A Young Woman Making Trouble
Nell Geiser is high school student in Boulder, Colorado who is working on a book about teen activism in the US with Temple University Press. The working title is "Making Trouble: Youth Activists Take the Country by Storm." WireTap caught up with Nell recently over e-mail to ask her about her vison, her drive, and those times when she just doesn't want to talk to her parents about how the book is going.
WireTap: What do you forsee your biggest challenges to be in writing a book about youth activism?
Nell Geiser: In working on "Making Trouble,' a big part of my work has been simply figuring out the logistics of putting together a book the publisher will want. But beyond being a high school kid trying to make this project happen, the biggest challenge I face is truly conveying the breadth of activism today and the committment of young people involved in the movement. I want youth activists, who are doing everything from fighting criminalization of young people in California to founding anti-sweatshop groups in New York, to feel ownership of this book--for it to speak to them and for them.
WT: What kind of help/support have you received in creating the book so far?
NG: A number of projects like this book are in the works and it is clear why. The youth movement is growing and getting kids fired up in the streets at mass mobilizations and in their classrooms, where students have begun demanding control over their education by boycotting high-stakes standarized tests. I have found support from everyone in the activist community I've talked to, from the youth I interview to the adults they work with to veteran activists across the country. Often they're surprised and excited that a high school student is working on such a project and are glad to help bring new voices into the mix.
My mom is a committed activist and both of my parents are very supportive and helpful, though sometimes I'm just not in the mood to talk about the book when they ask me how an interview went or if I've found someone to write the preface. The editor I'm working with at Temple University Press is psyched to see a book like this taking shape and having a venue to reach a broad audience.
WT: Have you, yourself, had any memorable experiences as an activist you'd like to share with WireTap readers?
NG: On April 15th in DC, the day before the big actions, I participated in a march of about 1,000 people against the prison industrial complex. In a move that clearly illustrated the police-state mentality at mass protests, the cops corralled us into a one block area as we were trying to disperse and arrested 600 people, including around twenty minors, taking part in a legal, peaceful demonstration. I spent a number of hours in a jail cell with seven other girls and we were released around midnight with all charges dropped. The adults werent so lucky, and many of them remained hand-cuffed, sitting on school buses for up to fifteen hours without food or water. My experience being arrested convinced me both that our efforts are having some effect and that sustained organizing among young people is vital to keep this movement going.
WT: Why do you think youth are participating more readily in mass protest?
NG: I believe that a number of things have converged in the past several years to bring more youth into activist groups and onto the streets. A lot of it stems from the increasingly blatant corporatization of our communities, our education, and our lives. Activism that addresses the root problem of corporate power, which underlies both global economic injustice and the underfunding of public schools, has revitalized the movement among all age groups.
However, young people are in a unique situation to see the hypocrisy of adults who label us "the future" and criminalize us if we are poor youths and youths of color. As a generation, we are disenchanted and apathetic, sending 16% of people under 25 to the polls this November. From this vantage point, we're in a position to demand fundamental changes in the system so that youth want to buy into their own governance (not to use a capitalist phrase or anything).
So, all of this makes mass protests look appealing, and really necessary, to young people who see the fundamental connections between various struggles and are building the global solidarity movement.
WT: Do you think there are any gaps in the education system and/or the media that may leave youth confused about what they are really protesting?
NG: We are certainly severely limited by the euro-centric, nationalistic education system and the homogenous corporate media. The single most important thing that youth activist organizations are doing is educating other young people in schools, at community centers, and on the street. And sure, I talk to kids who want to just fuck shit up or, more often, don't know the ins and outs of the global economy or how multi-lateral financial instituations work, but know that sweatshops are unjust. Teenagers can be articulate and effective in organizing when we set high expectations for ourselves and have solid resources in older activists and organizations.
WT: Do you have any ideas about how to get youth from non-urban areas involved?
The internet, of course, is a partial answer and a very limited solution to a problem that needs a really multi-faceted approach and careful thought. Bringing kids from rural and urban areas together in conferences, actions, trainings, things like that, is one way to draw non-urban youth into the thick of things and get their input. Concentrating on penetrating the mainstream media is also a way to get through to a broader population, including youth who probably don't see underground zines or have protests in their towns. Many creative activist initiatives have come from rural areas, so we can also learn from what has worked before in bringing people together.
Another non-urban population that needs some shaking up is the great swaths of suburbia that ring our cities--the quintessential American landscape of homogenous development and two car garages is frightened when radical youths raise a ruckus. We've got to challenge the super-consumptive icon of American life if we hope to shift the way we live and the way our country deals with the rest of the world.
WT: How do you think we should go about connecting youth who are active within the "system" (ie, on decision-making bodies, on mayor's youth councils, etc.) with those who are participating in activism outside "the system?" Do you think this is important?
NG: This is definitely a vital piece of building a powerful youth voice and movement. When working on a campaign, you generally learn in strategy 101 to build as broad a coalition as possible and to work with people you wouldn't normally agree with to meet your goals. I'm on my city's Youth Opportunities Advisory Board, which allocates money to youth projects and services and promotes youth voice in the community. Sure, it doesn't sound activist in the traditional sense, but it is with well-intentioned and influential groups like these that we must ally to educate more youth and build an agenda of social change within every sphere of the youth community.
How to do it? Well, I guess the secret of organizing is really identifying common concerns and goals that require us to work together. When the student council, which generally organizes school dances and pep rallies, sees that the majority of the student population is outraged by a new standardized test, they will be open to an alliance with the school's radical group or activist members of the student body in order to fight the test.
If youd like to learn more about the book or share your experiences as a youth activist or adult mentor, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org, (303) 443-3391