The Next Revolutionaries
After three decades of dormancy, youth activism is again flowering. But today’s flower children are a hardy new variety. They’re economically, ecologically, and electronically sophisticated. They’re also globally organized, dead serious about democracy, and determined to have more fun than their opponents.
Guillermo Jones’ first lesson in loving the land came early.
A descendant of the Yaqui people of the Southwest, he was eight or nine when he first went hunting with his cousin in the Sonora Desert. His family gave him a .22 rifle and some bullets, then turned him loose.
“I felt like I was in this fabulous Johnny Quest action adventure movie,” he says. “I felt like I was God because I had a gun.”
But when he returned home at the end of the day, he was shocked to learn that his family expected him to account for every shell.
“There was no way they could be serious, right? Go back and cover the 10 miles of desert that we had hiked all over and pick up every shell I had shot off that day?”
They were dead serious, for two reasons: number one, the land must always be left exactly as it was when you came. Number two, you should never, ever, leave tracks or a way for people to find you.
And one more rule: if you kill something, you have to cut it, skin it, gut it, cook it, and eat it.
Guillermo didn’t hunt for a long time after that.
His second lesson came in college. He was going to school full time and working full time. “All I had to do was just stay in the game,” he says. “All I had to do was take a few uppers and stay up a little longer. All I had to do was take a few downers and go to sleep. All I had to do was basically destroy myself.”
He became ill. Then he decided to return to the Sonora, the desert that he considers his homeland, to simplify his life. But the road back to the land was crossed with roadblocks.
“As you take these steps, you begin to learn what it is to return to the land and what keeps you from returning. And what keeps you, in the most literal sense, is that you can’t go. It’s private property and there are dogs and barbed wire. So there’s no way to get back to the land without getting into revolution, and by revolution I mean a change in consciousness.”
Guillermo’s quest to unfence the Yaqui’s traditional land led him to organizing and activism. Through activism he realized that the liberation he sought was intimately bound up in the struggles of many others. He saw that the freedom to walk across the land is not different from the freedom to drink clean water or the ability to live without fear of racial hatred. In pushing for these freedoms, Guillermo and tens of thousands of others, young and old, are building a movement designed to reevaluate the source of our real wealth. They’re asking a question that goes to the root of what it means to be alive in these times: Can we create a society that is rooted in respect for each other and the diverse communities and ecosystems that sustain us all?
The answer, Guillermo believes, is yes. “Even though a lot of people are coming from different perspectives, they’re reaching the same conclusion: This culture is not healthy. It’s time for real change.”
Our lives speak a prayer
As a member of Generation X, I grew up watching the public spaces around me fill with enticements to consume. I watched ads pour into our grade schools. In high school I lived under Pepsi’s threat to project its logo on the moon. In college I watched malls being constructed on our university campuses. By the time I graduated from college in 1997, I even had the option of living in Celebration, Florida, a town wholly owned by the Disney Corporation.
After college I traveled around the world studying the global economy. From the golf courses that carpet the Philippines where rainforests once stood to the huge hotels that dislocate fishing communities in India and the strip malls that displace open-air markets in Mexico, I saw again and again how commercial interests are reshaping the geography, culture, and ecosystems of the world.
I became an activist because, standing in the middle of Manila, a sea of people with shopping bags and cell phones swirling around me, I was suddenly aware of how this global arithmetic adds up. I saw how choices I made of what to buy and how to spend my energy quickly multiplied into the larger spectacle of a global consumer culture that values profit above education, nature, communities, and even human life. I became an activist because I realized in that moment that how I lead my life speaks a prayer for the world I want to create. Through colorful, nonviolent direct action, I do my best to pray for a world filled with joy, reverence, justice, freedom, and compassion.
I joyfully and nonviolently wait for Tim Simons and Nell Geiser in a small, independent coffee shop in downtown Boulder, Colorado.
Tim, 17, arrives first, wearing a white baseball cap with a big red C on it. From far away it looks like a Cubs cap, but when he comes closer I can see that it reads “Cuba.” He sits down in the booth facing me and, after introductions, I tell him that I am interested in how young people get involved in activism — that I’m focusing on Generation X …
“I’m not part of Generation X,” he says.
Really? What generation are you part of?
He smiles. “The Pepsi Generation.”
Tim and Nell tell a tale of growing up in a school system that’s “already sold.” They talk about Zap Me, a company that gives schools free computers with continuous advertising on the sides of the screen. In return, kids fill out marketing surveys that are handed over to the advertisers. They talk about Channel One, a corporate-sponsored program that gives schools access to technology in exchange for mandatory viewing of their educational programming and advertising, and the volume can’t be turned down. They talk about math textbooks available in 15 states that contain questions about how long it will take Bill or Jane to save up for a pair of Nikes or a Sony video game. They talk of how Pepsi and Coke compete to buy the exclusive right to vend to public schools in some 200 school districts.
Nell and Tim have covered all of these issues in Student Worker, the political youth zine they produce together. Now their sights are set on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, a test produced by an educational testing corporation that Tim calls “a tool of the educational-industrial complex.” If Colorado Senate Bill 186 passes, this test will be used to grade schools based on test scores and then to financially reward the schools whose students do well. Nell and Tim believe this law will both harm the schools that need the funding most and force schools to start teaching to the test.
“That’s one of the examples of how every part of our lives is being turned into an industry,” Tim says. “Here’s this huge testing company that’s going to make tons of money off this new law, and our education is reduced to studying for a test.”
Ultimately, school standards like these teach kids to be consumers rather than citizens. “Kids just don’t feel connected to a school system that doesn’t make them excited about learning,” Nell says. “It leads to an apathy about school — and about politics.”
Consumerist values are not natural to us, Tim points out; it takes years of persuasion to get us to internalize them. “That’s why they need Channel One in schools, ads in schools, huge banners in schools, and exclusive cola contracts. If it were human nature to act this way, then we wouldn’t need to watch five hours of TV a day to be successful consumers.”
Nell and Tim aren’t the only students raising the alarm about the rising tide of commercialism in public schools. Youth-driven activism in the United States has surged over the past several years. The forms vary, from anti-globalization organizations, gay/straight alliances, and anti-sweatshop campaigns to the recent student-led mass mobilizations in Seattle, DC, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Nell, 16, was arrested during the IMF/World Bank protests in DC. She also helped the independent radio show Democracy Now! cover the protests at the party conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Tim was a medic on the streets of Seattle during the protest against the World Trade Organization and has worked on several national and local campaigns highlighting the commercialization of public schools.
I ask them how they explain this surge in youth activism.
Nell thinks it simply mirrors the increase in anti-sweatshop and pro-democracy movements in the adult activist community. Tim contends that it’s a response to corporate excess. Corporations have transgressed so heavily, they have become so cheeky, he says, that we just had to notice.
I agree with them both. The roots of the current pro-democracy/anti-globalization movement reach deep into the global anti-sweatshop movement, the anti-racism movements, and the Reclaim the Streets movements — to name just a few. But as corporations made bolder and bolder power grabs through institutions like the World Trade Organization, they set the stage for the population to react.
There is plenty to react to. “I mean, just look at the elections,” Tim says, laughing. “At 7-Eleven you can go in and choose either a ‘Gore’ cup, a ‘Bush’ cup, or an ‘Other’ cup for your slurpee. They’re going to do their own little consumer poll. That just defines it. Politics isn’t about who’s going to run our country; it’s about some convenience store making cash and having a joke on the side. Everything’s trivialized, everything’s marginalized, everything’s a marketing gimmick. I mean, we have to respond.”
The decision to respond is transformational. Responding against a consumer culture that assigns value only to what is scarce has opened my eyes to the beauty in the bounty that surrounds me. Valuing and fighting for a beach of seashells, a group of sea turtles, or clean air reminds me that, when those things are present, I am already wealthy. Working against exploitation in nonhierarchical, creative, and spontaneous collaboration with thousands of dedicated people reminds me that, when we nonviolently resist oppression, we are already free. I now understand that I am not repairing the Earth; the Earth is repairing me.
Guillermo puts it this way: “Wealth,” he says, “isn’t about money in the bank. Wealth is about watching the sun go down with your family. Wealth is about having a belly full of food that you grew yourself that doesn’t have pork DNA recombined into the corn. When you talk about saving the wetlands or you talk about equal pay, I think you are talking about the same thing — empowering people to determine that they can live and be wealthy, be spiritually full, without participating in the West’s material culture.”
Tim caught glimpses of the road to a truly wealthy society while he was in Seattle for the World Trade Organization protests. “Sure, people were getting gassed.” He shrugs. “But there was music, and people were happy. We felt much more of a connection to the people around us. I could see the world we’re working for in how the movement is building itself.”
He doesn’t know exactly what this world will look like and believes that it’s not important to know. If we simply work towards fulfilling people’s needs, he says, the rest will begin to take care of itself.
What is it that people need?
“You need love. You need to give and receive love, connect with community and the living world around you. This movement is, in resisting what we don’t like, spontaneously building something we do. The movement is building very human values along with trying to stop the proliferation of corporate culture.”
The movement is about reclaiming ownership of our schools, our towns, our open spaces, our celebrations, our food, our water, our identities, our economy, and our democratic process. Measuring progress and wealth by those standards — by the quality of our lives, our environment, and the lives of others — links us in fundamental ways that corporate culture never can.
Can we get to this new world from here?
“It’s going to take making this resistance mainstream,” Nell says. “Then, one day, there will be a time when you can talk to kids outside of schools and they will be engaged in their own future.” And being engaged in your own future creates a fundamental solidarity with the future of others.
In her book A Map to the Next World, Joy Harjo speaks directly to me and my generation when she encourages us all to move boldly into that uncertain future: “What is created next is open to speculation or awe. The shy fish who had known only water walked out of the ocean onto dry land, just like that, to another life.”