September 2, 2015
“Youth.” The word is everywhere these days, whether in discussions of Black Lives Matter or Queer/Trans youth.
I’ll have more to say in the coming months about particular “youth” movements and youth activists, but for now here are some quick thoughts:
The anger and mobilisation of young people is more evident these days than in, say, the last thirty years and this is an important development. There are several reasons for that, including a lingering economic crisis which affects younger and younger people in their daily lives. In Chicago, where I live, school privatisation and closures threaten the futures of thousands of students who cannot rely on a consistent and well-funded Chicago Public Schools system to get them to the next stages of their lives. At Dyett High School, parents and activists are entering the third week of a hunger strike intended to spur authorities to reopen the only neighbourhood high school in the area, closed due to what many have claimed is an ongoing wave of gentrification in the area.
If this were happening in any other country, U.S media would be full of stories about how dire conditions must be that children must suffer so. We’re quick to report on how Afghani girls lack access to education, but can’t muster up the courage to acknowledge that privatisation and gentrification are stalling the progress of many, mostly poor and often Black children, in this country.
I move in radical queer and left activist circles, where the presence of those defined as youth is a strong and vibrant one. I know and deeply admire organisations like Project NIA and Chicago Freedom School which work, sometimes against the odds, to actually create analytic and activist tools that empower youth to fight against the forces of racism, economic deprivation, and oppression in their neighbourhoods and beyond. There are, increasingly, more and more younger people involved in creating radical change, and that is always a good thing (even if it forces one to admit that one is no longer technically “young” in the eyes of the world).
What worries and exasperates me, though, is the extent to which youth are commodified and fetishised.
In the gay non-profit world, “LGBTQ youth homelessness” has become a popular catch-phrase. After gay marriage, organisations like Human Rights Campaign and Chicago’s Center on Halsted deploy youth as a funding tool but their actual work in advancing youth causes remains in doubt. COH is notorious for pretending to care about trans, Black youth in particular in order to gain funding but in actuality treating them like criminals.1 All across the country, LGBTQ youth are being tapped as a funding source by organisations with little integrity but an intense desire to maintain their existence and keep their non-profit statuses going. In these cases, queer youth are commodified and fetishised as potential revenue sources, but little is actually done to address the systemic issues that cause real harm to them.
Very often, I hear fellow activists talk about “youth” as if “youth organisers” are some other-worldly creatures who will deliver us all from the evils facing the world. Say the word “youth” in certain organising circles, and everyone immediately steps back and refuses to engage in any critique of their practices.
The constant fetishisation of “youth” leads to a peculiarly essentialist approach to age in radical/left circles, and it leads to some strange ideas about how people should function in relation to their respective ages. It’s popular to talk about the “wisdom of our elders” in these same spaces, as much as it is to hold up “youth” as those who will propel us into the future.
But why assume that age gives either wisdom to the old or energy to the young? Why categorise people according to their stage in life? Why not, instead, think about what they bring in terms of experience and energy? The very great danger in fetishising youth to the extent we do is that we don’t allow ourselves to see their faults, and then we desperately keep explaining away their problems while they become comfortable in constantly creating havoc in organising and people’s lives.
I’ve seen young organisers fleece tiny organisations of their money with all the cunning and cold-heartedness of a Bernie Madoff. I’ve watched others, coddled by their activist communities as the next big “voices of youth,” manipulate their way into profitable and professional activist jobs, pushing other far more talented and committed activists out, like young cuckoos pushing out their host’s eggs. It becomes complicated when the organisers are youth of colour, emboldened by a culture of silence in both POC and white circles where no one will challenge them because of a fear of seeming racist, or because too many people think that criticising “youth of colour” will somehow be to the detriment of an entire movement. It is sadly true that a young person of colour who commits harm is likely to be held to far more dangerous consequences if delivered to, say, the system of “law and order” but we have got to find a better way of holding “youth” accountable than simply pretending they do no harm or that they are not entirely responsible for what they do.
I write about all this because I’m increasingly weary of the phrase “youth” and “young organisers” being used as a tool with which to silence dissent about their organising and actions. Too much is explained away on account of people’s supposed inability to think like older people, and in the process we forget that it’s actually okay to admit that youth are people as well.
Consider the average eighteen-year-old you once knew, as an eighteen-year-old. Remember how many assholes you knew at that age, of your own age? Have you ever noticed that a lot of the people you knew as assholes in your youth have remained assholes? No one who has been part of a high school reunion can fail to have noticed that a lot of the bullies and cowards we knew growing up remain the same as adults.
It’s time to stop fetishising youth in organising as somehow more special and more deserving of care, even when we see evidence that some youth organisers are just beyond hope. There is every reason to continue supporting youth activists and to create conditions which make it possible for them to keep doing their work and to make mistakes without paying for those their entire lives, but that should be true for everyone. It’s time to start thinking of the work ahead of us, and stop focusing quite so much on the age of those who do it.
1Disclosure: I’m part of Gender JUST, which has actively campaigned against the COH’s policies towards the youth it claims to work for.