I first met Alyssa in a pale cement block room sitting at a kindergarten-sized table in faded blue kindergarten-sized chairs. The fluorescent light flickered and hummed. Wearing Cyndi Lauper boots, tights jeans, and braids draping down her plaid button-down shirt, Alyssa slid her 5’ 7” thin frame into the chair, wrapping her right leg tightly around her left, her foot twitching. That was the only ‘tell’ of her nervousness. The rest of her countenance was poised and statuesque.
“When I get older, I want to be a model, get my driver’s license and be emancipated”, she proudly answered when I asked what her dreams were. She pulled her hand into the sleeve of her sweater. “My auntie says I have to learn to forgive my mother in order to heal. I’m working on that. Once, I pounded my fist so hard into the frozen ground I bruised my hand. After that, I just hit the trailer”.
Alyssa was part of PSA (public service announcement) project to address the rising rate of teen suicide, and ways to support youth with parents or siblings addicted to meth. Alyssa’s mother had flicked her five children to the curb like the butt of a cigarette before driving off for her next fix. Carrie Manning, the community organizer of the project, was once a Meth addict herself. She believes, “We have to tell of the secrets destroying our towns if we want our community to heal.”
Two months later, during a radio interview at the end of the project, Alyssa and her sister Kalianna spoke candidly of their mother’s addiction, the brokenness they felt after being abandoned, and their path toward healing. They giggled. They cried. They shared their anger. The radio host was stunned at their compassion and maturity. After the show the station manager came into the booth. “Thank you”, he said, tears welling. “How do we, as adults, not know this? We need you to help us heal.”
Recently, I had a conversation with an art director who had confided, “I want to give youth a voice but I only get one chance (with funders). It’s got to be done right. If it’s not, they won’t give me another chance.” Sadly, she is not alone.
Why is there such a fear of letting young people speak?
I reached out to Alyssa and Dylan, another young leader involved in the PSA project. I asked them, “Why do you think adults are afraid to let youth tell their stories?” Alyssa responded first, “In my opinion, adults who don’t let youth tell their stories are inconsiderate. They don’t want us to heal.” Dylan added, “For adults that don’t want youth to share their stories, I feel like that is just out of control. The adults probably weren’t allowed to by their superiors or family members. I feel like adults need to look more into themselves, forgive themselves and learn to see things in a new light.”
When will we realize that our youth carry a wisdom and vision that is exactly what our world needs right now? When will we listen to young leaders like Sedia Woods, a college student living in the far west Texas desert. On a sunny Saturday last June, Sedia led a BLM march of nearly 400 people through the streets of Alpine, Texas. Just the day before, she’d been warned against the march. Adults in town asked derisively, “Why is she bringing this here? Who put her up to it? We don’t need ‘that’ here.” Sedia confided later that, although those voices felt scary, it emboldened her commitment to stand up for truth, love and unifying a community.
Today’s youth, especially rural youth, seem to be able to hold a duality that evades most adults. They see through the tattered fabric of our times and hold a place of acceptance and possibility that reawakens my own hope. They are reaching far beyond borders and breaking barriers in ways we, as adults who follow rules from a long-ago time, are not, or cannot.
The youth are rising.
Will we rise with them, or will we hold them down?
To ensure their protection, all parents and guardians of underage youth gave me full permission to share their pictures and a wee bit of their stories.