Open Letter to America’s Youth and Young Adults

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This is why I spend much time with young people. In response, we at BK Nation, our new national organization, are creating safe spaces like YOUTH TRUTH in which the members of your generation can speak, listen, share, cry, yell, and say whatever you please.

When I attended high school, we would be herded to the auditorium annually to hear a “motivational speaker” who would offer us the same cliché-ridden, uninspiring words about going to college and getting your education. I do not recall a single speaker by name. They could not relate to me nor could I relate to them. The speakers talked at us instead of with us. Some of us, stuck very deeply in our old ways of being parents or authority figures, still believe, ignorantly, that the way to reach young people is to make them listen and to be quiet.

Perhaps if we allow you to teach us and we listen to you, then maybe we can teach you and you will listen to us. We live in hard times and our future will be bleak unless we allow you to play a strong role in making it better.

If we do not address gun violence in our great urban centers and in our suburban communities, or the many failures of our public schools, we will never fulfill our nation’s promise. Because of you, I feel a sense of hope.

Spending hours with the students of Central State University in Ohio, or Stanford University in California, or Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, as students discuss everything from self-esteem to leadership, to diversity and freedom, I see hope in your faces.

Rallying with thousands of you after the Trayvon Martin verdict in New York City when you turned a simple gathering in Manhattan’s Union Square Park into a massive march and takeover of Times Square, and of Harlem, I see hope in your faces. Asking you, students of all ages and of all backgrounds all over our country, to say “I am a genius,” I see hope in your faces as you repeat those simple words loudly and confidently.

You all are geniuses and we expect greatness from you. More importantly, you must expect and demand great things from yourselves. As my friend Antonio Tijerino says, “You are not tomorrow’s leaders or future leaders. You are a leader right now.” That means you need to know history, American history, world history, the history of who you are, where you come from, your culture, your traditions.

You must know what is happening in America beyond sports, video games, music, pop culture, or celebrities, and you do need to know something about those things, too. It means that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook cannot simply be places that you use as escapes but that your understanding of social media becomes the power of young people to speak your minds, to highlight an issue or cause, to organize, to activate, to come together, to find ways to change us, to change this world.

In order to fulfill your promise, you must reject the parts of our culture that only see youth and young people as a brand, as a group, as a demographic, as mindless consumers. Some of those who encourage you to purchase the latest sneakers, cellphones, clothes, music, and videogames don’t care about your inner souls. Some of them think about your money and not much else.

As the students said boldly after the “4 Little Girls” screenings, “They are brainwashing us.” Tragically, some of the “they” don’t know you because they do not even know their own children.

So we must love ourselves and each other. A student at Pace kept saying that we need a new Dr. King. We do not. First, he did not lead the Civil Rights Movement by himself. Second, there were many younger people involved, both female and male. They feared not. They had a vision. They put forth the bold notion that they could change America and, indeed, change the world — and they did.

Across this century young people lead and it will be so now.