KENNEDY YOUGER DOLD: WE ARE ALL ACTIVISTS
Writer Kennedy Younger Dold looks at the phenomenal success of the youth movement in politics today through the lens of history.
All over the land, the kids have finally startin’ to get the upper hand.
They’re out on the streets, they turn on the heat,
And soon they could be completely in command.
Museums and galleries are quiet places. The stern, official portraits of historical figures make it all too easy to forget the vitality of the stories on display. But, those tales demand to be told. They are the stories of the young, the restless and the rebellious. History tells us stories of many young people who achieved notoriety.
In 1777, Sybil Luddington rode twice as far as the more famous midnight ride of Paul Revere to warn of attacking British regulars during the American Revolution. Not only did she ride twice as far, but at 16, she was half his age as well. Joan of Arc was 17 when, leading from the front, she inspired the French army to victory after victory during the Hundred Years War with England. Henry V was 29 at the Battle of Agincourt. Flora MacDonald was 24 when she helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the 1745 Jacobite Uprising. Victoria was 18 when she became Queen. Alexander the Great conquered and created an empire at the same age. Mary Shelley, at 20, published Frankenstein. At 23, Nellie Bly was exposing inhumane conditions in American asylums. To pile on even more extraordinary achievement, she traveled around the world in 72 days… just to beat the fictional record set in Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. Flash forward to the 20th century and the rise of the self and culturally aware teenager. In 1977, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia (age 19) (although fictional) brought hope to a galaxy far, far away. Young people shaped the post-war years: staging protests, fighting for civil rights, and writing pretty incredible music.
All these people were decades from their first grey hair; yet, they shook the ground beneath them. Today, people are surprised by their ages. People remember Queen Victoria as an aged monarch in black mourning clothes. They often forget the fiery woman, just 18, who fought to govern in her own right.
Today, it is regularly held young people need to reach an arbitrary age to fully understand the world. Older generations dismiss their opinions as naive and unsophisticated. They insist younger generations ‘wait their turn.’ So when is a generation’s opinions worthy of consideration? In America, you are legally an adult when you turn 18; you can vote, get married, sit in judgment of your fellow citizen on a jury, be charged criminally, enlist and go to war. Oddly, you cannot order a pint until you’re 21. However, attaining legal age doesn’t seem to convince older generations that a level understanding of the world has been achieved or that expressed points of view are of any value. Historically, acceptance seems to come down to an individual’s drive to create change and the allied ability to jam their foot in the door and grab opportunities.
The most common roadblock to seizing a historic opportunity is a sense of helplessness. When faced with injustice, it is exasperating to hear ‘nothing can be done.’ Of course something can be done! It may happen in simple baby steps, but incremental change, no matter how minor is still forward movement.
It does not matter how old you are; what matters is your voice and actions. Your action maybe the genesis of a movement lost in time. It can also be the last weight needed to tip the scale and open the floodgates.
In the worse sense of tragedy, this February in Parkland, Florida 17 high school students and staff were added to the already too long list of domestic mass-shooting victims in America. However, instead of only offering ‘hopes and prayers,’ students as young as 14 rose above tragedy and created the Never Again Movement. Emma Gonzalez (age 18) became its face. She helped to organize, plan, and execute nationwide marches and rallies culminating in the massive March for Our Lives in Washington DC and sibling marches across the country on March 24. Even my own small hometown in Kansas assembled in support. Emma and her friends put intensive pressure on the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians who accepted their donations. Originally, the NRA focused almost solely on hunter and gun safety. In the last decades it has devolved into an extreme right-wing lobby group fighting any restrictions or reservations to unfettered gun rights. Regardless of public opinion or reasonable and rational measures to control gun violence, the NRA has maintained a stranglehold on any gun legislation. For the first time in a generation, the young students of the Never Again Movement have defied the odds and pried open a national dialogue. In response, many states have begun to pass laws requiring increased background checks and bans on the sale of military assault-style weapons, high volume magazines, and accessories designed to increase rapid-fire capabilities.
The Parkland students turned a terrible act of violence into a tumult for change. Almost immediately NRA and right-wing critics began the age-old chant: ‘high school students are too young, too naive to understand the interworking of American politics.’ They need to ‘wait their turn.’ The students’ response was quick. They were old enough to understand the dangers of getting shot; they were old enough to demand reforms. Their message was clear, if the adults were not going to do anything to protect their lives, to secure them safe schools and communities – then it was up to the youth to do it.
Earlier on the other side of the globe, Malala Yousafzai was 15 when she was targeted and shot by the Taliban in 2012. Since she was 11, Malala had been writing accounts for the BBC’s worldwide audience about life under Taliban occupation. From tragedy, she turned to activism. At 17, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on education for women and young girls.
Lauren Duca (age 27), a columnist for Teen Vogue, realized her platform to help young women understand the world around them and seized it. In a startling op-ed about President Trump’s lies and ability to gaslight the American public, she caused a media fervor. Lauren became a spokesperson for young American women; and was interviewed on some of the largest US news outlets and talk shows. Famously, on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Lauren affirmed young women in America can, should, and do understand the world around them. Responding to his criticism, she asserted young women could have a world outlook and still enjoy fashion, make-up, and personality quizzes. The duality of young people to both understand complex issues and enjoy life is what makes them incredibility resilient. It helps them to avoid the dangers of disillusionment. It keeps them driving for change. They see how beautiful and amazing the world can be and are not afraid of living in a diverse world or facing the unknown.
To achieve a progressive worldview, young people must move beyond only thinking on a grand, Romantic historic scale and realize ‘great deeds’ are made up of daily actions and choices. It was only after the fact, after history studied and documented and realized the significance of an action that they were deemed extraordinary. History’s young people did not necessarily realize the gravitas of their choices. They simply acted in the face of the challenges. The same ability to act in incremental steps is within the capacity of everyone.
The 2016 election became the origin of a generation of young voices, who realize they have a responsibility. Although crushed, I voted in that election. The worst part was explaining to my, then 17-year-old, sister, why her country didn’t care enough about her to vote for her future. Why her country sided with a platform with planks to restrict the autonomy of her body, the access to her education, the ability to marry who she loves, and would allow the deportation of her friends. I reminded her, we still and will always have the chance to do something. We can be sad, we can get mad, but we must stand back up. We must, in the words of a defeated but not silenced Hillary Clinton ‘never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it.’
There has been a dramatic rise in women running for office and young voters using their voices. To date, many have won their primary elections and stand ready for the 2018 midterms. Recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (age 28), a Democratic-Socialist, won an upset victory in the Democratic primary for the 14th Congressional District in New York. Her voter were young, many voting for the first time. Rashida Tlaib (age 42) won Michigan’s Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives seat vacated by John Conyers. As the Republicans did not present a candidate in their primary, she will run unopposed in November. Come January, Rashida will become the first Muslim woman in Congress. In my very conservative, home state of Kansas, Sharice Davids (age 38) a young, gay, former MMA fighter, White House Fellow, and daughter of a single mother (who not only raised her daughter but also served in the US Army as a Drill Sergeant!) is standing against the conservative incumbent in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District. Additionally, if Sharice wins the upcoming November election, she will be the first Native American woman in Congress. Youthful voters must and do use their voices because they know they can make a difference. By voting, young people shape the America they want to see. They are making America look and sound just as diverse as the young, hopeful faces they see in the mirror.
Everyday, more and more young people realize the power of their voice. They are not different from famous figures celebrated in the history books. They can be young people refusing to accept things ‘just the way they are.’ They ask questions, demand answers, and pave the way for a bright new future. Historically, this is nothing new. It’s the same reaction to the same questions. Some quietly accept while others stand against the status quo. Joan of Arc had it when she was one of the first to scale the walls at the Siege of Orleans. Henry V had it when he stood in front of his tired, downtrodden, and outnumber band of brothers at Agincourt. Nellie Bly had it when she self-admitted to one of the worst mental asylums in America to expose the reality of the conditions. Emma Gonzales had it when she stood silent for 17 minutes in front of a crowd in Washington DC to honor her friends who lost their lives to senseless violence and political negligence. Lauren Duca continues to write politically astute articles for Teen Vogue. She proves teenage girls are not only intelligent but have insightful and important things to say. The Parkland students could have faded into yet another American tragedy, but they said no. To an entire nation, they said ‘never again.’
In my new home, in Scotland, the same spark lives. Here, 2018 has been celebrated as the Year of Young People. It has witnessed university students using their platforms to organize marches, meetings, and charity drives. On other fronts, young women refuse to have their careers halted by glass ceilings and young men are making conscious efforts to identify and combat sexism. These stands have often meant confronting their own friends. Young people volunteer time to work political campaigns, work in shelters, or simply provide an ear to listen to those previously ignored.
The power and potential of being a young person transcends geographic boundaries. We don’t see walls as barriers. Instead, walls are there to be climbed. Better yet, young people petition and protest, so walls are never built. Young people go forward with open minds. Just because something works does not mean it cannot be made better. Just because something has been that way for a long time, does not mean that it is not time for change. Young people are reaching out to each other to work and stand together. The Damn Rebel Bitches of the past did it and this self-proclaimed Damn Rebel Bitch is just getting started.
The young people of the past teach us to not sit silent – especially not today. As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ Sitting silent is only acquiescing to injustice. It is naïve to think you are too young to make a change in this world. You grossly underestimate yourself if you believe you cannot make a difference. As the students of Parkland have demonstrated, if you do not act then who will? The heroes of the past were not superhuman, they were ordinary young people who faced challenges, saw their opportunity to make their world better, and grabbed it.
My voice may shake. It’s terrifying standing up, but if I stay silent, if I sit down – nothing will change. I’ll grow old wondering if I could have done something more, spoken out louder, or extended a hand just a little further to those in need. Maybe, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll be remembered in a museum or get a paragraph in a textbook. Regardless, if you stand, if you take action, you will know you confronted injustice. In decades to come you will look in the mirror and confidently know you did everything you could to better the lives of those around you and the world.
There’s plenty happening. What are you waiting for?
Never Again Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/NeverAgainMSD/
Lauren Duca’s work for Teen Voguehttps://www.teenvogue.com/contributor/laurenduca?page=1
You can donate to the ACLU here https://www.aclu.org/