Capable of Standing Up: Feeling Empowered to Create Change

Jun 21st, 2019 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Featured, NextGen Vermont, Summer 2019

by Lena Ashooh

Lena Ashooh (Shelburne, VT) will begin her junior year at Champlain Valley Union High School in the fall. She is in the midst of organizing a summer writing workshop for migrant Vermont youth. Lena also plays three sports and finds time to show dairy cows at Vermont county fairs.

I remember walking into my high school the day after the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15th. That morning, the news coverage reported that 49 people were killed and numerous others were injured, marking one of the darkest hours in New Zealand’s history. The gunman was a 28 year-old white man who appeared to be influenced by the global rise of  white supremacism and alt-right extremism.

Just weeks before the attack, students at my school had graffitied swastikas and racial slurs on library tables, and our principal revealed that our school was investigating over eight other reported incidents of racist, homophonic, and anti-semitic acts. I’d recognized that my school’s student body and staff was predominantly white and unaware of our contributions to racism, but these events were eye-opening as they exhibited just how problematic this lack of diversity is. The Christchurch shooting wasn’t mentioned once in my high school that day—not by students and not by teachers.

We, as young people, face some of the most pressing and disturbing issues in human history. And in the days after the Christchurch massacre, I was able to witness my heavily white, upper-middle class, and supposedly progressive community turn a blind eye to violence motivated by white supremacist sentiments. It made me question my generation’s ability to deal with these issues—what enables us to ignore the many injustices and social crises that occur across the globe, throughout the country, and in our own communities?

A year earlier, in March of 2018, I found myself landing in a small plane in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Soon after our plane touched down, a group of us NextGen members from Vermont began the stunning drive to New Mexico that I still think about regularly. Imagine rays of sunlight warming your cheekbones and the taste of dry, hot, dust on your tongue. The sky was bewilderingly expansive, and all around you vast plains were interrupted by vivid red rock formations. The world suddenly seemed much greater and more unfamiliar than the one I knew.

That night, two other Vermont students and I had dinner with a room full of strangers. But there was an intensity, an excitement, that made it evident that I sat surrounded by exceptional youth and adults. This was the Next Generation Leadership Network: students and educators from Lawrence, Massachusetts, Atlanta, Louisville, South Carolina, the Navajo Nation and Vermont who had traveled to Window Rock, in the Navajo Nation, for the Hazhó’ó Hólne’ Writing Conference. The network connects youth from six grassroot locations who are working for social justice in their communities. Over the next few days we grew closer, through our writing and stories. During the day, workshops were led by writers, poets, students, teachers, advocates and community members. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, ND were in the national headlines and we learned about the fierce work of many indigenous people who were committed to the protection of water and its importance to the Navajo culture. We explored Diné poetry and heard about the powerful activism of Navajo artists. Former Navajo Nation Vice-President Rex Lee Jim shared stories, prayers, and the history of the Navajo people. At night, NextGen youth and adults read their own writing and poetry, revealing the vulnerabilities and struggles of their daily lives and communities.

We kids stayed up late into the night, our conversations filled with laughter as we discovered our commonalities and celebrated what made us different. During a conversation about Avatar: The Last Airbender versus The Legend of Korra, we spent far too much time in disaccord about our favorite characters, finally coming to agree unanimously that we love how both series break racial and political barriers that normally exist in children’s television. We left the weekend with immeasurable amounts of new learning from the workshops, and with powerful friendships with people that we would normally never be able to interact with.

During the car ride home, we Vermonters reflected on the immense strength and possibility of NextGen. The Hazhó’ó Hólne’ Writing Conference would shape our social action work in Vermont as well as our personal roles in our communities for the rest of our lives. It was a first taste of NextGen’s addictive power—a power that each one us of has realized at a different point in our NextGen experience, but revolves around being part of a unique community of talented, socially conscious youth who are fighting for social justice across the country. And I soon learned that our separation at the end of Hazhó’ó Hólne’ would be only temporary.

We reconvened on the Middlebury Bread Loaf campus in Vermont this past summer and heard about the work of students from South Carolina who demonstrate profound strength and leadership as they risk their lives to fight gang violence in their neighborhoods. In November, another Vermont student and I filmed a workshop about identity in Lawrence, Massachusetts and documented youth from a wide variety of races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and personal experiences as they explored their own identities through the writing and sharing of their own life stories. And finally this March, after the Christchurch mosque shootings, we returned to the Navajo Nation for the Hazhó’ó Hólne’ Writing Conference where we continued the learning and discovery that began the year before. One night during the workshop we all gathered in my hotel room and I took a moment to appraise the group. Before me stood passionate, kind, hard-working, conscientious, and intelligent leaders—the Next Generation—and here we were gathered in a motel room in New Mexico and I knew we would remain connected for the years to come.

NextGen has made me think deeply about my own community and my peers back home. I find so much strength, so much hope in the youth that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet through NextGen but our friendships have made me wonder: Are my classmates in Vermont equally capable of dealing with the tremendous issues that our world faces?

And I realized that the NextGen model holds the key. Growing up in a largely white, well-funded, upper middle class school, I’m concerned about the widespread perception that success is equated with one’s ability to attend an elite college. I have witnessed many students who have spent much of their high school career fixated on achieving exceptional grades appear disinterested in the pressing social issues that confront us as a community and a nation.

It is through NextGen that I’ve realized that it’s much easier to turn off a radio with a news story about the recent shooting of a boy by the police than to turn away from a friend who just revealed that their brother was shot by a cop. It’s much easier to fail to mention the fifty fatalities from the Christchurch mosque shootings when those victims seem to exist solely on TV screens. NextGen breaks the barriers that prevent social change and helps prepare a new generation of leaders that will be capable of standing up against issues such as racism, sexism, environmental degradation, and white supremacy, that continue to challenge all of us. Last month, my high school became the eighth Vermont school to raise the Black Lives Matter Flag—the result of a two-year fight spearheaded by the student-led Racial Alliance Committee. During a time of serious social divisions and crises, together, we youth will change the world.

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