My Generation

A young visionary sizes up the emerging youth movement and tells us there's more where that came from

| September/October 2002


Where is the next Martin Luther King Jr.? The next Dalai Lama? Gloria Steinem? Frances Moore Lapp?? Ani DiFranco? All of these people busted into the wider world, full of ideas and action, before their 30th birthdays.

Where are the young visionaries of today?

For people of my generation, that's a loaded question. During the 1980s and 1990s, the media message about young people was how selfish and apathetic we were. College students consistently polled as the most conservative segment of the voting public. We were said to be reacting against our workaholic, divorced parents-rejecting the idealism of the '60s. We were hypnotized by turbocapitalism, anesthetized by video games and shock TV. We created a lot of great art about how alienated, angry, and escapist we were: Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Rage Against the Machine, the entire techno genre. We painted the landscape with graffiti and medicated ourselves with weed, ecstasy, and status symbols bought on credit.

Until recently, we were still typecast as the licking-our-wounds generation. Nineties-style campus activism was lampooned as political correctness and identity politics. (Our biggest social movement, in fact, was community service: hundreds of thousands of us-perhaps millions-did service-learning in high schools, colleges, and AmeriCorps programs.) But now that's changed. The Enronic economy has us anxious. Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan have our stomachs in knots. We're freaked out about genetically modified food, wars for oil, and the spread of cancer. As the Antarctic ice shelf crumbles into the sea, it has started to dawn on us that we're going to get left with the bill.

In the past two years, students organized more protests on college campuses than in any period since the 1960s. Tens of thousands of young people marched against the WTO in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Quebec City, and Genoa. And they're winning major victories-living wages for university workers, bans on sweatshop-manufactured clothes, commitments to recruit and retain students and faculty of color-while they're drawing attention to a range of issues from prison reform to dioxin in tampons. Polls now show that the college class of 2005 is the most progressive in at least 30 years.

The rampant commercialization of everything we once held sacred is also fueling this new wave of youth action. As more and more of the symbolism, language, and images that used to be considered cool, spiritually uplifting, or revolutionary (from punk rock and hip-hop to indigenous cultures and feminism) have been exploited to sell everything from jeans to the 'war on terrorism,' young people are noticing that the only thing that can't be bought, sold, co-opted, or marketed anymore is actual political organizing and dissent.

Class and race privilege is a constant topic for our generation. The gulf between rich and poor has been widening for decades. And, as journalist Farai Chideya has documented in The Color of Our Future, we're about twice as racially diverse as young people a generation ago. Growing up today is a whole different ball game racially and culturally. Stanford and UC Berkeley are majority people of color now. Chicano punk rock is a major subgenre. So is Filipino hip-hop.

One of the most promising traits of many young people today is our awareness of how race, class, gender, and sexuality interlock. All those years of anti-oppression workshops are bearing fruit. Bitter old arguments about who is most oppressed have subsided, and everyone is talking about how to build coalitions: laborers and environmentalists, blacks and Asians, transgendered Jews and straight Muslims. We're learning to create solid alliances and friendships across the great divides-the more unlikely, the better.

Young visionaries bring different styles, strengths, and strategies from those of decades past. We've been bred on hip-hop aesthetics and pop culture irony. Like a good DJ, we tend to incorporate insights and lessons from diverse sources and previous decades: personal healing (because 'people need to deal with their own shit first'); organizational development (because 'the charismatic leader model is dead'); business and management skills (because 'the movement needs to be sustainable').

This new political activism is accompanied by new cultural and spiritual currents as well: From veganism to poetry slams, from raves to gay-straight alliances in high schools, young people are reshaping the boundaries of American life. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic in punk and hip-hop music-and the declining cost of technology-has contributed to the sense that anyone can become a visionary (anyone who can afford a computer, at least, or who doesn't have to work three jobs to get by) by creating a Web site, a zine, a CD, or a movie, or by starting an organization or a company.

Young visionaries, like those of earlier generations, tend to be involved with the arts, media, and activism. Do these fields attract more visionary people? Or is it just easier to recognize a visionary artist than a visionary farmer, engineer, parent, or assembly line worker? I wonder what would happen if glossymagazines featured extraordinary child care providers, sidewalk vendors, and middle managers alongside authors and recording stars. We need more visionaries in all fields, especially the least obvious ones. We have a glut of visionary writers and actors. We need more visionary J.D.'s, R.N.'s, and M.B.A.'s!

The notion of the individual leader is thoroughly discredited among today's young visionaries. I recently talked to young people from two organizations in the Bay Area (Books Not Bars and Youth Force Coalition) who had just succeeded in stopping the expansion of a juvenile jail. When I asked who the mastermind behind this astounding feat was, I got a curious reply: 'all of us' and 'the young people of Alameda County,' followed by a laundry list of people and organizations. Who are the visionaries behind the Seattle WTO protests? Behind the anti-sweatshop movement? Who dreamed up the Taco Bell boycott in support of farm workers? Who started the Independent Media Centers, which now have a global network rivaling CNN?

I'm sure the people profiled in this section will feel uncomfortable as well as proud about being recognized. That's how I felt when Utne Reader honored me as the youngest of its 'visionaries' in the March/April 1996 issue. It changed my life, gave me new confidence-and new pressure. I felt I had a responsibility to live up to this designation although I wasn't sure exactly what it meant, or what I was supposed to do.

Then I met Lisa Sullivan. She was a visionary social entrepreneur and founder of LISTEN, an organization that trains marginalized urban youth (ages 14 to 29) to be community leaders. Lisa listened to my ideas, hired me, and mentored me. She taught me how to recruit talented people and raise funds to build innovative social change organizations, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

Calling all older visionaries: We need your support. If it wasn't for Lisa Sullivan and a lot of other people in my life who helped me, I don't know where I would be right now. Tragically, Lisa passed away last year at age 40; she's not around to mentor us anymore. So please look around you for the younger visionaries in your life. Listen to us. Hang out with us. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two. Be patient with our rough edges. You had rough edges once, too, and if you don't mind our mentioning-you still do! Please don't be defensive and condescending when we challenge you and call you hypocrites! You are hypocrites. You were right when you told your elders they were hypocrites. And the whippersnappers will be right when they tell us we are too. So take our critiques in stride. Do what you can to support us. And, finally, let us learn from you.

Lots of people of all ages have great ideas that they never act on. Often it's a matter of believing in our own damn ideas enough to see them through. That's why calling someone a 'visionary' helps make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wonder what would happen if every young person got the encouragement that the young people profiled in the following pages have received. Imagine what a generation of visionaries that would create!

The truth is that most visionaries of any age will never be acknowledged in any public way. And yet, if we as a species are going to make it through the next century, we need all the visionaries we can get-whether they get the recognition or not.

Calling all young visionaries: We have a world to save-from nuclear war, unchecked capitalism, genetic engineering, environmental destruction, and fascism in its many forms. No one has figured out how to do it yet.

Obviously, there's no one way to save the world. There are billions of ways, and we need every single one of them. Most of them haven't been dreamed up yet. We made it through the 20th century by the skin of our teeth. There should be postings in all the classifieds:

Job Opening: Young visionaries needed immediately in every field at all locations throughout world. Rewarding work; flexible thinking; no previous experience necessary. Get in on the ground floor of this growing, high-potential field. Apply in person at a problem near you.