Two girls wearing banners with slogan "ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY!!" in English and Yiddish, one carrying American flag. Probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City.
( Library of Congress
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
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Many pundits, politicians, many people seem stunned by the passion and eloquence of the Parkland kids, the word “kid” being a label it seems they wouldn't mind because being a kid can be useful, for them, sure, but even more useful to us. Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock, once wrote that the secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they, at some distant point in the future, will take over the reins. Yet, the fact is that society is not running itself nicely because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
And so, here, it seems, we are, but not for the first time. Adam Fletcher, co-founder of The Freechild Project, says that the students of Parkland are only the most recent case of children in the lead.
ADAM FLETCHER: In 1904, we had Mother Jones, this wild powerful, strong suffragette who led the first march that involved child activists that we know of, from Pennsylvania all the way to DC, to really make a point, hey, these kids in these mines, these kids in these factories are working too hard. Child activists led a movement that ended up having child labor banned in the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you've often noted yourself, it’s a question of who is in front. Was it the kids or was it Mother Jones?
ADAM FLETCHER: We call them youth-adult partnerships. She might have stood in front but she had those kids, 70,000 young people, not as the subjects of her work, not just as the token pieces but she brought them along as partners.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I guess the next big time would be the civil rights era, the Children's Crusade. Again, kids were employed in sending that message but did they drive it?
ADAM FLETCHER: Dr. King and the civil rights leaders of that time were very intentional about not wanting child activists to be standing out front during those marches, if only because of the violent, hate-filled nature of the white supremacists of that time. But at the same time that that was happening, we had youth councils across the nation that were already doing local civil rights campaigns. They might not have been in Birmingham facing the dogs immediately but they were in Omaha, Nebraska fighting against segregation in pools and entertainment places. They were in Chicago, Seattle and LA. They were all across the nation. We have to remember that what happened in Greensboro, these young people basically led and began the sit-in movement across the country by staying at the lunch counter after they were rejected because they were African Americans. In Birmingham, Bull Connor sicced the dogs on children and youth who were marching with Dr. King.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ADAM FLETCHER: But at that point in the movement, Dr. King knew that the visual aspect of young people being faced with fire hoses and dogs would shake the nation, and he called it right because it certainly did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, in the course of my research for this interview, I came across the word “ephebiphobia.” It was originally defined as fear of teenagers and later as inaccurate, exaggerated and sensational characterizations of young people. How much do you think youth movements have been impeded by the prejudices and preconceptions of adults?
ADAM FLETCHER: Well, Brooke, let’s go back just a little bit and actually address that question of where does ephebiphobia show up. You had fewer adults than ever before voting to support school levies. You had more adults than ever before voting to support mass incarceration, the prison school pipeline and the disproportionate lockup of young people of color. You had more adults than ever before showing less and less interest in the succeeding generations than ever before. And, Brooke, the only logical reason behind that, and it’s not even logical, is this sense of cynicism and disregard for the generation and absence of concern in well-being for the future. And it's not necessarily that we have an authentic and real reason to be scared of youth. It’s that we don't want to see the transfer of power from one generation to the next.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder how effective these youth movements can really be. I mean, I well remember protesting the Vietnam War when I was 13. But later, I learned that, actually, public opinion didn’t track with youth protests but with the mounting number of American deaths on the battlefield, so it seemed like what we did didn’t really matter at all.
ADAM FLETCHER: We know that it was youth activism that brought attention to the mounting number of deaths on the battlefield and so, even if we don't see that long-term outcome like you're alluding to, we still see a deep impact that goes beyond the immediate and gets more towards, let's change the structures, let's change the cultures that pervade this country and make it a better place for everybody to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Huh! Why couldn't the Boomers keep it up?
ADAM FLETCHER: So what happened in the 1970s was that all these folks who were so passionate and so empowered with making a difference in the world, they faced the forces of economics, they faced the forces of cultures, and they went out to start making money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that sounds like they didn’t mean it, to begin with.
ADAM FLETCHER: Well, it doesn’t mean that they were shallow or weak, it means that they were faced with the reality of adult life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah!
ADAM FLETCHER: The way that it works is if you want a family, if you want a house, you got to work for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about Generation X. I mean, every generation gets smeared and slagged by the one it's replacing but the Xers got it bad, and I take it you’re an Xer.
ADAM FLETCHER: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were portrayed as being lazy, apathetic. There were stories that hyper-sensationalized crime, that made youth drug use seem rampant, that made youth sex seemed just terrible and really painted Generation X to be another lost generation in America. The fact of the matter is, though, Brooke, we learned how to stand up for social change in ways that weren't as obvious as the 1970s and ‘60s. We saw their picket signs and we saw their protests and we saw their culture, their clothing, their hair, their news and, instead, we created our own.
We now know enough to teach and coach young people how to watch out for the media that portrayed us as being so bad, how to work against politicians that would suppress, repress and otherwise deny the power and ability of youth today. Generation X is actually acting as the shepherds for young people who are coming into all this. We saw it in Black Lives Matter. We saw it in previous social movements in the last 20 years. And we’re going to continue seeing it until I’m old, at least, ‘cause I know that I'm stickin’ with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So how about the Millennials, another profoundly maligned generation, can they get past the inferiority complex the media have worked so hard to propagate? We’ve put together a little montage.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We’re talking about Mill-enn-ials, those 20-somethings who are always texting and tweeting. They move from job to job and seem to be more laid back about life and seem to be very entitled.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Cereal sales could be in jeopardy because Millennials don't like to wash dishes. They’re just too lazy.
WOMAN: I’m gonna take a picture of myself.
MAN: Hold on!
WOMAN: I’m gonna take my Facebook
MAN: Hold on, I’m gonna post it -- hold on! I’m going to the bathroom. Let me get my iPhone. Hold on.
WOMAN: I can’t see --
MAN: Let me look at…
ADAM FLETCHER: [LAUGHS] So, luckily for us, Millennials today, one of the tools in their toolbox is that they have media criticism on the forefront of their brain. They were brought into the news stream not by Dan Rather and not by Walter Cronkite but, instead, by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They were brought into this perspective of the world that truth is actually a rather arbitrary thing at times, and their abilities as critical thinkers are off the charts. But they didn't just have the technology, they were born into it and learned how to use it from their inception. So I actually have more hope for Millennials in the way that they see the world than I've ever had for my own, and I have a lot of hope for Gen X. I even held out a little bit of hope for your generation, Brooke.
The young people who become the young tech entrepreneurs and who are really working to change the world with their money have begun raising their children in these ways that say, hey, you are powerful, capable from the time that you are kids. And all those news media clips that you just played, I’m not even sure if a Millennial heard them, because the media that they were played on might be completely irrelevant to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So what about today's generation, the high school kids walking out of school, planning marches, taking on the political establishment so directly?
ADAM FLETCHER: You know, we used to say “that youth of the future.” I'm seeing today's generation being that future more than ever before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But do you really believe the arc of history bends towards justice?
ADAM FLETCHER: Dr. King taught us that there is constant momentum, there is constant movement to social change. Every young person today is standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, and they're tied together with every other thing that's ever come before. Where those young people who marched with Mother Jones in 1904 were actually standing on the front lines in St. Louis, in Ferguson against the police and against the National Guard and standing with Black Lives Matter… We know that the people from the ‘60s and ‘50s who were in the civil rights movement and the social movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we know that they’re standing with the movement today and demanding change for gun legislation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what if this current wave of protest ultimately has no real impact?
ADAM FLETCHER: This current wave of protests has already had real impact on the hearts and minds of young people towards the way that our government works, the influence of economics and politics and the real ability of people to individually, as well as collectively, take action to make social change happen. That's just in the last week. Imagine what three months of this activism is gonna look like. Imagine what a year of this activism is gonna look like. And suddenly, Brooke, we begin to see that there's a whole new palette the we’re painting from because we’re going to have more adults coming out of the woodwork to support these young people and we’re going to have more communities that really take ownership of this because they are going to begin to see youth are the future, once more.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam, thank you very much.
ADAM FLETCHER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Fletcher is the founder of the Freechild Project, which advises and advocates for young people engaged in social change around the world.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, in the middle of Black History Month, a movie with a black cast, an African setting and utopian ideas makes history.