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Op-Ed by CUL’s Shari Runner – Silent No More: America’s Youth Mobilize

Silent No More: America’s Youth Mobilize

There’s something special happening when it comes to civil rights in this country.   Young people are reinvigorating the art of civil disobedience and beginning to spark real and meaningful change.

Black students at the University of Missouri have long been complaining of an environment where they too often confront the vestiges of racism and are made to feel marginalized.  Perhaps most importantly, Mizzou students felt that those in charge had been, at best, indifferent to their complaints.

So when graduate student Jonathan Butler decided to stage a hunger strike, something happened that couldn’t be ignored.   His civil disobedience became the focal point for hundreds of students and faculty who joined forces to support Butler, leading to the resignation of University President Tim Wolfe.

After he ended his hunger strike, Butler tweeted, “This was NOT a singular effort this was a COMMUNITY effort.  There is power in solidarity.” And successful activism in one place can influence action elsewhere.

Jonathan Butler has talked about how he was inspired to take action after he participated in the protests in nearby Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri were inspired and supported by the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprung up following the shooting death of another unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin in Florida.

And protests happening on the campus of Yale University – where students are also complaining about a racist environment — will likely be influenced by the outcomes generated at the University of Missouri.

Young activism is alive and well here in Chicago.  The group Fearless Leading by the Youth is credited with playing a role in the University of Chicago Medicine’s decision to invest $40-million in a much-needed new trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital on the city’s south side.

And young Asean Johnson’s emphatic activism on behalf of public education amid a flurry of school closings – most in the city’s neighborhoods of color –  is believed to have helped save his own Marcus Garvey Elementary School from being shut down.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not unexpectedly, there is a backlash against this resurgent activism.  Most recently, officials around the country – including our own mayor, Rahm Emanuel – have begun blaming those who are protesting police misconduct for inhibiting the police from doing their jobs.  Several police unions around the country, including Chicago’s, are calling for a boycott of director Quentin Tarantino’s films after he spoke out against police brutality.

There’s the even bigger threat of violent retaliation.  University of Missouri Police arrested a 19-year-old white male who they suspect of making terroristic threats against black students in the wake of the recent protests. This, of course, is not the first time our young people have had to face intimidation, and, if history is any indication, it’ won’t be the last.

However, I’m convinced that young people will not be intimidated into silence, especially now that they’re beginning to affect change. Contrary to how they are often portrayed, they are finding their collective voices and using them.

More young people would be willing to stand up for change, but too often community and institutional leaders are not standing in support of them. This is an undeniable hindrance to progress on everything from making sure that schools in our communities of color get the resources they need to eradicating Chicago’s underground economy that, for many, serves as the only beacon of hope.

The Chicago Urban League challenges policymakers, foundations, religious organizations and individuals at all levels to join us in a concerted effort to become actively involved in empowering our young people.

The children we meet every day are a reminder that each of us has the power – and an obligation — to take an active role in closing the book on social injustice.

 

Shari Runner, Interim President and CEO

Chicago Urban League