January 6th: One Year Later
As 2022 begins, there is plenty to be concerned about: the sad, infuriating anniversary of an armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; the ongoing pandemic; worsening divides among Americans; and unresolved inequities in health, opportunity, and racial justice. We might find it challenging to assert that we are off to a better start this year than last.
Yet rather than further a paralyzing discord, every one of these circumstances can inspire us to take action. Perhaps the most important effort we can make is to get youth more fully engaged in the democratic process.
During marches in 2020 and 2021, some young people told cameras, “We’ve been out here protesting for days and nothing has changed.” What might those same optimistic, energetic young people do if they better knew the history of efforts like theirs and had a grasp of the range of ways to make change, from voting to volunteering to marching?
What might those same optimistic, energetic young people do if they better knew the history of efforts like theirs and had a grasp of the range of ways to make change, from voting to volunteering to marching?
To ensure that young people contribute to our democratic society to their fullest potential, they need to know how to analyze problems, generate solutions, and involve themselves effectively in democratic decision-making. At the same time, adults need to believe that with a little preparation young people will engage in useful ways, and that their fresh energy will lend new momentum to our urgent need to find and build on common ground.
Looking at our schools and communities, one would be hard pressed to say where and how we expect young people to gather such skills and information. Not only do we fail to offer most of them classroom preparation to participate in our democratic process, but we even fail to provide them safe, supportive environments in which they can learn. Recently, when bomb threats disrupted Connecticut schools, the response was to install metal detectors and require students to arrive earlier to wait in line for inspection. News reports encouraged students to avoid carrying backpacks to facilitate security officers’ work — placing students who had actually taken books home at a disadvantage.
It is unthinkable that schools still fail to provide stability in the lives of young people. It is unconscionable that adults must be told by adolescents and young adults about the effect the lack of support is having on them, about the imperative to overcome the stigma associated with seeking mental health support, about the crushing fear of school violence, and about the failure of legislation and policy to create a learning environment free of the threat of sexual or physical harm. These are hardly impressive ways to inspire young people to engage in society.
Although, as usual, we are counting on the next generation to resolve our problems, we are not demonstrating real commitment to building this new generation of leaders. By allowing safe, excellent schools to be such a low priority, by neglecting to create pathways from education to career to community engagement, by failing to demonstrate the value we place on full and active participation in the democratic processes of this nation, we are ruining young people’s chances of doing more or better.
For years, our education system has emphasized workforce preparation, and it still should. Yet careers are just part of full participation in a democratic society: The same skills that make a good employee or employer also make a good participant in a community and in a democracy. We can teach the youngest of community members these skills; before you can vote, you can read, listen, think, debate, and discuss. Only if we commit more time and resources to these skills early on — as schools now do with many other aspects of socio-emotional learning — will we realize that students themselves are equipped to co-create schools and take part in advocacy efforts in ways that lead to better outcomes for us all.
The United States has long done an impressive job of helping some young people grow up to be thoughtful, engaged participants in a democratic society. It is past time to renew those efforts and make sure our efforts extend to all young people — not just those with access to the best-resourced schools. To achieve that, we must also attend to some of the basic issues of mental health, safety, and racial equity that have festered during the past two bleak years — and in fact longer, for too many students.
In 2022, we must pull ourselves out of our collective tailspin and consider the dire situation in which we risk leaving youth right now. When we recommit ourselves to ensure a strong, safe education system, from pre-K through college, then we can be sure this generation of young people will grow up with the skills and desire to be leaders and participants in our democracy.
In 2020, some Americans who had struggled for educational access created vaccines and provided lifesaving medical care. In 2021, some Americans understood and cared about our democracy enough to stay at their jobs, in the face of dread and heartache and even violence, to ward off insurrection and uphold our ideals. In 2040, who will be those American leaders? Often, the people who have seen problems up close are best able to solve them. If so, today’s young people are the ones to watch — and to follow.