And then reading the psychologist Richard Farson's Birthrights caused everything to come together for me. Birthrights was an out of print book published back in the 1970s. The only reason that I even knew of the book's existence is because someone in NYRA that I was interviewing for a class project on local nonprofits recommended it when I asked him if he had any suggestions for further reading about youth rights for me. (This class project would ultimately serve as my primary entrance into the youth rights movement.) I either ordered a very cheap used copy of the book on Amazon or obtained the book through NYRA's lending library. And when I started reading it, all of a sudden, it all made sense. My sense that children were oppressed and that the adults in their lives exerted undue authority over them was a sign of ethical intelligence as opposed to maladjustment or an inability to accept the world as it must be. The way Farson discussed everything from the pathologization of child prodigies in an ageist society to the stifling and rigid character of the American K-12 public school system to his reflections on the politics of childhood resonated with me in a deeply satisfying and yet intellectually and ethically challenging way. I wasn't sure at the time quite what to make of Farson's views on abolishing the voting age and the age of consent, but the broader themes of the book - that children are oppressed as a class, that the pathways which child development takes are in part socially constructed, and that it was worth radically rethinking the institutions of the family, the school, the juvenile justice system, the law, and cultural attitudes as they pertain to youth - struck a chord inside of me that I had unknowingly longed to hear played for years. "This stuff is really out there and really radical, but I think I might agree with it," I thought to myself.
Reading everything about youth rights that I could get my hands on and talking to more youth liberationists about both youth liberation theory and in many cases their own personal experiences of ageist oppression radicalized me even further. Getting to know young activists in middle and high school who were already sophisticated organizers and thinkers underscored for me just how arbitrary age-based notions of competence, character, and intellect can be. I also talked to people who had struggled unsuccessfully to gain emancipation from abusive and unhappy home situations as minors, people who had been abused or kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality while they were still in their teens, people who had been sent off to abusive "troubled teen" facilities against their wills, people who bore the physical and psychological scars of traumatic non-consensual elective medical procedures performed on them as minors. I was outraged both that these things were happening and that there was no large scale mass movement in existence seeking to address these injustices.
When I came to Washington DC I had initially wanted a career for myself in politics. The plan was that I would get my Master of Public Administration degree at American University, work as a government bureaucrat or nonprofit administrator for a few years, and then run for elected office. However, when I found the youth rights movement that all changed in an instant and I didn't even mourn the fact that I was letting the dream that I had clung to for so long die. The day that I signed the ASFAR (Americans for a Society Free of Age Restrictions) Declaration of Principles, I surmised that I would probably never have a political career. I didn't care. Doing this work was more important than holding any elected office could ever be. The world was full of people trying to become legislators, governors, and the President of the United States of America. The world was not full of people trying to ameliorate anti-youth ageism and the many evils it engendered. I needed this movement and it needed me.
A lot has changed for me since I first became involved with the youth liberation movement back in 2010 and 2011 and yet my commitment to this cause remains steadfast. The way that I engage with people these days about youth liberation issues is probably a lot kinder and gentler than it was in my first few years as an angry activist, but my positions are still fundamentally the same. The passion is still there. My values have not changed. Both I and everyone close to me has come to know that being a radical youth liberationist will always be an important core part of who I am. This will not change even if one day I become a parent. It will not change as I age. And perhaps most rewarding of all for me has been seeing the transformations of some of the people around me as I have shared my message with them.
My mother has always been a highly ethical person and a person who deeply loves children. She was widely regarded during her teaching career as one of the best educators in her entire public PreK-12 school. (She has recently retired after devoting a lifetime to educating elementary school aged youth.) During the course of almost my entire lifetime she taught first grade at Baker School in Baker, Florida, the tiny rural Southern town in which I grew up. In fact, she was my first grade teacher. She combined a great deal of compassion and love for her students with an intense work ethic, boundless creativity, and a keen expertise in pedagogy. She understood how very young youth learn, how they think, and how they begin to mature developmentally. Introducing her to youth liberation theory and watching her become more sympathetic to these ideas and gain a greater understanding of the need for a radical youth rights movement has made me even prouder of my mother than I already was. I have also introduced some of my philosophy professors to youth liberation theory over the course of my studies. I do not know if I have converted all of these bright people into staunch child libbers, but I am proud that I have exposed them to new ways of thinking about the relationship between adults and young people and I hope that I have challenged them to perhaps be more ethical and less dismissive towards the capacities and need for autonomy of the youth in their lives.
Youth liberationism, like feminism, has to show in the way that one lives one's life. Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg lived feminism. I aspire to live youth liberation. Growing up in the church, I would hear folks say to one another "You are the only Bible that some people will ever read." As a youth liberationist, I have adapted this to "You are the only Birthrights that some people will ever read." In fact, I would imagine that for most of the people that I interact with, I am their sole point of contact with the youth liberation movement. This comes with a lot of responsibility and I take it very seriously. I can't associate with people that hit their children. If you post a meme on Facebook about how your child needs to meet a belt, I'm going to unfriend you and I'm also going to make sure that you know why I did it. When people post private information about their children on Facebook without their children's permission, I cannot condone that and I am willing to lose friends over it. When someone casually mentions that they like to snoop through their children's things or that they keep important and personally pertinent information from their children, I have an obligation to make it known that I do not condone this even if I am not in a position to directly change things. If I say nothing, it can be interpreted as tacit approval and someone will get the idea that even their radical youth liberationist friend thinks that what they are doing is okay. I've learned to say things in a way that hopefully does not come across as alienating or disrespectful, but I also keep to the truth that it is absolutely imperative for me to say something in most of these sorts of situations.
When I applied to Ph.D programs this cycle, I could have chosen to write on any number of topics. Writing on a currently trendy topic in philosophy may have helped my chances of getting into a top program, but it would have come at the cost of my personal mission and sense of integrity. I went into academia because I care about helping to spread important ideas and no idea is more important to me than youth liberation. If a program does not want me as a radical youth liberationist doing work on this vital issue, then that is not the program for me. I see academia as my way of making a difference and contributing something of value to society. Some social movements probably have too much theory and too little concrete political action. Where youth liberation is concerned, we are still at the stage where theory is necessary to help people to understand a.) that something is wrong, b.) what it is that is wrong, c.) that it is possible to right the wrong, and d.) how we can begin to go about righting the wrong. One major problem that I saw during my time on the NYRA Board was how a lack of theoretical grounding made taking effective political action against ageism more difficult than it otherwise would have been. When you're theory-phobic, perhaps rallying around the cause of trying to get people under the age of eighteen admitted to a local junkyard seems like a good use of activist energy, but when one theorizes the ways that guardianship, minor status, legal age restrictions, compulsory education, and prejudicial cultural attitudes towards youth form an interlocking nexus of oppression that also intersects with sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, cissexism, monosexism, sizeism, ableism, colorism, lookism, predatory capitalism, medical paternalism, state oppression, and authoritarianism more generally, it should be clear that our finite activist energies are better spent elsewhere.
|Listening and learning with a critical ear at the NYRA Annual Meeting in 2011. Katrina sits next to me. A youth liberationist's work is never done.|