Young people have always been the key to any movement for social change. Yet like the Greek Titan Chronus who swallows his newborn children whole in order to retain his throne, an older generation may be the biggest obstacle to progress.
Scholar Oiyan Poon astutely observed how a number of current progressive leadership fail to effectively pass the torch on to the next generation: “Sure we talk a good talk, even giving conferences titles like ‘Passing the Torch,’ but in practice... (I love my elders but, I gotta say it) our older generation SUCKS at walking the talk of empowering a next generation…And by the way... I had a lengthy discussion a few months back with an ‘elder’ who mentioned that by ‘next generation’ he thinks of people in their 40s. YIKES!”
Except for a few notable exceptions, the crescendo of “we need to reach out to the youth” has dramatically risen but unfortunately words largely remain words. This moment closely echoes the early ‘90s when a lot of local unions espoused “Organize the Unorganized” but few actually committed resources to this prerogative.
When words do translate to action, some leaders treat “youth” as mere cannon fodder for intensive short-term campaigns. A respected organizing director had even frankly confided with me that young people are good for 2 to 3 years; they leave, and then you bring in a new batch. I have witnessed a revolving door at many social justice organizations where young minds and bodies go in and out until a good number of them leave altogether disillusioned to become school teachers or retreat to grad school. We are not nurturing the next generation of leaders but producing a phalanx of burnt-out wounded warriors.
Veteran organizer Marshall Ganz, after working through the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers Movement with Cesar Chavez, and the recent election of Obama to president, noted that “young people come of age with a critical eye and a hopeful heart. It’s that combination of critical eye and hopeful heart that brings change. That’s one reason why so many young people were and are involved in movements for social change.” Is an older generation only feeding the eyes and leaving the fire burning in the hearts of young people out in the cold?
This past July 2009, I was elected National President of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA, AFL-CIO), the largest and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) union members. At age 37, I came to the position with a mandate to unite a younger generation with the labor movement. Additionally the number of elected executive board members under the age 40 went from two to 10, including the election of our youngest leader Van Nguyen at age 22, a recent graduate from UC Berkeley and the first Vietnamese student body president. The electoral convention trumpeted the theme, “Generations United, Organizing for Change” and it was the first national gathering of Asian American and Pacific Islander students and workers in US history. Looking across the crowd, the involvement of the ages 18-35 crowd clearly electrified the union convention.
The founders of APALA, at its very beginnings when they started the organization in 1992, had the foresight to recruit, train, and mentor me and a group of young AAPI students to enter the US Labor Movement. The founding national president Kent Wong convinced me as a young 20-year-old to attend their three-day organizing training. A
s the years progressed, Kent, former APALA national president Luisa Blue, and leaders Josie Camacho, Amado David, Pat Lee, and several others mentored and guided me through the byzantine labyrinth and sometimes harsh world of the trade union movement. But more importantly, they stepped to the side and risked letting me exercise leadership. In other words, they understood that the best mentorship program is getting out of the way and helping me into a leadership position. This doesn't mean that their wisdom should be ignored but that they do not always have to be the ones holding the reins.
At the APALA convention, a founder of APALA went up to the public microphone and spoke about how as a young student she joined a campus-wide strike at her college for ethnic studies, and then tearfully expressed her joy in seeing a new generation here who want to continue making change. A flame still kindles in this next generation and it burns across all lines.
We mustn’t forget it was a 26-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 20-year old Clara Lemlich who ignited some of the first marches for women’s rights in the US, an 18-year old Sieh King King who led a rally in San Francisco for equal rights for women in the US and China in the early 1900s, and it was a new generation who made history and propelled a black man to the highest position of the land.