As I listened to the three students from Manara High School, a local Roman school, speak about activism, there were so many things to admire. The fact that they were there at all, late on a school night, to share their experiences with an audience made up entirely of older people. The fact that they spoke in English, a second language for two of them, yet remained articulate and focused. The determination emanating from them, which I think most people struggle to find let alone direct in such a purposeful way. FridaysforFuture, the environmental movement spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, has experienced massive support from young students globally in recent years. I graduated high school a couple years shy of this cause, so I was glad to gain insight into the movement from participants themselves. Environmental news lately always seems so incredibly bleak that this talk served as a reminder that social movements continue to gain traction, even to the point that involvement becomes normalized for teenagers.
But as with anything that reaches popular appeal, I tend to observe with a critical eye. A talking point brought up that tends to go hand-in-hand when people discuss the rise of far right-wing regimes in recent years – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro – is populism. While I can understand wanting to put a name to the strategies these types of politicians employ, I usually find the resulting terms can reek of elitism. Making sweeping generalizations about working class people or, as is common in the U.S., those living in rural areas, only plays into the narrative that those with more access to formal education are the enlightened ones who bring out real change. But as is the case with other forms of marginalization, it’s the people who have experienced the oppression firsthand who have the actual understanding of the core issue. Miseducation and ignorance are present among every income level, within cities and outside of them.
Another point brought up by the students was their belief in generational differences, how they see themselves and their peers as a group more willing to promote tolerance and fight injustice. While I can understand how current events showing younger people mobilizing against these issues can support such an idea, the association of conservatism increasing with age isn’t examined critically enough. Black trans women are murdered in the U.S. at a rate so high to their proportion of the population it’s an epidemic. Most victims are under the age of 40. People who can’t afford insulin die, often before middle-age, if their GoFundMe pages don’t make their goal. There are so many who don’t reach old age not because of accidents or uncontrollable circumstances; they are targeted and neglected by institutions that don’t care about them. We forget that we are missing voices because of the very reasons activists claim to speak out for. There have always been voices of older people who have committed their lives to fighting injustice, and to drown them out for the sake of generational prejudices is a form of violence.
Part of understanding my identity is not only piecing together what I think is important, but also disregarding what is not. As I continue to invest in my personal education and questioning what I used to take for granted, I hope my age will never be used against me.
Featured photo from the Italian youth news site: www.diregiovani.it