Idealism is often described as a characteristic of adolescence. An excerpt from the Health Academy in Australia notes, “Adolescents begin to perceive the possibilities in the world and ways in which it could be better, making them very idealistic....They can be very critical of adults. Some adolescents can develop a messianic complex, whereby they feel they have some vital role to play in the salvation of humanity and can become involved in political activism and social causes that champion the underdog.” The article insinuates that being “very idealistic” stems from a lack of maturity, something you will eventually get over. We have been formerly taught this “developmental” characteristic in every basic High School psychology class. The basic underlying message is that children are foolish to think they can change their world. Thankfully we have young adults who are determined to fight against this belief system, and are making themselves known, educating us and creating change where it is so needed.
As a young adolescent I harnessed my idealism and I was not alone. We joined 200,000 people to protest nuclear proliferation at the No-Nukes Rally in NYC in 1979. 2000 folks joined the Clamshell Alliance three day protest at the Seabrook NH nuclear power plant. We found our place in a movement that worked for change. We worked against President Ronald Reagan, gathering signatures for AIDS research. I do not remember the media calling us “actors”. I do not remember being referred to as “mentally ill”. But today, the “adults” in power will not tolerate the freedoms of our youngest activists. They are consistently and methodically attacked.
David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez led survivors of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting by speaking up for gun control. They and other teens shared their horrifying story of the massacre that occurred at their school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They became activists. Led by Cameron Kasky one day after the shooting they founded Never Again, a gun control advocacy group that gained 35,000 followers in its first three days. The group created Twitter accounts and announced a nationwide protest for March 24, 2018. The “March for Our Lives”, involved millions of people in over 800 sites across the US and in other countries.
These kids knew that they had to act fast while the nation’s attention was on them. They transformed their tragedy into action. The Daily Beast reported that Colion Noir a host of NRATV taunted the teenage survivors saying that they would be irrelevant if their classmates had not been killed. Noir claimed that the kids were playing for the cameras and creating their own, “gun-control reality show”. Ericson Harrell a North Miami Police Officer claimed the survivors turned activists were student actors and probably got payoff money. But these kids, these miracles of strength and integrity continued their work. They understood that loud and despicable personal attacks on their character only proved the power of their actions. They are still active today. David Hogg and his sister co-authored, #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line, which became a New York Times best seller. They have pledged to donate all proceeds from the book to charities that advocate against gun violence. Are they too idealistic? Do they have a messianic complex? Is it all a part of the silly developmental stage of adolescence?
The adults of the world, me and you, have not done enough to fight for the safety of our citizens and planet. We have not toppled corporate greed to minimize the effects of climate change for the future. We know that the planet is warming and ocean levels are rising. We know that environmental pollution and contaminants disproportionately affect minorities. We know that for years now the water in Flint Michigan has been undrinkable. We know that the native people in Standing Rock fight to keep their water source clean, as well as their sacred lands respected. The list of environmental problems is long and growing longer.
An adolescent has emerged from this living tragedy of climate change to take her safety and well being (as well as ours) into her own hands. Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old Swedish environmentalist has taken on this fight with a bursting passion and dedication. Would she be considered “very idealistic”? Does she care too much? This young girl started protesting the lack of action on climate change outside of the Swedish Parliament every Friday instead of going to school. Her simple message and actions have grown into an international movement. She spoke at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2018 and recently traveled across the ocean in a sailboat to return to North America to spread her message. Greta has given many interviews and continues to gain support for increased climate change awareness. Her work is being referred to as “the Greta effect”.
She has been attacked for being outspoken, being young, even for her diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, which she actually claims as a super power of hers. When Greta was asked why she thought adults criticized her she answered, “I don’t understand why grown-ups would choose to mock children and teenagers for just communicating and acting, when they could do something good instead, but I guess they must feel like their world view or interests is threatened by us. We should take that as a compliment that we are having so much impact. People want to silence us. We have become too loud that they want to silence us. We should also take that as a compliment.”
It is clear that Thunberg, Gonzales, Kasky and the Hoggs, and many other young people, understand what they and we are up against, but unlike “adults” who cave to the powerlessness they have learned, they persist. The stakes are incredibly high. We need to get active with these kids. They have become the leaders and our job is to do what we know to be right and true. We need to work for the greater good as if we, as the old textbooks mock, “have some vital role to play in the salvation of humanity and can become involved in political activism and social causes that champion the underdog.” Imagine!
Social and political action in young adults is on the rise. UC Santa Cruz reports on Jessica Taft’s latest publication, The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru's Movement of Working Children, “Greta and Malala get the headlines, but for every young leader pictured on a magazine cover, thousands more are working tirelessly for causes like climate justice, racial and gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and economic change.” These young adults are living through dark times, desperate times, much like their grandparents, they have become engaged citizens out of duty and necessity. Like The Greatest Generation, these kids are working for the greater good against many odds. In his book "The Greatest Generation," Tom Brokaw argues that the World War II generation's perseverance through difficult times is a testament to their extraordinary character. Their remarkable actions, during times of war and peace, ultimately made the United States a better place in which to live. Born and raised in a tumultuous era marked by war and economic depression, these people developed values of "personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith." These characteristics helped them to defeat Hitler, build the American economy, make advances in science and implement visionary programs like Medicare. Brokaw credits the Greatest Generation with much of the freedom and affluence that Americans enjoy today. "They have given the succeeding generations the opportunity to accumulate great economic wealth, political muscle, and the freedom from foreign oppression to make whatever choices they like. "
The challenges that face this generation are different but no less threatening. We should be welcoming, encouraging and joining in this passion for our future. This is the time for change. These kids make it clear.