Youth Organizing in a Time of War: Voices From the 3rd Annual Listen Inc. Meeting


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This November, for the third year in a row, Listen, Inc. invited youth organizers from around the country to Washington, D.C. for a national meeting. Over 200 people, all dedicated to "building leadership" and "organizing community" came together for the event, representing mostly urban parts of the country. There were youth and youth-workers there representing New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Oakland, and various other parts of the country.

Listen Inc. is dedicated to helping urban youth of color initiate positive change in their communities. While there were a variety of issues at hand, one full day of the meeting was dedicated to addressing September 11, the War on Terrorism and the effects that both will have on youth organizing.People met in small groups to share their experiences and to talk about the future. Over the first few hours, there seemed to be a rising consensus about the need for youth in urban areas, particularly youth of color to lead the way in creating a constructive and positive set of outcomes out of the rubble of these large national disasters.

Participants from New York like Eric Tang, of CAAV/Organizing Asian Communities and the Third World Within Coalition spoke on a panel that afternoon. Working with youth from predominantly immigrant families in the Bronx, he talked about the fact that many of his participants are from parts of South East Asia, and have families that have been directly effected by war. boom box

"People of color communities in America have never benefited from American militarism," said Tang. Fleeing from war-torn countries to America, supposedly the land of promise, but really a place where immigrants are give very few rights, he said, makes the families of the youth he works with feel especially alienated from the national dialogue on terrorism.

Tang also pointed to what he called the "white-washing" by the corporate media. He talked about the absence of coverage of stories about the war-resistance efforts in New York led by people of color, such as a group of Mexican-American war resisters who lead a well-attended march immediately after the attacks of September 11th.

"How can we fight for something we never had?" asked panel member Rachel Jackson. Jackson is a field organizer for Books not Bars, the campaign to stop the construction of a "Superjail" in Alameda County, CA. She explained that, in her experience, young people of color have had very little stake in the political process and therefor often feel little or no connection to the new brand of patriotism.

Michael Everett of Project RAVE said he has noticed that youth in inner city Philadelphia feel disconnected, at best.

"I think that on a larger scale: America is divided. There are two different Americas. We all got to share the WTC event." But since then, he said, we've been divided about what it really means. And Everett added, poor youth have a lot more on their minds—struggles that often eclipse most national news items. "When I talk to the youth I work with, they’re like "I’m still dealing with what I have to deal with." An HIV-educator, Everett sees a similarity between this disconnect and the one many young people have about safe sex. At one point he drew a line between what it’s like to get a young person to use a condom and to care about the big picture of the effects of the War on Terrorism. Both tend to seem too big, too abstract.

"I believe that culturally, people of color aren’t taught to talk about a lot of things," he continued. "So something that’s national, they just don’t always think about it, or relate it to themselves."

Everett even went on to add that he thinks many poor people of color feel like they are "secondary Americans."
" I think on a smaller scale, within each of our respective work, [the War on Terrorism] shouldn’t change things that much…
Its important to keep in mind the events that have happened, but also to know that ignorance and poverty didn’t stop on September 11. Our kids are still failing tests, our kids are still getting left back. People are still selling drugs on street corners, they’re still shooting….All the stuff that we were fighting for before that time hasn’t really changed."

"I know that I live in this country and on paper I have certain rights, but it gets to a point where that shit doesn’t matter. It’s the same with national politics …that’s why people have a lot of problems with voting. It’s not just that it’s not worth it, but you don’t feel like an American."

The meeting participants also spent time discussing the barriers to doing youth organizing in the months and years to come. Many voiced concern about shifts in available funding from foundations and others who have been in a position to support the organizations supporting youth activism.

Quajay Donnell from LEAP, a project out of New Haven Connecticut, said he is concerned about changes in Federal funding.

"I’m concerned about a sway in funding—and it going towards the war instead of supporting the work that we’re doing," he said. "But I think on a smaller scale, within each of our respective work, [the War on Terrorism] shouldn’t change things that much…
Its important to keep in mind the events that have happened, but also to know that ignorance and poverty didn’t stop on September 11. Our kids are still failing tests, our kids are still getting left back. People are still selling drugs on street corners, they’re still shooting….All the stuff that we were fighting for before that time hasn’t really changed."

Sireesha Manne of Youth Action in Albuquerque, NM said she worries that some will see youth organizing as less relevant than it was before September11.

"I think there will be a lot more barriers," Manne said, on Sunday, as the conference was coming to a close. With the national shift away from an emphasis on domestic policy, she says, she is concerned about the impacts on education

She says she is also worried about what she believes to be and "increased amount of racism that’s going on within society."

"The youth we work with, the low-income youth or youth of color and queer youth-and I think these are the people who are going to be the hardest hit by these changes."





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