“And the Youth Will Lead Us”: Community Transformation and Absenteeism

by Marcus Harrison Green

Usually, finding yourself in a high school classroom as someone in your thirties while “peers” half your age run mental circles around you is a glaring signifier you’ve made a succession of disastrous choices in life, but on January 22nd – as I played the part of a wilted bud planted amongst sophomores and juniors, squirming in his seat, too scared to be called on to give an answer to a barely absorbed question – there didn’t seem a better place for a South End native to be.

This initially harrowing back to school moment came courtesy of attending Rainier Beach High School’s inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. BLOC Party (Building Leaders of Change) Day of Justice.

Taking place just three days after the national observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the day-long event (jointly planned and led by Rainier Beach students and members from South End non-profit Urban Impact) welcomed adults and other high schoolers from the South Seattle community to join together in celebrating the life of the civil rights leader while providing an opportunity to dialogue about what organizers perceived as a deficiency in civil rights and social justice “literacy” that had become more apparent in light of national and local events driving the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

It was easy to be initially skeptical about the proceedings. Most memories of MLK Day assemblies elicit visions of “the speech” – the only one the man ever gave, apparently –  dragged out from dusty archives so it can be brushed off for a school gathering that serves as an extended lunch between fourth and fifth period. Disinterested students are involuntarily assigned segments of oratory, once rousing, now reduced to clichés by half-hearted recitals. Motions gone through, the vapid exercise is checked off school faculty’s to do list – a self aggrandizing pat on the back to American society for its progression on the issue of race. Aggression between blacks and whites an ephemeral blemish, long ago replaced by a harmonious union that, once paid heed to in this yearly ritual, can again be forgotten until the calendar cycles through another 365 days.

BLOC party organizers seemed well aware of growing cynicism in the face of often watered-down celebrations in recent years, and wisely chose to eschew conventionality associated with MLK Day rituals. The day began with hundreds of students and community members flooding into Rainier Beach High School’s Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center to view an original performance piece that was equal parts dance, song and spoken word. It featured five original monologues touching on King, racism and community, written and recited by student performers from Beach.

As they performed, images of the March on Selma and faces of slain black youths Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were projected on the stage’s screen that created a dynamic backdrop for the teenage performers. They joined most of the audience in wearing t-shirts designed specifically for the event that read, “See Me | My Life Matters.” The black shirts with a white encircled fist were conceptualized by a Rainier Beach student and designed by South End resident Marissa Ukosakul.

Speeches from community members followed, including Sean Goode of the YMCA, who provided a clarion call to our collective obligation to address the problems endemic to the South End area by first addressing problems embedded in ourselves. “How will you change, so that the community changes?” He challenged.

The question reverberated throughout the day and accompanied students as they were dismissed to one of 30 workshops curated by a student selection committee. The workshops had been culled from the submissions of dozens of community members who sought to join regular faculty in facilitating courses on social justice and community transformation.

“The Intersection of Black and Hispanic Civil Rights Movements” taught by Drea Chicas was where I became the oldest of 16 students (all representing the ethnicities cited in the title of the workshop).

While the workshop broached facts about its two headliners, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez (along with their mentors Ella Baker and Dolores Huerta – proving that the saying “behind every great man there’s a greater woman” is no truer than in the civil rights movement) a sense of shame engulfed me, having very little to do with my failure to recall facts about the civil rights stalwarts. Embarrassment spawned from discarded opportunity.

Here was this prime moment, as rare as it was necessary, for adult community members to engage in profound discourse with the youth of the South End area. Those same ones who so often find the blame for “what’s wrong with the South End” laid on their doorstep – easy targets for complex problems in need of simple solutions.

And yet, I found myself as one of the few adults who had actually accepted their extended invitation.

It was in that classroom I became an elder pupil as youth took initiative in serving up difficult questions about who we are in the South End as people, what it means to be a marginalized segment of a city and how we view each other in the context of community.

These inquiries found companionship when workshop facilitators introduced photos from the 60’s that featured signs eerily similar to ones seen displayed at the MLK rally many had attended just days before at Garfield High School. Several tried to wrap their heads around why, if the civil rights movement had passed, did we still have the need for so much organizing? Why are racial disparities in our city still so bad in terms of incarnation, income and educational advancement?

The curious students then wondered, why, if so many races found common cause during the civil rights movement, then why today within our own South End community were they so splintered?

And, why, on this day orchestrated by students showcasing their creativity, brilliance and community pride, why, oh why, after repeated invitations were there no media present to witness hundreds of students responding so poignantly to what they felt was pervasive injustice done to youth who shared their ethnicity and social standing. This, after KOMO News left skid marks on the streets outside their headquarters in rushing down to Rainier Beach to cover fifteen students ransacking the Saar’s Marketplace adjacent to the high school – effectively brandishing all of the students as recalcitrant degenerates.

These questions are the ones that led to my original desk squirming. None could be answered from general inputs into a search engine, but keen input into self. I had failed these youth. More accurately, we, as adults in the community, had failed these youth.

It wasn’t that we couldn’t answer their questions, it’s that we hadn’t bothered to show up to do so. All the while wailing so loudly, so viciously from the digital fortress of social media, or the comfort of homogenous neighborhood meetings, about our youth’s abounding culpability in the South End’s degradation. Voices thrown out and hands up at what should be done with them.

But, here were the inheritors of our area, left to their own devices by neglectful guardians. Defying what an absence of adult supervision usually denotes, impressively seeking to have a dialogue where they could be heard and listened to, could teach and be instructed, and to share leadership in changing our community – asking too many absent elders for a hand in that quest. Ultimately showing they are much more than the stalking menace manufactured by fear and perpetuated by media.

Yes, indeed we have very real issues of crime and gun violence in our area that often impacts our youth – I myself have been robbed at gunpoint by someone barely old enough to purchase a pack of Kools – but much too often I’ve heard the refrain that what ails our community is a symptom of absenteeism in the home. The result of irresponsible parenting.

It’s unremarkable that those conversations rarely extend past the solitude of home, so as to never tint us with responsibility. What about our own community’s absenteeism from community hubs,  libraries, tutoring centers, classrooms and active engagement in daily encounters with our youth?

This was our future, our area’s nascent hope, and as illustrated so perfectly on that day, much too often, we limit our exposure to them (and to our fellow community members who fall out of a narrow mental radius), preferring the comfort and blissful ignorance of our self designated enclaves to venturing anyplace near where our assertions stand to be challenged. As always, it’s far easier to lay the twin burdens of improvement and change on another, especially when they have few advocates.

As I walked through the doors of the high school that day back out into a community barely aware of what had just transpired in its midst – bursting with pride at the student’s accomplishments – one question, out of all my brain had been deluged with, followed me home. It was the one posed earlier at the start of the day: “How will you change, so that the community changes?”

It’s a question our youth proved both willing and capable of answering. I’m beginning to wonder about their older counterparts.