New Challenge: Conversate With Youth

"What's the worst thing to be called in school?" I recently asked a group of teenagers. The answers came thick and fast. "Ho," "bitch," "slut," "nigger," "fat."No surprises -- until one young man said something that made everyone suck in their breath. "The worst thing is when you've been in school for two months and the teacher still doesn't know your name." Most young people I meet today have never had a conversation with a teacher outside the classroom. Yet, as members of a generation raised in empty households, they are so hungry for conversation they have turned it into a verb: they want to "conversate."For people involved with making policy, for media professionals, for anyone looking for ways to implement President Clinton's call for a national conversation on race, what better place to begin than conversating with young people? Not only are they at greatest remove from civic discourse, they are also the most racially and ethnically diverse segment of the population.Another time, teenagers gathered in our office were asked "What's the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?" Several young people from the inner city described drive-by shootings. Then they listened to a fast-track student from the suburbs talk about studying the Holocaust, having nightmares, dreaming her parents' home had become a concentration camp."Why?""Because," she confided, "my parents are Germans, and their parents, my grandparents, were Nazis."The inner city kids left the office with a different view of kids in the suburbs and vice versa. At that moment, that exchange in our office seemed more important than any news story we had put out over the wire. At a time when many in the news media have grown cynical about their roles, creating safe venues for conversation can be exhilarating, a way to reconnect to private life. Imagine a news room where you work alongside the people you write about, where diversity is not a color scheme but is impelled by curiosity."What keeps you up at night, what are you afraid of in the dark?" The answers bring you so close to the core of America's calamities you can barely breathe."Cars," several high students said."Why cars?""I hear tires scream in my 'hood and I duck -- it could be a drive-by." "There's gridlock on the freeway so mom won't be home from work for hours and I'm alone in the dark.""Get behind the driver's wheel if you're young and black or brown, and you're a sure target for the cops. Driving While Black (DWB) is more dangerous than Driving While Intoxicated." There is no companionship without conversation. A young woman in juvenile hall says she is too depressed to write. "Why?""I dunno.""Think about it," I press."You just don't know what it's like to live in a locked room," she blurts out."Tell me about it. Please.""You hear the door slam, the room is dark, you sit on the bed and watch an ant climbing up the wall until it disappears behind a crack, leaving you alone again," she says.I write down her words and read them back. The girl discovers she has a voice, that her experiences matter to someone in the larger civic life. I discover how to use communications to create a sense of civic identity. Our great good fortune is that this generation of alones is hungry to conversate. Can we accommodate their hunger? Can we afford not to? If we do not, the great danger is that we might well wind up communicating only with ourselves.Close is the founder of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about young people published by Pacific News Service.

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