Let’s talk about kids these days.
The words themselves are a code, aren’t they? They are a way those of us who are not kids invoke the perceived failings of those who are.
The rap goes that they are spoiled by the profusion of material goods, that they are failing schools that failed them first, that they are transfixed by video screens and handicapped by a shriveled sense of social responsibility.
Well, the kids I want to talk about aren’t those kids. The kids I want to talk about are the student freedom riders who are spending this week and part of next traveling the South on a ride to commemorate the original freedom rides that roiled and helped redeem this country 50 years ago.
The kids I want to talk about – 40 college students in all – are bright like you wouldn’t believe, articulate, informed and passionately engaged in the betterment of the nation and the world.
Spending time with them makes me feel good – no, makes me feel hopeful – and I wanted to introduce a few of them to you.
Stephanie Burton, a senior in journalism at Florida A&M University who started a program for her fellow students to donate their unused meals to a local homeless shelter.
“We have meal cards,” she says, “but if you don’t use all of your meal card, at the end of the semester they just go to waste. They don’t roll over. So I’m thinking, you know, I have 15 meals left on my card that I’m not going to use and it’s almost the end of the semester. You walk a couple of blocks away from out campus, there are homeless people right there.”
Stephanie says she wants to institutionalize the program so that it continues after her graduation. She hopes to one day run a program providing services to pregnant young women.
Doaa Dorgham, a North Carolina State University student, born and raised in Raleigh. She is a Muslim and the outreach chair of the Muslim Student Association, where she led a project called Behind The Veil, a social experiment that encouraged non-Muslim women to veil themselves for a day. Doaa says she sees a correlation between the hardships of the civil rights era and the discrimination and fear Muslims face today.
Among the signs of that discrimination and fear, she says, is the fact that she is body scanned and patted down every time she travels by air.
Once, she says, “I was in Latin America and I came back through Charlotte airport. It was the first time I really challenged it because I had felt so welcomed in a different country and when I came back to my own, I was with a group of students and I was singled out once again for a pat down. I said ‘What is your protocol on searching people?’ and he told me, ‘Ma’am, we don’t racially profile. We randomly search.’” She laughs. “I argued that if in fact this is random and it happens every single time, then I must be really lucky and I should’ve won the lottery by now. And then he asked me if I was calling him a racist and I responded, ‘Are you calling me a terrorist?’ ”
Carla Orendorff , a freshman film student at Santa Monica College, grew up with a history of activism..
“My dad is a Native American rights activist. I’m Cherokee and we’ve gone through doing a lot of work against racial mascots in sports on a national and local level. Just kind of questioning racist imagery and caricatures and things like that. I want to be a filmmaker and I feel like documenting different protests, different movements, both as an activist and someone who makes media, is an important role.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but activism against Native American sports mascots, activism against Islamophobia, activism against hunger, activism period, is not the firs thing that comes to mind when one considers Kids These Days.
One is more apt to think of apathy or disconnection. One is more apt to note the same thing Zilong Wang, an exchange student from China, says he has observed in classmates at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass: a burning desire that is less about doing well than about getting rich.
“I’m concerned,” he says, “that the brightest and the smartest, most ambitious young people are attracted to finance, consulting and business administrations. These kinds of industries are important, but they don’t add much to the social value. Sometime it’s even negative, when you work out the equation, how much good they put into the society.”
Stephanie Burton knows she will not get rich feeding the hungry or helping pregnant women but, she says, “certain things are more important than money.”
There is a scene she likes in Freedom Riders, the PBS documentary that spawned this bus trip. In it, a reporter asks a white Freedom Rider why he feels it is his responsibility to fight for African Americans’ freedom. To which the young man replies that fighting for freedom is everyone’s responsibility. It’s just that some are conscious of that responsibility and some are not.
“And I think,” says Stephanie, “ that consciousness is more important than any dollar that I could make.”