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March 04, 2003

Chapter 1: About This Book - part 6

II. Goals (Continued)

(4) Add Youth Liberation to the Progressive Left's agenda.
I want the Progressive Left to embrace Youth Liberation. In order to explain what that might look like, I need to briefly explain the reality of how movements associated with the Left connect with one another. Next, I'll touch on a few of the practical issues that come up when you try to integrate concern for an outside minority into your own group. I'll finish by summarizing the ethical arguments for paying attention to Youth Liberation issues.

a) How Movements Connect with One Another
Minority groups that face social oppression (e.g. blacks, women, gays, Jews, the poor) often come under attack from the same conservative forces. Despite this, oppressed minorities have many times found themselves pitted against one another. [This is sometimes referred to as "horizontal oppression".] However, in the Progressive Left there is a train of thought that tries to build alliances between the movements. "Oppression" and "liberation" is language used in trying to draw out the similarities of circumstances that they share.

There is no massive, centralized body in the Left that could set an authoritative agenda. Building connections is an ongoing effort, typically between just two or a few groups at a time. To the extent that a sort of shared agenda *does* exist, it emerges from the concerns and values of many individual organizations choosing -- independently or together -- to work for similar goals.

Some activists argue that we should try to build a single unified front -- turn all the little groups into one big force. They see our movement's splinteredness as a significant problem. I don't agree with this view. For the most part, I see diversity of groups as a very positive thing.

When people argue for creating one ten- or twenty-point agenda that everyone can get behind, too often some group is told that their issues should take a back seat -- that they should shut up for the greater cause. Having many specific minority advocate groups allows each to be an expert on its own constituency's needs and historical perspective. I suspect it would be near impossible to gather and coordinate all this intelligence within a one-size-fits all structure.

Still, individual activists within all these groups should strive to become as knowledgeable about other movements as possible. They should attend each other's meetings, creating diplomatic ties through personal acquaintance. And when asked, they should strongly consider giving assistance for a specific project.

b) Practical Coalition Work
I once heard a useful distinction made between coalitions and alliances. A coalition is two or more groups coming together for the sake of a common short-term goal. The groups may come from radically different philosophies -- but they both want the same thing right now, so they're willing to put those differences aside. An alliance is more of a long-term partnership; it's between two or more groups that are philosophically aligned and want to support each other's broader aims. An alliance relationship may continue to exist even in the absence of a current shared project.

I think most people's notion of what "coalition work" means is pretty fuzzy -- just the idea of being mutually supportive. Consequently, they may be enthusiastic about the concept without at all understanding what it requires. It's easy to give an endorsement -- but it takes a lot more energy to help stage a protest or collect testimonies for a public hearing. *Meaningful* coalition projects have a cost. Even if the drain on money and material resources isn't bad, an organization's five or ten core activists only have so much energy. Signing-on to too many outside projects leads to exhaustion and neglecting the issues that the group was originally formed to address. The decision to enter into a coalition shouldn't be taken lightly.

That said, it takes relatively few resources to begin laying down the groundwork for an *alliance*. The first step is just to become more aware of another group's issues.

One way to start the process is by inviting in guest speakers. This benefits both parties: the speakers further their goal of public education, and the host group's organizers get to sit back (for a change) and let someone else fill meeting time. Activists often say that going to workshops and learning new ideas helps keep them inspired and energized. Meeting people from an unfamiliar minority also tends to be popular among audiences.

After hosting a workshop, it's much less difficult to start challenging oppressive attitudes within one's own group. Increasing participation of people from this other minority group, however, is another thing.

Organizers often bemoan the absence of blacks or women or youth in their meetings. Generally the problem stems from wanting these outsiders to **come to them**. I mean this in both the physical and the psychological sense. Let me use race as an example... White organizers are often attached to a meeting space that's located in a predominantly white section of town. They fail to advertise or host meetings on black turf. Even when a black person does manage to walk through the door, organizers frequently turn them off to the group by not being savvy about what issues matter in the black community. It's as if they want African-Americans to support their pet cause without having to give anything back. If you want more blacks in your predominantly white group, realize that a demographic shift will also mean shifting the group's priorities to better match those of the new members.

If you genuinely want to bring African-Americans in, here's what to do: go volunteer for a black organization. Doing so, you learn the community's issues as seen from the inside; you make new connections with people on their own turf, instead of your own; and you develop reputation and credibility by showing willingness to put your labor behind their leadership. Rolling up your sleeves and shedding some sweat is far more meaningful that nice words alone.

The principles that I've described hold equally true for working with youth. Coalition work is demanding; most adult-run Progressive Left organizations won't choose to actively collaborate with youth activists, not if the youth are choosing the issues. However, in a city or an organization where youth are raising their voices, adults have an obligation to become more knowledgeable. A good first step is inviting youth activists to speak. If the adults really get serious about bringing more youth participation into their groups, then they'll need to change the very nature of their organizations. Advertising and meetings will have to happen on youth turf: schools, all-ages clubs, hang-outs where food is cheap and the staff is youth-tolerant. Which issues the group takes on have to shift to better reflect what's important to youth. ...And ideally, youth will be integrated into the board of directors, and be hired for staff positions.

This is what it would look like for the Progressive Left to embrace Youth Liberation.

c) Ethical Arguments
I believe groups that share the oppression / liberation framework are morally obligated to integrate awareness of adultism into their activities. I see three key reasons why they should be concerned:

First, youth are already part of their constituencies. Among African-Americans, black youth suffer a special, additional prejudice that's directed at hip-hop culture and clothing thought to associate one with a gang. For Feminist abortion defenders, parental consent laws have been one part of a conservative agenda to slowly chip away access for all women. Among gay, lesbian, bi, and transsexual persons, some of the most intense harassment tends to be experienced during the high school years. Embracing youth issues just means serving a larger portion of the people in one's own community.

Second, groups concerned with oppression should be committed to not oppressing others. It's a simple matter of observing the same principles that you ask others to live by. For example, if you're asking people to stop using language that denigrates your community, then you should also take it upon yourself to learn what feels offensive to other groups. [To some extent this can be done with common sense; however, even long-time activists need education to become aware of more subtle, group-specific issues.] Or, perhaps your group has historically been excluded from power, suffering laws and policies that were created without its input... Maybe you're trying to rectify this by insisting that authorities listen to your community's concerns. Shouldn't you then go out of your way to make sure that you don't also play the excluding authority figure for someone else -- such as youth? [As the activist saying goes, "Do nothing about me without me."]

Third, so long as adultism remains intact, it will help preserve other oppressions. A historical complaint of both white women and black men is that they've been treated "like children", e.g. being called "girl" and "boy" as adults. Of course it's disrespectful -- but doesn't the fact that it's offensive to treat adults "like children" also suggest that there's something fundamentally demeaning about how adults treat actual youth? If human beings keep on learning to treat young people in this way, then they will always have a model of oppressive behavior that can be translated over to some other group.

...An argument can be made that adultism, being such and early and universal experience, is really the seed from which all other oppressions spring. Personally I think this position is flawed; racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. are interrelated, but each has a unique history -- there is no "mother of all" oppressions. Nonetheless, the hyperbole at least serves to suggest that adultism is *not* unimportant among the ranks of "isms".

To summarize: Organizations of the Progressive Left should be concerned with fighting adultism -- for the sake of serving their entire constituencies, avoiding hypocrisy, and eliminating all models for oppressive behavior. Minimally, they should invite youth activist speakers to come and do educational events; more ambitious organizations should work collaboratively with Youth Liberation groups, and even consider changing their own internal structures. Once many individual groups have taken these actions, then it will be appropriate to say that the Progressive Left has finally embraced Youth Liberation as part of its agenda.

-- to be continued --

March 4, 2003

Posted by Sven at March 4, 2003 08:15 PM