Archive for March, 2018

The Power of Youth and the Wisdom of Age

Photo credit: Phil Roeder via flickr

Last Saturday, I participated in the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.  Later the same day, I attended a friend’s memorial service. The juxtaposition of the two awoke me.  The vast numbers of youth at the march had inspired me.  Their articulate voices, their energy, their enthusiasm, their vision, all had sparked my energy and vision. At the memorial service, I looked around the room and thought, “We were all youthful idealists once. We were like the young people on the stage this morning (though maybe not as articulate).  Where are we now?”  As we celebrated the life of my friend, a young idealist who had grown into a mature leader, I reflected on the pitfalls she had avoided (and a few she had fallen into).  How did she avoid cynicism?  How did she continue to love?  How did she keep her vision alive?

On the stage that morning, I witnessed young leaders bringing their hearts and their souls to a cause they believed in.  They wanted to be able to come to school and learn in safety.  Tired of mass killings, they called on Americans to stand up to the NRA. So articulate that opponents concluded they must be hired actors, they spoke with passion.  For example, 11-year old Naomi Wadler spoke out for African American victims. Parkland High School student Emma Gonzalez spoke eloquently and then held six minutes and twenty seconds of silence before a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

These voices, fresh and new, are making a difference.  Adults are in awe.  Yet, at the same time, this is nothing new.  Youth have perennially been in the forefront of social change. Many of the prominent human rights activists we now thank for leading us to a more just world got their start at an early age.  The famous suffragette and social reformer, Susan B. Anthony, began petitioning slavery at the age of 17. Ella Baker challenged the “paternalistic racism” of her university’s president. Ida B. Wells was only twenty-two when she bravely refused to give up her first-class seat on a train to Nashville.

America’s progress has been shaped also by young activists whose names never made the history books. The Civil Rights movement was moved forward by children, teens, and young adults facing violence and the threat of imprisonment to stand up for their beliefs. Protests against the Vietnam War were led by young activists who greatly influenced the public’s view of the war. In 1903, children took part in a three-week march from Philadelphia to New York to bring light to the need for child labor laws which could protect them from horrible working conditions in the mills.

As Margaret Mead observed, “the young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. . . The children, the young, just ask the questions that we would never think to ask.”

Teens and young adults are making a difference in ways that older adults often miss.  For example, these young adults are having an impact in many different sectors, all over the world.

These young voices must be supported.  How can those of us who are older and hopefully wiser help these young people become the next Martin Luther Kings, the next Dorothy Days, the next Nelson Mandelas?  We must use our influence to open pathways for them, to help them persevere.  At the same time, we must not interfere with their message.  Overly cautious, tainted by cynicism, we could easily pull them down.

The power of youth can be joined by the wisdom of age.  If we do it well, the mature leadership of people like my friend whose life we celebrated last Saturday and her friends gathered around her can propel forward the inspired youthful leadership arising today.