By Jennifer Sunami
Whitney Houston had it right—I believe the children are our future. I’ve been watching the climate change walkouts, the gun control rallies, the embrace of intersectionality and inclusion that seems to come so naturally to the young with a sense of awe and admiration. Article after article extols the incredible energy of youth activists, and how they are harnessing that energy to fight for real change. They’re working hard to secure our future, to find solutions to our intractable problems, and create a greener, safer, more diverse world. But within all that excitement and hope there’s a nagging question. Why are the kids having to work so hard anyway? Sorry, Whitney—the children may be our future, but unfortunately we’re the present.
Youth activism isn’t new. The passion of young people has provided the fuel for countless social and political movements throughout history. As with Black Lives Matter today, children, teens, and young adults played a critical role in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, from the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 to the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, and more. Likewise, before the climate change walkouts of today, children of the 1990s pushed cities to recycle and lobbied for EPA cleanups.
Unfortunately, adult obstructionism isn’t new either. Youth leaders and activist movements have often been dismissed as naïve and impatient, and had their demands ignored by those in power. And the truth is, no matter how passionate youth activists are, they need strong adult allies to effect lasting political reform. If we expect real change to come, we must take a hard look at what we are willing to do as adults to bring about that change. We have to grapple with why our students feel they have no choice but to leave school to march in the streets. Why do they have to put their bodies on the line just to get us to look at the issues that matter most in their lives?
We put a lot of labor into our families, which makes it even more overwhelming to think that we have to put enormous energy into fixing the problems of the rest of the world. But sometimes it’s worth stepping back and remembering that preparing for our kids’ future also means taking the time and effort to act now. Some of this is just a matter of showing up, being available when our young people ask for support. We should all be calling our representatives, joining the marches and protests, and of course, voting.
It’s also about making tougher decisions, which may mean giving up some portion of privilege or advantage for our families. Maybe this means choosing a low scoring school in order to combat segregation, or volunteering and donating to less well-funded school’s PTA. Maybe this means supporting activities and extras for your family that are explicitly designed to reduce inequality rather than just looking for what is most entertaining or convenient. Engaging in activism may be positive work for kids, but it still is work, and our ultimate goal should be building a world in which all of our kids can play.
It can feel tempting to throw up our hands in despair in the face of the myriad challenges we face. But looking to our kids to solve the looming crises of the future lets us off the hook too much here in the present. Which is just to say: Don’t let the fact that the next generation is striving to make a better tomorrow distract us from the work we have to do today.