It's Time to Listen to Our Kids

I wrote four or five different openings for this blog, but I got rid of them all. None of them felt right. Here’s why: they were all about me. And this moment isn’t about me.

This moment is about our kids.

These kids

Our kids are unstoppable.

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The circumstances of kids’ activism this week feel uniquely American, but kids roaring at injustice is not a new story.

In 1976, during Apartheid, the South African government passed a law requiring that all students be taught in Afrikaans. Afrikaans was a language spoken by white South Africans that many Black South Africans referred to as “the language of the oppressor.”

Not surprisingly, students of color were outraged at this new law. Black students already attended segregated schools with overcrowded classrooms, insufficient materials, and a racist curriculum. Now they were expected to learn in a language neither they nor their teachers spoke. Some kids told stories of their teachers coming to class with a textbook in one hand and an Afrikaans dictionary in the other.

Students decided to take action. At 8:15am on the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of students walked out of five schools in the township of Soweto after singing “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika”—“God Bless Africa.” Students of all ages—including elementary school children—marched peacefully through the streets holding hands and carrying signs with slogans like “Down with Afrikaans."

At an intersection, the students encountered the police and the Defense Force, who ordered them to turn back. When the students refused, the police officers set dogs on them. Then they opened fire.

Within 36 hours of the march beginning, 29 people had died, and 250 were injured. The government lost control in Soweto as protests and riots spread.

News outlets around the world covered the story, publishing a now-iconic photo of one of the first people killed by police: 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.

Although the Soweto Uprising event ended in tragedy, and although Apartheid itself was not officially struck down until 1994, the students’ protest had a dramatic impact on the way the world viewed South Africa’s policies.

As news of the uprising spread throughout the world, it became nearly impossible to ignore the brutality of the Apartheid regime. In the months and years that followed, more and more countries exerted political and economic pressure on the South African government to end Apartheid—and it was due, in large part, to the activism of those students in Soweto.

Every year, my students and I explore this history, focusing in on the ways in which South African students exercised their agency within an oppressive system that sought to silence them and deny their humanity.

And invariably, my students draw comparisons between the South African students’ activism and their own power and promise as young people. They wonder about what forms of political power they have and what could push them to stand up in the face of injustice. They debate whether they would be willing to risk their lives so that future generations could live in a more just world. They ask themselves whether adults will ever listen to their voices.

I always tell them: yes. You are powerful. You have agency. You can change the world. Make us listen.

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So? Will we?

It’s a scary question, because it demands us to come up with some real answers. Our kids won't allow us to placate them. They rightfully fear our inaction. Standing on the precipice of real change is scary.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes, "The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.”

It is our job to prove to our students that we will listen to their voices. It is up to us to inspire confidence in them that they do have the power to effect change. And it is our responsibility, as teachers, to ensure that they are equipped with the tools they need to insist on a more equitable world.

Maybe the scariest part of all of that is the fact that, when we decide that our students’ voices actually matter, sometimes, we will be the ones they rebel against. They will point out ways in which systems that we have set up or in which we are complicit have contributed to the problem. They will push us to question our own assumptions and beliefs. It will be uncomfortable and possibly even painful.

But we can’t be afraid of our students’ power. Young people—like the ones in Soweto, like the ones in Ferguson, like the ones in Parkland—will build tomorrow.

Our kids are unstoppable.

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Students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, FL, are organizing a march on March 24, 2018. Support them.

Don't forget about supporting students in the Black Lives Matter movement, too. Parkland students are getting a ton of attention right now--and they should be--but young people have been active in BLM for years without always benefiting from the same kind of widespread championing. Start here. 

Read more about the Soweto Uprising here, here, and here.

(February 22, 2018)

Sydney Chaffee