by Kristina Ruff – Foothills Youth Coordinator
The youth and I had an amazing experience this past weekend at the We Can’t Wait MLK Con in Denver. The event, hosted by First Universalist Society of Denver (FUSD), provided several social justice “tracks” from which the youth could choose: Racial Equality, Criminal Injustice, LGBTQ, Immigration, and Reproductive Justice. Over the course of the weekend, youth participated in eight intense hours of learning, discussion, and ultimately inspiration surrounding these topics.
The Racial Equality track challenged youth to become aware of their own white privilege and to put themselves in the shoes of someone for whom the most salient facet of their identity is often the color of their skin. Our speaker, Kenny Wiley, empowered them to be allies by teaching them ways to speak up when they hear micro-aggressions such as his personal (not) favorite, “Wow! You’re so articulate for a black man.” The Criminal Injustice track, led by anarchist Ben Turk and prisoner advocate/doctoral student Colleen Hackett, incorporated theatre games and role play to support the staggering statistics they used to inform the youth about the injustice in the system. It amazed many of them to learn that, while black people make up only 13% of the US population, they form 37% of the prison population. Colleen and Ben also led discussions around issues like private companies running prisons and therefore supporting mass incarceration, the idea that the war on drugs has radically increased the number of people in prison, the fact that each inmate costs US taxpayers $44,000 per year, or the fact that many inmates are mentally ill without recourse to proper treatment. Youth asked fantastic questions about why we don’t offer better mental health support, or invest more in education and healthcare to support people for whom this life is a reality. Most importantly, it asked them to consider what our society could be like if we as a community took responsibility for failing these people, rather than placing the blame on them and defining them by one mistake for the rest of their lives.
Since each participant could only participate in two tracks, I don’t have firsthand experience with the specifics of information supplied in the remaining three tracks. But I saw the results – youth came away righteously frustrated by the lack of respect for LGBTQ peers and equipped with tools and resources for ways to connect, raise their voice, and be an ally. They were outraged by the case of Arturo, a business owner, father, and community leader whose currently lives in FUSD’s basement because his deportation by INS began before Obama offered amnesty. They were amazed at the fact that there is actually documented racial bias in the availability of contraceptives in certain parts of the US. Woven throughout these tracks were activities and discussions on intersectionality – the idea that different forms of oppression intersect, and that if those supporting one issue came together with people supporting another issue, that perhaps progress could be achieved faster than if each group worked solely towards their own goal. After one such activity, some of our youth (somewhat jokingly) called themselves “the Swiss Army Knives of Justice,” because we need to be multifaceted in our approach to injustice everywhere.
The experience culminated with YRUU’s participation in the MLK march – what a powerful experience! I think one of the most amazing things I had the chance to witness this weekend was the spark that grew into a flame for many of our youth – the realization that we really CAN’T wait, that there are things even young people can do right now to make a difference. And I can’t wait to see where they’ll go with that epiphany.