Young Activists Speak Out at WireTap Youth Panel

The Independent Media Institute brought together youth activists and organizers to celebrate the launch of WireTap magazine, an independent information source by and for socially conscious youth, Friday, June 30. The topic under discussion was youth rights -- in other words, youths' access to such fundamental rights as the right to speak without being censored, to get an education and to live free of discrimination and violence.

What is the status of youth rights in the United States today? participants asked themselves. Are young people, particularly young people of color, being criminalized? Do they receive fair treatment by the media? What forces do they struggle against?

As you will see from the discussion below, questions of youth rights reflect larger social justice issues, but with a twist -- since youth are often more at risk and less protected than adults. Yet what youth can do, these activists make clear, is organize and speak out to make such urgent topics as drugs, violence, poverty and race relations more visible on the public agenda. As one participant put it: "We have to find ways of empowerment and ways in which we can communicate our basic, fundamental needs."

Robin Templeton is the communications director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco. She also works for The Beat Within, a writing program for youth in Bay Area juvenile detention facilities, and serves on board of Youth Speaks, an international youth spoken word organization. Templeton served as the moderator of the WireTap youth rights panel discussion.

Robin Templeton: It's important to talk about rights whenever rights are being violated, and to claim, demand and defend the rights of people fighting back. When it comes to young people and their rights, we know that young people are the most impoverished demographic living in society -- and the most criminalized. This is why we talk about the war on youth. We also know that whenever we look at young people we can see the rest of society, and that when young people get organized the rest of the world tends to follow.

These are a lot of generalizations. And there are a lot of contradictions pitted against these generalizations. For instance, Americans tend to think that young people are more violent than other age groups. Which young people? Young people of color. Actually that's not true and a lot of us know this to be untrue. There is a list of facts that a statistician named Mike Males compiled, and it addresses the misconceptions about young people today. Males shows, contrary to popular belief, that young people have the lowest rates of HIV contraction, that young people's rates of violent arrest are at the same level now as they were in 1966 (LINK TO MALES PAGE).

Yet what do we hear about young people? That they are violent. And that's why we got Proposition 21 [a measure passed in California last March which eased restrictions on jailing juvenile offenders with adults]. Proposition 21 passed overwhelmingly because the public believes there is a problem with gang and youth violence. But that's not true. What the media doesn't talk too much about is that Proposition 21 passed by a margin of voters that was 15 percent lower than was the passage of Three Strikes [another California proposition that puts criminals in jail for a minimum of 25 years upon their third offense]. The mainstream press also didn't make much out of where Proposition 21 did not pass. Namely: it didn't pass in counties where young people were organized.

It is very extreme to say that there is a war on youth. The youth mobilization against Proposition 21 coined this phrase and used it a great deal. Pecolia, Charles, since you were involved in this mobilization effort, I want to start the discussion with you:

How did the fight against Proposition 21 change how you see the world? And if there is a war on youth, where do you think it came from and what are young people doing about it?

Pecolia Manigo, a high school student, is summer program coordinator for Third Eye Movement, a Bay Area youth empowerment organization.

Pecolia Manigo: As far as Proposition 21 goes, there are a couple things that I've seen come out of it. One is the youth organizing that people think just sprung out of nowhere. But organizing by youth has been going on for a long time. It kind of died down a little bit, but it has been coming back since we've been attacked by all these propositions -- 187, 21, 209.

Proposition 21 has raised the political consciousness of youth, but not to the level where they're ready to take the step and say, "You know, I'm willing to get down and organize for the rest of my life." Some youth have done that, but not most of them. I think the reason this hasn't happened more is because no one is continuously out there at the schools and in the neighborhoods, saying, "You know what? There's social change out there that needs to happen and you guys are going to be the leaders. Y'all got to fight for your future." I think that's one thing that everybody has got to see change. We've got to be continuously outreaching to youth. It started to happen with the Prop. 21 battle, but it dropped just as soon as Proposition 21 passed.

We've been very reactive to things so far; we've not been proactive. I didn't get involved in the movement until someone kept calling my house and saying, "Girl, if you don't get to this action... And Girl, if you don't do this... And Girl, if you don't do that..." I had no choice. I think that's what we generally need to make the movement strong, so you'll see youth outside City Hall every day saying, "Y'all got to make San Francisco a prop-free zone." We need to see youth continuously organizing. We need to make youth understand that if that don't organize, they don't have a future.

Charles Jones is an urban issues journalist for the Pacific News Service and a senior contributor to PNS's Youth Outlooks magazine. He also facilitates workshops for young writers.

Charles Jones: Prop. 21 was a defining issue for my generation in the sense that with it, we will lose our generation. I have ten brothers and sisters and if they were to make mistakes under the Prop. 21 law, some of those mistakes could get them locked away as adults for longer periods of time than they would now in the juvenile system. I'd lose them for years. I wouldn't get to see them grow up. They'd grow up in the penitentiary, in an atmosphere not just too adult for them, but too sick and dangerous.

In Oakland there's a middle school called Frick where I went to summer school. Right across the street from Frick is a graveyard. That graveyard is a kind of metaphor for me. A friend of mine is buried there, a dude named Kevin Reid, who got killed at age 12-and-half, 13. Kevin didn't really live that wild a life, but his older brothers did and he sort of took the repercussions for some of his older brothers' actions. What happened to Kevin is an example to me; it shows me what paths you can take. Now, though, with Prop. 21, things have changed. People can easily lock you away. I dropped out of school during my teenage years but I never went to juvenile hall. It's no longer the path you take; it's the path you pull through.

I think about economics. People talk a lot about the Digital Divide. They say, "We need more people in impoverished areas, more people in the projects, more black people, more Latino people, more low-income people to have computers in their households and access to the Internet." Okay, well, you've got to pay for that access. A lot of folks I know can't afford a phone. They've got rent due. And if you don't have enough money for rent but you've got this nice computer in your house, the computer can go. The Digital Divide is just an extension of financial divisions. It's a branch off the financial tree that people are not picking the leaves off of, my people specifically. They call this the "age of information" or the "age of access." But the question is: What information do we have access to? And who has access to information and who can benefit from that information? That's what people need to focus on.

Robin Templeton: I want to talk about economics since you brought it up, Charles. This generation is growing up in a situation where wealth is more concentrated than ever before, which has everything to do with corporate power. Many people seem to have a great deal of concern about globalization and corporate power. One percent of the population has 90 percent of the wealth. Which leads me to my next question:

Do you think your generation is more anti-corporate than generations that have preceded it? What is your concern about commercialism and corporate control over culture?

Oci Henderson is an undergraduate at University of California, Santa Cruz, and a summer web content editor for

Oci Henderson: I think a lot of people in my generation are anti-Men, but still pro-Men at the same time.

You know I rock Polo Sports sometimes. I like the way it looks. But people tell me I have no idea what the revolution is because my jeans aren't as dirty as theirs are. I'm not out every day passing out flyers. Yet a lot of the people who are, are from the Berkeley Hills. I get the feeling they're involved because they feel guilty about not going through poverty.

I think it's very popular right now to be against the system, but a lot of people are still working within it at the same time. I was at a demonstration in downtown San Francisco one time for Mumia and I was marching, but I was very peaceful about it. Meanwhile, a lot of people were hitting up against police cars and acting completely unruly. It's okay to have outlets like that sometimes; everybody needs a valve. However, they were demonstrating to prove the innocence of a man and acting completely unruly. And when 20/20 got a hold of it, as they did, it was horrible. They made the demonstrators look like zombies and monsters, thanks to a lot of clever editing. It shows you've got to be careful with the way you protest the system.

Lodrina Cherne is a technical intern at WireTap. She also works for Open Voice, a nonprofit organization in East Palo Alto that empowers youth through technology, and for KQED TV on its youth programs.

Lodrina Cherne: I know a lot of people who are very progressive, very pro-earth, and I know other people who feel very pressured to pretend to feel the same way. There's this absolute -- you either can be in the circle of activists or you can't. There's no a middle ground. And the issue of commercialism is often the reason for this.

On WireTap we published an article by the magazine Adbusters, which addressed commercialism in schools and how valuable it is for corporations to have the undivided attention of youth, sitting in the classroom, looking at logos, watching television that is supposedly educational, but is corporate-sponsored ( Some people want to pay attention to this; some people don't, or don't have the time to. And, unfortunately, what has happened is that a divide has developed between those who feel they can support activism against commercialism and for fair media, and those who are afraid to be in the fight or don't understand it. So there's just a divide. It's pretty evident once you start looking for it, and it is a problem as far as continuing the conversation about the impact of commercialism on youth.

Fidel Rodriguez is an organizer for Better Communities for a Better Environment in Los Angeles and is host and producer of Seditious Beats, a critical thinking hip-hop radio and television show.

Fidel Rodriguez: I think the media -- regardless if it's the Beat, KMEL, ABC, CNN -- is a hypnotizing device. The best metaphor I use when I speak to youth about the media and commercialism is the movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the choice is between the blue pill or the red pill. The blue pill leads to a materialistic, non-spiritual-type of life. The red pill leads to the opposite; it leads you to something real, truthful; it involves going back to your indigenous practices whether they be European, African, Latin American, etc.

When I worked at the radio station The Beat -- which is part of a media conglomerate that grosses $35 million a year and is owned by a white man named Thomas Hick who is a buyout specialist on Wall Street -- I learned the importance of critical thinking. I began to study the situation and I said to myself, "Wow. The general manager is white, the program director is white, the promotions director is white, and everybody else under them -- making five, six dollars an hour -- are people of color, mostly people from the inner cities who listen to hip-hop."

I became a critical thinker. I began to pay attention to the media industry and made myself analyze the types of commercials the networks are pumping. They're pumping out commercials for corporations that do a lot of bad stuff, that invest in the prison-industrial complex. I began to see that the United States is motivated by and based on Machiavellian principles in the sense that Machiavelli believed you rule best through fear, not love. We know that crime is down, we know that violent crime is down, but what are the images being put out through the media? When you become a critical thinker, you can begin to see through all this.

[To Oci] You brought up Polo. You're 20. I'm 31. Later on down the line, you might say, "Damn, Polo's made in Laos. They're using 14-year-old girls brought over from the Philippines to Laos to be prostitutes, and when they don't prostitute themselves they put them to work in sweatshops -- and that's how Ralph Lauren and Polo make their things."

There are contradictions in all of this. I've got Adidas on. But I'm a critical thinker. The more knowledge that you gain the more we you see you're either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Working at The Beat, I realized my coworkers are just human beings. They've been taught to be racist because of an educational system that is racist and a society that is racist.

As for violence, this country has always been violent. Huge numbers of Native Americans and Africans died for this country to be built. I'm from the Chumash Nation. The Chumash were wiped out by the Spanish; my ancestors' bones lie in the Santa Barbara Mission. My upbringing was violent. My dad was a cocaine dealer. I never knew how to deal with my anger growing up, which is why I've been on probation since I was 7 years old. I'm 31. I'm still on probation. But I'm dealing with these things. I used to be violent, sell cocaine. Yet as I became a critical thinker, I changed, became critical of myself and began to learn about my history.

Isaias Rodriguez is the founder of Rodriguez Brothers Productions, an independent media group based in Los Angeles that produces of Poetry Television and

Isaias Rodriguez: I want to comment on what you said, Fidel, about critical thinking. I think you described very accurately the process people have to go through to hand out flyers, to produce youth radio, to start writing, to become an editor. When I was hosting a TV show called Chicano Thoughts and talking about Chiapas, I said to my audience: "You know what, I don't want you to come down and protest. I don't want you to say, 'Burn the flag,' I want you to start thinking about what's happening in Mexico."

I think Rage Against the Machine said it best: "What does the billboard say? It says: "Come and play, come and play. Forget about the movement." I think youth feel under siege by the forces around them and, at the same time, we're all conditioned to be wealthy. We're all conditioned to go up that ladder. We're all conditioned to step on our fellow brothers and sisters. This world is all about personal growth and gain -- nothing is communal. Yet activism of all sorts has got to happen. There's room for you to wear your Polo and do what you've got to do. There's room for all kinds of people. I think a lot of people have to recognize there can be unity in difference.

Ben Porter Lewis, a Beat spoken word poet and activist, is co-founder of Onyx Spoken Word and Projector Press. He is the creator of the Los Angeles Teen Poetry Slam and is involved in youth poetry workshops in schools, juvenile detention halls and community centers in and around Los Angeles.

Ben Porter Lewis: As a spoken word poet, I ask myself: Are we awake to the inherent needs of each other? What ways and means do we actually have of understanding each other? We have to find ways of empowerment and ways in which we can communicate our basic, fundamental needs, especially to youth. This is a very important task. We have to continue growing, so we can become more analytical and critical. We have to learn to be compassionate, forgiving, so we don't allow things the past to dictate and control the future. Because if we don't know where we begin and we don't figure out ways to get past that, we're not going anywhere. So we need to come up with very constructive paths and develop ideas that will not harm and limit us.

Suemyra Shah works in production and management for Spearhead, a soul/funk/hip hop music group out of San Francisco. She is also one of the two youth members on the board of directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Suemyra Shah: I think one really important thing Robin mentioned at the beginning of the discussion is that youth -- not just in the United States, but all over -- are poor. This is especially true for youth of color.

In the Bay Area we're sort of in a bubble, because here there's a big push to get out and organize and raise awareness. But I think one thing organizers take for granted when they're trying to organize youth here is that there's a ton of youth that can't focus on organizing because they're trying to get something to eat. They don't know where their next meal is coming from. I hear a lot of folks talking about hitting the block and getting people in the inner city involved, when in reality the inner city people are outside hustling to feed their families, to try to pay rent.

How we organize ourselves has to be looked at critically. For so many people, the most important issue is survival. The Black Panthers knew that. Their programs, like free breakfasts and the clothes drives, helped people in a real fashion, so they could then think about doing things to uplift themselves. A lot of organizing has been taken from "Is our folks gonna be able to eat?" to "Go to this hip-hop thing. It's gonna be $5 and we're gonna talk about the prison-industrial complex."

As youth, I think the first thing we have to look out for is each other. We have to ask each other: Are you going to be able to get enrolled in school? Are you going to be able to get enough to eat? And then we can look at other issues and ask: Why are we and all our folks so strapped for cash? Why do people know folks or are related to folks that are in prison? Who is putting out whatever information we have? What can we do to raise consciousness, raise awareness and organize people, in a way that provides real solutions?

Robin Templeton: I am very impressed and inspired by young people who are taking up issues about being on the economic margins. There's a group of young people here in San Francisco who are doing just that. They're called Transaction and they're out to protect a sector of transgender people in the Bay Area who are routinely brutalized and terrorized by police. Sierra, would you tell us about this?

Sierra Spingarn is the transgender youth program coordinator at LYRIC, the Lavender Youth and Recreation Center, and a board member of the Youth Gender Project, both of which serve the Bay Area.

Sierra Spingarn: It's very true that there is some organizing going on within the transgender youth community in San Francisco around the fact that a lot of violence is going on against transgender people. Something that Robin and I were talking about yesterday on the phone is that the predominant amount of violence that takes place is against older transgender people. Trans people tend to come out about their true gender later in life because our society is oppressive from so many angles about what it means to be a male or female. How you have to act, and how you have to look, and how you have to interact with other people, is clearly defined.

But it takes money to pass as a gender other than the one you were born with. Not everybody can afford to go out and buy hormones all the time or have surgery, so that they can alter what their body looks like. And if people cannot afford to augment themselves enough to fit into the society norms of a gendered person, they're going to go out there and people are going to look at them funny. They're not going to be able to get a job and they're not going to be able to get a home. They're going to get hassled when they go to buy food even if they have the money to buy it with.

There's a stereotype that a lot of sex workers are transgender females. And that stereotype is often true, especially in San Francisco because transgender people are placed in an economic state where they are not able to access to general services. So this often means that a lot of the violence against transgender people is against an older set of people, whether they're sex workers or not. A lot of violence that takes place against them comes from government authorities, such as the police, which is a lot of what Transaction organizes against.

What's interesting about Transaction is that it is run mostly by young people who are looking at transgender issues differently than the older generation. Rather than just wanting to be accepted in society like everyone else, this younger generation is looking at things in a more fluid and open way about gender norms. They are saying to their elders: "Although you may be just trying to be the gender you want to be, you are being oppressed even while you're doing that. So we're going to fight for you against the people who are oppressing you."

Robin Templeton: I think that gender is a pretty intransigent thing and it requires a lot of work to get people to think about gender differently. It's a kind of border. But it's one of the borders that this generation is grappling with and questioning and changing. I want to make a segue way to Jose to bring in the issue of geographical borders. Down south a lot of people with immigrant parents or who are immigrants themselves are struggling with the Immigration and Naturalizatison Service and the relationship between the INS and the prison system. Jose, How do you think borders and immigration have defined your generation?

Jose Palafox is a graduate student in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a freelance journalist. He is also involved in National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland.

Jose Palafox: I was born in Tijuana and grew up in San Diego. When I was a kid in Tijuana, my mom would go to San Diego where she was cleaning houses and come back at night, crossing the border twice a day. Years later, when I was studying South Africa and apartheid, where people went to the cities to work and came back to their townships at night, it reminded me of our situation.

Borders and boundaries are important, not just materially but also symbolically. Every year the United Nations puts out a report on the status of the world. It shows that the 356 people who are billionaires control 80 percent of the world's resources. From there, we start to see the importance of borders and boundaries. We start to understand a lot more about a zero-sum society, where if some get a benefit others have to lose. We start to realize the importance of militarized borders to reinforce these asymmetrical relations between rich and poor people, between rich and poor countries. It's a border that is there to divide people.

My band was on tour last summer and we played in Ohio, where I met a young guy who told me about the farm crisis there. What he said was absolutely related to what I was studying about globalization. When you look at farmers in this country their situation is not so different from farmers in Chiapas, who are being displaced by cheap U.S. agribusiness flooding into Mexico. There are borders in place to divide people of color, to divide poor people, to divide those who have and those who do not.

I think borders are also being put up to divide young people in this society. Statistics show that crime is down, yet there's a whole social construction of crime and who is a criminal. Same thing goes with undocumented immigrants. Certainly when we think about borders we don't think about Chase Manhattan Bank or the IMF or the World Bank. For them there's no border.

I don't want to come out of this discussion demoralized. We're tackling a lot of things we have to deal with in our communities and that's crucial. One thing I learned when I was working as freelance journalist is how much strength we have. I was writing about Urban Warrior, a new U.S. military exercise, and interviewed some of the military people. One of things they seemed to understand is that the world is increasingly becoming polarized between the rich and the poor -- and that's why they're doing this new training. So let us not forget that there's much power in all of us and the reason why they're clamping down on us is because they're scared of us. We've got a lot of work to do, but there's also a lot of strength and power when people get organized.


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