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July 30, 2003

The Future of Youth Justice

What does the process of changing society look like? Is it really going to be possible to transform this country's age laws and culture? We have a vision of the society that we want to live in -- but how do we get from here to there?

Youth Liberation is not the first movement to contemplate these questions. Most radical activists have given the topic some thought: Feminists, Marxists, Anarchists, Environmentalists, Queers, Anti-Racist Activists... In this essay, I want to look at five models of social change that radicals have proposed. I'll comment on strengths and weaknesses, attempting to arrive at a better strategy (if not the "best") through the process.


One vision of social change imagines that there will be historical moment when the oppressed have finally had enough, when they'll rise up and overthrow their oppressors. There's a strong sense of "before" and "after the revolution"; things are bad now, but after a few years of intense struggle, our problems will be solved. Change is going to be violent in the sense of "sudden" -- but some also feel that it will be important to be holding a gun in your hand when the big day arrives.

One thing I admire about this vision is its sense of urgency. One of my favorite quotes comes from julian beck's book "the life of the theatre": "When we feel, we will feel the emergency: when we feel the emergency, we will act: when we act, we will change the world." It seems true to me that social change is seldom moved forward by cool, dispassionate reason alone. People put the effort into making change when there's emotion involved, when an issue *feels* important.

The "violent revolution" model's most serious flaw, in my mind, is imagining that the power to oppress is wielded by only an elite set of individuals. This is certainly not the case for youth. The power to oppress is very distributed among adults; any parent, teacher, or legislator can cause suffering at will. It's true that you can point to some people who are super-powerful in society, like the CEO's of major corporations. But if the guilty are going to be slaughtered in an orgy of rioting, how far down the totem pole of power are you willing to go?

Tearing down the old system is not enough. We also have to build something new in its place. Rather than starting that work after the magic "revolution" has taken place, why not start now? If we work hard enough, perhaps we can simply replace the old structure, piece by piece. We'll be challenged at each step along the path, but the idea is that people's hearts and minds will change, so resistance will get lighter the farther along we get.

...Of course, some opponents won't change, no matter how much the society around them moves forward. I call this the "dinosaur" problem. Some adultists will never accept change -- you just have to let them die off. Personally, I'd rather let them die of natural causes than get blood on my hands.

The necessary aside about violence: I abhor murder. I condemn radicals (whom I've met) for stretching the idea of "self-defense" to justify doing physical violence to other people's bodies. I think hitting or shooting someone can only be justified if they are attempting to do the same to you. A scab that takes your job threatens your money; it's bad, but it's not the same as your life. ...However, on that same note (distinguishing between your money and your life), I am open to discussing destruction of property (e.g. defacing billboards, monkey-wrenching logging equipment). I don't advocate it, but I'm willing to consider situations where it may be an appropriate tactic.

Besides the ethical concerns about doing violence, I think "power comes out of the barrel of a gun" is bad strategy for several reasons. First, in a physical fight, our side is bound to lose. Adults tend to be physically stronger than youth, they own the guns, and control organized police forces. Second, even if youth successfully stage a riot or some kind of assault as a militia, the adult backlash is likely to be too terrible for it to make any sense. Third, violence will alienate youth and adults alike from the cause. Long-term social change, in my opinion, depends on gaining public support.


Another model of social change imagines a slow march toward the perfect society. In this utopia, everyone will have grown beyond the prejudices of the past, everyone will be enlightened (like in "Star Trek"!). Activists with this model in mind tend to put a strong emphasis on doing public education. The idea that we'll have inevitable victory evokes an almost religious sense of faith: the promised land is waiting for us, even if it takes 500 years to get there. I think this feeling grows out of the conviction that we're right. ...Just as science progressed from seeing the world as flat, society will ultimately have to accept youths' equality.

The best thing about this model is perhaps how inspiring it is. The image of a non-adultist society is something worth really fighting for. If youth are damned to forever suffer insults and injuries from adults, why bother trying to change anything? Better to just keep your head down and survive into adulthood without getting into unnecessary trouble. ...The conviction that things could be different gives one the strength to take risks, get through the hard fights, and keep on going after defeat.

The thing that seems least accurate to me about the "utopia" model is the idea that someday history will just come to a stop, and nothing will ever change again. Even in the distant future, I imagine that there will be new scientific innovations, fads and celebrities, good and bad harvests, ongoing political / philosophical debates. In other words, there will always be something to argue over or get upset about. Instead of "working to put ourselves out of a job", I think that we need to organize ourselves to be permanent participants in society's negotiations about what's fair and what's unfair. Youth justice will be an ongoing concern even if we do finally defeat organized adultist oppression.

A word about bigots... We can eliminate an enormous amount of injustice by changing laws and doing public education -- but I don't think we can get rid of it entirely. If an idea can be imagined, then someone somewhere right now probably believes it. After all, there are still people in America that believe the Earth is flat! Even if we could wash history clean and begin with a clean slate, I suspect some people would reinvent racist, sexist, and adultist thinking for themselves. Fairly or unfairly feeling resentment toward members of another group, some people would rationalize their dislike in terms of sweeping, oppressive generalizations. As far as bigots are concerned, I wonder if the best we can do is to keep them in the minority, ostracized by the mainstream. [Personally, I'm just thrilled that most people now view KKK members as fringe extremists!]

Something else that troubles me about the "utopia" model is that I think it encourages us to equate freedom with accomplishing our ten-point agenda of social change. What does it mean to be free? I think that when you're free, you just decide what you feel like doing, and then do it -- probably without even thinking about it that much. From this point of view, youth could consider themselves free right now. If you're sitting in a school room, that's your choice; you can stand up at any time and just walk out the door.

...The trick, of course, is that there are going to be bad consequences. Adults are going to get in the way of doing what you want, and generally make things unpleasant. In essence, youth are a colonized people. It's as if they were living in the country of Youthistan, and were suddenly invaded by conquerors from Adultistan, who now say that the inhabitants all have to do what they say. From this perspective, Youth Liberation's work is not about getting rights per se, but rather just getting adults out of the way. It would be nice if the adults would recognize the legitimacy of youths' self-determination -- but if you can do the things that you want in life by just not getting caught, then hey, that works too.


Even if we can't accomplish a state of permanent justice, I think it's clear that we do want to make some pretty major changes in society as it stands now. A lot of this work involves changing the law, changing how courts interpret the law, and making sure that the law gets appropriately enforced. Yet, legal change can't occur in a vacuum. How can just laws come into being (and survive) if we don't also have a majority of people supporting the ideals behind them? There needs to be transformation of America's culture, as well as its laws.

Television is probably the strongest force unifying Americans in contemporary society. People anywhere in the nation can watch the same news report or sit-com; TV gives us a common reference point for discussion. Consequently, it is easiest to discuss cultural shift in terms of programming content. Youth want to see stories that portray minors in a positive light, stories that are critical of adultism, and stories that help people get used to non-adultist ways of relating.

Unfortunately, television is big business, which makes it very difficult for youth to influence. Just getting on the local news is a major accomplishment! Activists who want to shift culture are forced turn to other strategies. For instance... They try to influence public opinion through more accessible media: putting essays in magazines, writing letters to the editor, seeking coverage from indie news outlets. They argue that we can shift attitudes by just talking honestly to the people we know, that if millions of us speak out, it will have a huge impact. They advocate confronting adultist language, protesting businesses that have discriminatory policies. They try to foster the growth of alternative culture by hosting special events (conferences, camps, teach-ins, etc.) and making safe spaces for youth (like drop-in centers).

In and of themselves, these all seem like positive actions, helpful to the Youth Liberation cause. The thing that worries me most often about the "culture shift" model of social change is that it's easy to lose sight of the need to be doing legal work at the same time. In my experience, talking to the people in your life -- or even organizing a big youth event -- is much easier than locking horns with an actual political opponent. Proactively proposing new legislation takes a great deal of research and setting up appointments with the people in power. Resisting any kind of political attack -- whether that's a new anti-youth law, a police curfew crack-down, or a cut in funding to youth service providers -- means conforming to a timetable set by the opponent; it's rushed and stressful. It's all too easy to wait around for someone else to deal with the really tough stuff.

Another concern: By focusing on defamation and public image, it seems to me that we're often talking about youth -- when it's really adults that we ought to be talking about. When an adult hears something about young people, they process that information as "about other people". So, if we offer stories about youth who are intelligent, courageous, and principled, the adult just thinks "OK, so there are some exceptional youth". What I think we want instead, is for adults to realize that "there's something wrong with me, with us as adults, we need to change!" To get adults to think about themselves, we need do much less defending of youth, and instead make more pointed criticisms about adults. Look at all the ways in which adults are terrible people: petty, stupid, cruel, unprincipled, moody, reckless, etc. It's really just a matter of emphasis, but I think there's a difference between saying our problem is that youth lack something -- rights -- and saying that adults are withholding something -- again, rights. We shouldn't need to prove that youth deserve better treatment; the burden should be on adults to prove that they deserve such omnipotent power.

Questions about the right balance of public image vs. law-changing work, and about whether we should discuss "us" vs. "them", are really about how to do "culture shift" well. However, I think there's a more basic problem with this vision of social change... Obviously cultural shift does happen: there's more acceptance of inter-racial marriage now, it's unacceptable to use the "N-word", women's competence in the professions and in sports is beyond question, drunk driving is frowned upon, and the climate for people who smoke in public is increasingly hostile. Yet, despite these victories, progressive movements always remain outside of the mainstream. We have utopian visions, but the majority of America makes only minor adjustments in their behavior -- not so much because they embrace our ideals, but just because "everyone else is doing it". Are we really shifting culture if our ideologies aren't making it into the mainstream?

We'd like for America to understand everything there is to know about Youth Liberation -- but in reality, we're just one of dozens (if not hundreds) of minority groups vying for the public's attention. The better established a movement becomes, the more it gets recognized as a "subculture". Feminists, hippies, goths, Harley riders -- we all want to be better understood, to maybe change the world... How many minority groups can any one person be an expert on?


The "culture shift" approach to social change tends to focus on the state of the nation. If you're committed to the movement, however, you have to start realizing that a national movement is built primarily out of activists doing work in their own cities / states. Youth Liberation activists need to be able to identify which level they're working on with any particular issue: federal, state, county, city, neighborhood, or within-organization.

With this perspective in mind, changing society becomes a problem of influencing one group at a time: your city council, a teacher's association, a homeless youth shelter, etc. You need to identify exactly who's the decision-maker that controls what you want. You can meet with them one-on-one, but it's generally more effective to be able to show that you have the support of some larger body of people.

To this end, you may want to establish some variety of youth community organization. Maybe the constituency is all drawn from a particular school's student body, or maybe your group represents a collection of like-minded individuals from different areas of town. Maybe you try to set up a permanent structure, or maybe you just come together to address a one-time issue. ...Politically, the main benefit of gathering a group is that your voice will be heard more loudly together than alone.

Within your local youth community, there are also levels to consider. There's generally a leadership committee, members who are less actively involved, other local youth groups that are somewhat similar to your own, and a population of youth who aren't yet organized or involved in any way. As an activist, you have to try to communicate effectively with people on all these levels. It's all too common to discover that you've not only failed to tell other youth groups what you're doing -- your own leadership collective isn't even all on the same page.

Even though you're trying to deal with the relationships between groups (allies, neutrals, opponents), it usually doesn't work very well to try to address a group as an organization. The best activists' secret weapon is incredibly simple: invite people out for coffee dates and get to know who they are as individuals. That way, when you're sitting at a table with a group of people, you already have a sense of who's going to agree with you, what skills each person has, and who you might ask to take on some extra work.

Many youth feel uncomfortable speaking for youth as a whole, and insist that they can only address their own experience. As a group leader, you can earn the right to speak for the group by a couple of means. You can study the history of Youth Liberation, and so speak from a body of knowledge that you have. You can participate in lots of group discussions, or have coffee dates with individual youth, so that it's legitimate to generalize about what the youth that you know are saying. You can be formally elected by a youth organization to be one of its leaders / a spokesperson. While it's true that you can't speak for every youth, being able to represent at least some portion of the youth community can make youth groups more effective.

The original purpose of bringing youth together is maybe to do political work, but it's easy for "having as many members as possible" to become an end in itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing; organizations that focus on community-building events (discussion groups, socials, internal workshops, conferences, etc.) help create a pool of engaged youth, from which activism may arise. However, the tendency to want to invite all youth in can also stand in the way of doing politics. If the group is too diverse, you may not be able to arrive at a consensus, or otherwise rally enough support to justify taking a collective position.

Doing public education workshops is generally less controversial than challenging a political opponent. However, how effective it is at creating social change is debatable. To begin with, panels / workshops have a very limited audience. Within your city, there are only so many groups that are interested in hosting speakers. You might be able to get engagements in college classes, youth service organizations, teachers' organizations, possibly churches... Ultimately, the list you come up with is going to be finite.

What if you had an unlimited pool of youth speakers to draw upon, and a full-time organizer to schedule workshops? What would happen is that you'd develop a list of groups that you revisit each year, doing more-or-less the same presentation over and over again. You'd be reaching more and more people as new members joined those groups; for everyone else it would be an annual refresher.

�If you combined this program of speaking engagements with coffee date check-ins for the outside groups' leaders, then what you've got is an excellent strategy for maintaining diplomatic relationships between the various communities in your area. The trouble is that none of your political opponents are ever going to host you. It can begin to feel like you're just preaching to the choir (although that's not entirely true). Political work that addresses your opponents requires an entirely separate process.


Youth community groups are an important base for social change work. Young persons gathering, talking with each other, and getting inspired, is what makes the emergence of activist projects possible. However, my experiences lead me to think social and political concerns should be dealt with by separate groups -- rather than trying to form one super-organization that addresses all needs.

I think that politics are best done by a small cadre of activists, who devote a lot of intellectual energy to researching their projects, and who are willing to take positions that aren't always popular. If they're doing their work well, the cadre will decide which issues to take on largely based on conversations with the greater youth community, strategy ideas will be discussed at open community forums, and the projects will involve more and more people as they gain momentum.

We need to keep in mind the utopian vision of the society we want to create, but we also have to protect what freedoms youth have at present. Adultists aren't standing still -- they're actively making new assaults on young people's freedoms. In the long run, more of our energy is probably going to go into resistance than proactive projects. When we do have victories, we're likely to suffer a backlash, and spend years defending what we've won from being eroded away.

We'd like to "put ourselves out of a job", but I think we have to remain vigilant even when things seem to be going well. It's haunting to recall that Jews enjoyed greater freedom in pre-World War II Germany than they had for hundreds of years anywhere else. Because the natural anatomical, economic, and social differences between adults and youth are significant, youth will always be at risk of becoming a scapegoat group. In defense, we need to maintain watchdog groups, and be certain that the skills of activism get passed on from generation to generation.

Ideally, there would be watchdog groups at each level of society -- national, state, city -- and the groups would be diversified, each watching over as narrow an issue as possible: school policy, police issues, violence against minors, youth service providers, new legislation, court cases, media defamation, hate-group activities, etc. Justice isn't a permanent state that we can achieve -- there are going to constantly be issues arising that we need to negotiate. Unfortunately, this will probably always be a sloppy process. There aren't enough activists to deal with every issue; we'll take on the big fights, but be forced to just let the lesser stuff slide by.


What does the process of changing society look like?

It begins with a utopian vision of the society we'd like to live in. The idea that things could be different than they are now makes activism worth all the risk and struggle.

At the same time, we know that justice is a matter of constant negotiation between different groups, all trying to work out a deal that benefits their own members. Society will never stand still, so instead of trying to "put ourselves out of a job", we need to secure ourselves a place in the decision-making process.

We'll work to change laws and organizational policies, to influence court interpretation of existing laws, and to make sure that laws and policies are properly enforced. At the same time, we'll need to work to shape public opinion: getting youth seen in a positive light, denouncing adultism, and promoting understanding of new, better ways for adults and youth to relate. Changing law and shifting culture go hand-in-hand.

Work will take place at different levels of society: national, state, county, city, neighborhood, within-organization. The movement's foundation will be bringing youth together as a community, hosting events where youth can discuss things, socialize, and support each other. Separately from youth community groups, but working in cooperation, small activist cadres will be formed to address political concerns.

As much effort as possible will go toward building a better world -- but much of our energy will have to go to resisting new adultist assaults. Doing public education that acts as inter-community diplomacy will do some good, but will be limited by who's interested in hosting our panels. The main burden of social change will fall upon small watchdog organizations, each paying close attention to policy matters and news events in fairly narrow areas.

Justice will always be a little haphazard, some injustices slipping through the cracks. Advocating for a community's needs takes enormous amounts of energy -- there just aren't enough activists to go around -- and the public is overwhelmed by different groups vying for their attention. The issues that Youth Liberation makes the most progress on will be the ones that inspire a strong emotional response and a sense of urgency.

Some final words of hope: Adultism is so big... Putting energy into the place where you live can be a bit dispiriting, because it doesn't feel like you're really making a dent in the big picture. It's important to remember that our actions have a ripple effect. People we'll never even meet hear about what we do, and the rumor of freedom spreads. We have no idea how powerful we actually are.

Ultimately, we find the courage to take on this problem not because we know that we will succeed -- but because, win or lose, our consciences compel the attempt. The struggle for justice may begin with outrage, but continues on because we desire to be just persons ourselves.

-- END --

July 13, 2003

Posted by Sven at July 30, 2003 12:58 PM