The Great Potential of Youth

My second week of Urban Hope is almost halfway through and my eyes have already been opened to the deep potential displayed by the campers that I work with. I just came from Duke Divinity School where two four-person teams of 6th and 7th graders fed close to 80 guests at the Duke Youth Academy (DYA). Each team was tasked with creating its own theme, planning its menu (with vegetarian and vegan options), and decorating their tables. They prepared the meals days in advance following strict restaurant health regulations and procedures. The day of the event the two teams served the DYA students, filling every role that one would find in a restaurant: hostess, waiter, chef, and many more. The dinner was a huge success, both with our campers and our patrons, and everyone was ecstatic to have succeeded so well.

The intense effort given by these kids toward this particular entrepreneurial challenge was both humbling and inspiring for me on a theoretical and personal level. While we don’t live in a society that fully dismisses the power of the youth, adults seem to be favored as the more important and impacting age group in society. Whether its intelligence, maturity, or wisdom, the youth never seem to have enough of it.

Bull City LeadersThis is, in fact, something that I personally have often been thinking about as I move closer to graduation and am asked again and again that inevitable question: “So what are going to do after college?” Most of the talk about my generation’s career options paints a dismal picture of what the future holds. The hope of obtaining a good start up job, according to many, has faded into a mess of unpaid internships, expensive and unnecessary graduate schools, and other scenarios where we are said to be much worse off than those who have come before. These conversations, whether one actually believes them or not, have the potential to undermine the self-efficacy of people my age. After hearing and seeing this perceived reality of our futures we begin to doubt the impact that we could have on the world as young people and instead see our role in society as latching on to preexisting organizations and institutions in order to affect the change that we wish to see in this world… Or at least that is how I sometimes feel.

Catching me in this thought process, Urban Hope has served to shake things up. Seeing these campers, coming from a community with a perceived reality far bleaker than mine, take on and succeed in challenges that I would struggle with has really been a huge inspiration. Although at times it was difficult to motivate these campers, as most of the counselors can verify, in the end was a product so exceptional that most of the DYA people, and the Urban Hope staff, were baffled. The meal was incredible, the atmosphere was incredible, and the service, all done by the Urban Hope campers, was incredible. I saw in that challenge the astonishing potential for young folks to rise above their circumstance and demonstrate the extent to which they really are beating the odds.

Urban Hope is not, however, the only testament here to the great potential found in many youth and people my age. Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, founders of the intentional community and hospitality home where I was living, came to Walltown immediately after graduating from college and started the Rutba House and School For Conversion, two huge influences in the community today. This was also months after they had gone on a peacekeeping mission, as 22 year olds, to Iraq during the Shock and Awe bombing campaign of 2003. Rather than assimilate into an existing group or organization, or even pursue the usual post-college course, Jonathan and Leah, at my age, came into Durham and have had a profound impact in the ten years since.

Another example has been my reading for this week, Many Minds, One Heart by Wesley Hogan. This book traces the history of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission (SNCC), an extremely influential Civil Rights group comprised mostly of college students. These young folks, again all around my age, who like Jonathan and Leah decided to pave their own road toward future goals, organized sit-ins, voter registration movements, and many other direct action campaigns in the face of complete and utter hopelessness. The odds, like the odds in Walltown, were stacked against them; too many forces didn’t want to see their success. Yet despite this, these students persevered and ended up changing the face of the Civil Rights Movement. Change really was possible.

Witnessing this hope reassures me of the good works that can be accomplished simply by doing them. Shane Claiborne, an author and new monastic (or, “ordinary radical,” as he would call himself), has a great line in one of his books: “Most good things in life have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.” For me, a guy who likes to say things a lot, it is inspiring to see people just doing things. Great things, for that matter.