Particularly among young, usually college-educated women and young African Americans. That shouldn’t be surprising: it’s also been a year of pandemic personal and social anxiety coming from feelings of immediate vulnerability and the long-term collapse of economic options; a year of escalating climate crises and advancing points of no return; a year of repeated #METOO revelations of humiliation and harassment; and most of all a year of the daily punch-in-the-stomach police killings of Black people. As the saying goes, if your not outraged your not paying attention.
I was recently asked to be a guest speaker in a class of smart, young people i– almost all people of color, several immigrants – in the early phases of their careers who are seeking to enhance their skills and understanding. I spoke, as I had done in several previous years about what I’ve learned from my years of political activism and work in non-profits, as well as what it takes to sustain those value-based commitments over the many stages of a life. It is a story of the persistence needed to win small victories and then leverage those victories and the opportunities created by larger-picture developments into more permanent institutional changes. It is a story of incremental reforms and unpredictable big leaps and the need to be honest about your own limitations during both phases.
In previous years this elicited insightful and appreciate comments from the students. But this year, the tone was radically different. They seemed deeply frustrated by their own jobs and situation. One young man said he didn’t think that there was any point in small steps and patient reforms: the system was so correct and destructive that he was only interested in tearing it down. A young woman wondered if the perspective of an older, white man like myself still had any relevance to them. Another wondered if social change was even possible, or if everything turned out to be inadequate if it didn’t simply make things worse.
I understood their frustration, impatience, and anger. I had felt the same during the years that our protests were howling into the wind of escalating attacks on Vietnam, killings of Black leaders, and the dismantling of what passed for our nation’s safety net. And my vulnerability back then was second-hand rather than direct: for these students the danger was to their own bodies and lives.
And I applaud their refusal to settle for crumbs. I applaud their revolutionary demands. Without radical visions and transformative demands little progress is possible. I accept their generational insistence that the social change strategies of we who came before have proved inadequate and need serious improvement. As Maya Angelou taught us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I agree with them that change is possible; that we, acting together, can create a better tomorrow.
However, society-altering mass insurrections of either reformist or revolutionary intent do not appear out of thin air, even if their emergence always surprises us. They arise from a well-laid foundation of small-scale efforts and mid-size campaigns, from advocacy around particular problems as well as mobilizations around major issues. At some point, hopefully and without warning, the tectonic plates of society shift, earthquakes shake the formerly stable surface, volcanoes erupt, tsunami’s crash, and a new landscape emerges. Getting to that point is what takes up most of our lives.
So, the students were right, both in their anger at current conditions and their complaint that I wasn’t focusing on the explosive moments the way their favorite authors do. I hope they continue the fight, bringing new energy and vision and strategies. However, I also think that they will eventually realize the usefulness of the movement-building from small beginnings ideas that are available from those who did the same before them. And I hope that, before they settle in for the long march, that they this endless struggle forward several more steps.