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Blog: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: The high stakes of modern day activism for youth of color by Candi CdeBaca and Vanessa Roberts

Monday, November 14, 2016

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” – Alice Walker

Youth do not live in a vacuum. Their daily lives take place in a matrix of oppositional ideologies, educational models, and acts of resistance. In tandem with the technological advances that make it much easier for youth across the globe to reach each other and share experiences, youth of color in particular are simultaneously suffering the repeated trauma of watching their bodies destroyed and devalued in multiple contexts. From racist online comments to videos of extreme police brutality, youth of color feel the racial intolerance and oppression, but don’t always see the magnitude of their power to disrupt it. For those able to move through their frustration towards action, the support of adults in finding the most effective means of activism is vital. Modern activism with youth requires that we build networks where power is fluid rather than adhering to limiting pyramids of inequitable distribution, especially those centered on race, gender, class, and/or age. (See Vakil et al.  2016 for a discussion of the need to further theorize power in collaborative projects, especially those with youth of color.)The racial intolerance and oppression shaping our experience in the United States simultaneously limits the narrative about activists and the definitions and methods of youth civic participation. Given youth of color are projected to be the new majority in our country, what kind of majority will they be? How will today’s youth “pay the rent” for living on this planet? We need to re-frame the conversation about youth civic participation in order to accept the challenge of educating and empowering them to embrace new form(s) of activism designed to continue the dismantling of White supremacy. One new paradigm for youth activism is found in “transformative resistance”, or the capacity to produce alternative frameworks outside of officially sanctioned institutions. Transformative resistance, when linked to social change, allows youth of color to reject self-blame for personal problems and fosters a critical worldview that is informed by their particular social, economic and political position.

But what does this look like in practice? Our collaborative work on the Project VOYCE (PV) 2016 Summer Leadership Academy provided an opportunity to embrace a “transformative resistance” approach to youth activism and civic engagement. In the first week of the program, as we were discussing definitions and examples of leaders (local and global), we received word of a Black Lives Matter 5280 demonstration occurring at the Civic Center Park, a short train ride from our location. From July 7th-12th, BLM 5280 held a space for 135 hours exclusively for people of color to support each other and mourn the 135 people killed by police in 2016. After months of carefully planning a five-week intensive curriculum, we had a decision to make – do we deliver the curriculum about leadership and action as programmed or do we scrap the lesson in the first week to witness a local manifestation of a national demonstration of equitable leadership and grassroots organizing?

After a brief discussion among the adult leadership team, we opted to put the issue in the hands of our youth participants and model our values of equitable power distribution. The fifteen youth, ages 13-21, quickly arrived at a consensus to attend and we were off. It was quite a sight — fifteen youth broken into groups of three eating boxed lunches while conducting internet searches on their phones of pre-selected photos of civil rights leaders, oft forgotten in history. They stepped off the train with bags of extra lunches and sought a BLM 5280 organizer. Their request was simple; “We would love to meet the leadership of BLM 5280 and share these lunches in appreciation for creating this space.” We were quickly welcomed and our group joined the others in the public demonstration of collective grief and transformative resistance.

While both BLM 5280 and PV leaders knew of one another, this was the first time they spoke directly. In impromptu partnership with BLM 5280 leadership, we all engaged the PV youth participants in a discussion of the demonstration, the need for protected space, the need for white allies who surrounded the protected space, and the struggles that led to the peaceful protest. That moment remains one of the best learning opportunities we were able to provide to this cohort of young change agents. The PV youth had never been part of an exchange with local political leaders and activists. In fact, some revealed that teachers and family members cautioned them from attending any of the protests happening in their communities. Their reluctance to participate stemmed from an awareness of the high stakes of being visible and vocal, the high costs of paying rent. The collective fears were intimately tied to being powerless in the face of institutions deeply rooted in racism and classism. At the protest they learned how activism and leadership plays out in a multitude of ways and many became aware that they themselves were already activists in their own right by participating in the PV Summer Leadership Academy. As the BLM 5280 members emphasized, youth investing in a critical education, or “becoming woke”, is in itself an act of resistance.

Today’s activism is one of rejection. In order to arrive at transformative change, youth are being asked to reject oppressive education systems, reject oppressive justice systems, and reject a racist/oppressive narrative about youth of color that renders them powerless, deficient, and disinterested. As educators, we must re-think traditional pedagogical approaches to activism and leadership by youth. Too often groups of well-meaning adults seek to “empower youth” in paternalizing ways that disenfranchise youth’s ability to critique and change their communities and the institutions shaping their lives. In our experience of treating youth from a place of respect, trusting they are able to process high-level concepts and acquire intricate skills if given appropriate instruction and guidance, we continue to be consistently impressed by their high levels of competency and critical awareness. Youth of color today, and their white-identified allies, have a lot at stake when it comes to taking on their portion of the “rent check”. The concept of “transformative resistance” may assist those of us working with them to improve our approach, producing much needed alternative frameworks for both youth activism and our own work.

Author Biographies

Candi CdeBaca began her life as the eldest of three in a single-mother household in the inner city of Denver. From a very early age, Candi took on a leadership role by caring for her siblings and other family members. She found refuge in school, and saw education as an opportunity to change her circumstances. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and went on to complete two degrees in five years. While in college, she cofounded the organization she now leads, Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education). While in college, Candi also expanded a one-year support program for students of color at the University of Denver to a four-year program. She was one of the first youths to be appointed to the Denver Mayor’s Commission on Youth and to the Denver Mayor’s Latino Advisory Council. She recently completed a fellowship as part of the inaugural cohort of the Latino Leadership Institute. Candi is a fierce advocate for educational equity, and is deeply committed to creating spaces for the historically underrepresented to be key decision makers. She has an entrepreneurial spirit, and seeks to design creative, inclusive, collaborative solutions to our great social challenges.

Vanessa Roberts is a self-titled “artivist” currently based in Boulder, Colorado. The term “artivist” refers to an intentional combination of the arts, activism, and academic practice. In Roberts’ approach, all three are equally valued and important, and the crux of her work is centered on the power of theater activated as a tool for transformative social change. She speaks, trains, and performs nationally, traveling to a multitude of educational institutions, conferences, businesses, and also provides services as a cultural competency consultant for private clients in Colorado.  Ms. Roberts received her Bachelors of Arts from Colorado College in 2008 where she designed her own Liberal Arts and Science major entitled Critical Race Theory: Emphasis Performance Comedy, and minored in American Cultural Studies. She went on to receive her Masters of Arts in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of Art at New York University in 2009, where her focus was on racial and ethnic performativity in the wake of the African diaspora. Currently, Ms. Roberts is in the 5th year of her doctoral pursuit in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Her concentrations are cultural sociology, race & ethnicity, and qualitative methodology. She is also a 2016-17 CU-Engage Community Based Research Fellow and works closely with Ben Kirshner, noted adolescent researcher and author of Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality. The community partner for the fellowship, Project VOYCE (PV), is a non-profit in Denver, CO that offers leadership and professional development training to under-represented and under-served youth in the Denver-Metro area.