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January 26, 2005

Exploration: Youth Liberation - First Person Singular

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 22, 2005]

From W 09.29.04:

"The point of this essay is that it is not an essay; it is an "exploration". I don't have any outline going into this, and it's not meant to end up as something that other people will read. This is where I'll sort through my thoughts. It's like note-taking -- but in sentences and paragraphs, rather than in fragments. The idea is to just keep going forward, and not become recursive, trying to edit what I still haven't even thought through. I think I can trust that by writing "explorations" such as this one, outlines will naturally emerge -- if it turns out that I even have adequate material for an essay. [Discovering that I really don't have adequate material for an essay would be valuable in itself!]"

When I went to NorWesCon maybe two years ago, I attended a workshop for fiction writers. The facilitators had everyone do an exercise where we answered a series of questions about our protagonist, such as "What problem do they face?", "Who are their allies?", "What do they stand to gain?", "What are they at risk of losing?", "What opportunity are they faced with?", "What do they truly love?", etc.

Since I didn't have a story that I was working on, I tried applying these questions to Youth Liberation -- imagining the hypothetical youth that was contemplating a life of YL activism. ...It was a surprisingly effective exercise! I have so consistently thought about the problems of YL from the perspective of an activist group, the individual has almost entirely disappeared from my writing. The exercise at NorWesCon forced me back into thinking about what YL means from an individual's perspective. It's a good thing; I think many youths' first response to YL would be "Yes, but what does it mean to my life?"

[Although, given that most youth already identify with the adult standpoint in society, the majority gut response might actually be to try to evaluate whether other youth (as a group) deserve new freedoms. ...I think the question "Is it right for youth as a group?" is probably what Youth Equality (AKA "Youth Rights") tends to focus on. ...Because Youth Power is about "by youth, for youth" strategies, it is appropriate that I should try to turn my focus more to the "I" and selfhood of youth in Youth Lib.]

While on a walk yesterday, I started brainstorming questions that a youth might ask themselves as they began to engage with YL. I can see how one could assemble these questions (and discussions about how one might answer) into a book titled "A Youth's Book of Questions". Given the popularity of the "A Book of Life's Questions"-type books -- people like to answer questions about themselves! -- it seems like this might not be a bad product to pitch.

Here's the list: [I'm going to roughly categorize it at this point.]


  • Should I go to school? [vs. drop out]
  • Should I homeschool / unschool?
  • Should I go to college?
  • Should I get good grades? [or bargain to get passing grades?]
  • Should I skip school? [truancy]
  • Should I work to change my school? [its rules / structure]
  • Should I sue my school?

  • Should I leave my parents? [What is unacceptable treatment?]
  • Should I hit back?
  • Should I call the police?
  • Should I run away?
  • Should I emancipate?
  • Should I divorce my parents?
  • Should I call mom and dad by their first names?
  • Should I change my name?

  • Should I join a group?
  • Should I start a group?
  • Where should I host my meetings?
  • Should I wear a suit or clothes that express myself?
  • Should I lead?
  • Should I protest the curfew?
  • Should I protest on election day?

...The focus in responding to each of these questions should be "What would it mean to me?" For instance, with the question "Should I go to school?", one would consider the pros and the cons:


  • getting to meet and socialize with one's age peers
  • getting away from one's parents for most of the day
  • getting to have a "normal" childhood
  • getting a basic education without having to design it oneself
  • getting cultural literacy -- knowing what other people know
  • avoiding an argument by placating parents' desires
  • improved chances of getting into the college of your choice
  • improved post-school job opportunities
  • avoidance of social stigma for having dropped out
  • exposure to subjects you might not otherwise learn about

  • boring classes
  • pointless homework assignments
  • being forced to study subjects you have no use for
  • having no time to pursue your own interests
  • a 12 year time commitment
  • you could potentially learn subjects faster on your own
  • a high school degree on its own has very little prestige
  • harassment by peers
  • demeaning treatment by teachers
  • harm to self-image from constant criticism
  • violations of privacy -- if there are locker searches
  • physical violence -- if there is corporal punishment
  • curtailing of self-expression -- if there are school uniforms
  • censorship -- in the school paper, swear words, how one dresses
  • submission to people who feel they have the right to punish you
  • submitting to having your life run by a bell

...A list of pros and cons like this isn't bad in terms of examining the factors that might be involved in a decision to stay in school or to get out (via dropping out, skipping class, not trying, moving to an alternate school, trying to change the school using its own decision-making systems, protesting, or suing -- there are lots of alternatives to simply going with what's given to you!). However, what it doesn't do is make it personal. It doesn't talk about what the change would really mean to you. Maybe what I'm looking for is feeling words.


  • Are you happy at school?
  • Are you happier at home or at school?
  • How supportive are your parents about your self-determination?
  • What topic areas are you really excited about?
  • Do you spend time exploring what you care about in school?
  • What do you fear about leaving school?
  • Do you think your parents would resist your leaving school?
  • How angry would dropping out make them?
  • How much parental anger are you willing to suffer?
  • Do you see your friends much outside of school?
  • How motivated are you to get into college?
  • Do you like reading books and learning things on your own?
  • How much are you willing to suffer insults to your dignity?
  • Do you feel safe at school?
  • Do you fear not getting into college?
  • What have parents and teachers said to make you fear leaving?
  • Would dropping out feel like failure?
  • Do you feel like you'd prove something by sticking it out?
  • How much time do you have to yourself?
  • Is going to school making you feel better or worse about yourself?
  • How would your friends feel about you if you left?
  • Do you think any friends would also be interested in leaving?
  • Would you have more fun outside of school?
  • Would you feel less downtrodden outside of school?
  • Would you feel safer / less harassed outside of school?
  • Are you willing to struggle to get your way (re leaving)?
  • Do you maybe not mind just coasting along through school?
  • What is the least amount of work your parents would tolerate?
  • Are you willing to go against your parents' wishes?
  • Would you, in the long run, have a sense of pride in getting out?

Look at the feeling words in this list: fear, pride, anger, suffer, safety, willing, happy, excited, lonely, hope, motivated, care, like, resent, fun, struggling, wishes, disappointment. One could almost start from that list of emotions, and then talk about how they all apply. Fear is certainly an easy one to discuss: "What fears do you have about leaving?" Resistance is also a pretty easy one -- talking about resistance from your parents, friends (who might try to talk you out of it), and teachers. I was interested in this list to realize that one's relationship with peers might be significant -- not just in terms of staying in the environment where they reside, but in terms of their opinions about your choice. [There might also be cultural issues to consider, e.g. how dropping out is viewed in the African-American, Latino, Japanese, or Vietnamese communities.]

Looking again at my initial [1] "Youth's Book of Questions" list, I can see how one could go through it, processing each item. For each question, you'd first brainstorm the [2] pros and cons. Then, you'd introduce the [3] "feeling words" and try to really get inside of the experience of trying to decide in one direction or another. [Damn, that's a lot of work!]

Probably the final question becomes "How much suffering is too much?" You can name your fears and evaluate each of them, you can look at how each of the people in your social world would react, list the things that you really value and the goals you hope to achieve... When you're torn in two directions, however, then you start wishing you had some objective standard, some criteria that would state "If you're this unhappy, then you have a responsibility to yourself to leave." Discussing what [4] possible criteria you might use to justify your final decision (in addition to the necessary gut feeling of rightness) -- that would be a useful section in the essay.

...Now that I've suggested an elaborate process for guiding youth through decision-making processes about what kind of life they want, I can see how much work would be involved in pursuing this thread to its conclusion. Is it worth it? Do I really want to guide youth through this decision-making process? I don't think that I'd want to advertise the essay as such -- it sounds too much like guidance counseling, which is sort of an affront to youth's control of their own lives and ability to make decisions for themselves. [As if I the guidance counselor, having just met you the youth five minutes ago, can really deliver meaningful guidance from on high.]

In terms of how to package these essays, you'd probably have to focus on the "alternatives to school" angle in the title -- or come up with something so radical that it excites interest, e.g. "why the intelligent student should drop out of school". With the proper title, most of the content could remain the same.

How many of these questions am I interested in addressing, though? While schools are very significant to YL, they aren't really my personal focus. Talking about decision-making within the family is more up my alley. Even that, though, might feel more natural to me if put in the context of YL. I view YL as a movement -- if I go too far in the direction of independent individuals' selves, then I lose the sense of connection to a broader cause, which is so important to me.

Before I leave this topic, I wanted to capture one more fragment from yesterday's walk. I wrote this: [I'm editing slightly]

"Youth Liberation is about having a self. Your body is your own; your life is your own. You are your own possession.

Your life is not something for other people to determine -- and that includes me. Use what works for you. Disregard what doesn't. Be yourself -- but also be your best self, someone you can be proud of.

On a personal level, Youth Liberation is about self. But on a higher level, it is about more than just what you want -- it's about the well-being of your friends, and people who will be in your position in the future. On a higher level still, it's about the holiness of human beings -- how all of us deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

Youth Liberation is about living the 'examined life' -- making your choices consciously rather than going along with what you're told to do, and following the guidance of your own conscience. Writing journals is integral to this process. In the work of discovering and taking ownership of your self, writing is one of your best tools."

...Could be a nice intro to an essay dealing with selfhood within YL!

Posted by Sven at January 26, 2005 12:00 PM