Some see these images and label the mobs as thugs, opportunists, or a lost generation. Some count the cost of the devastation and measure it all as waste. No one can look at this senseless destruction and claim it was done in a rational and productive way.
But I worship a God who brings good out of all things and so I wait and I pray.
I have three daughters ages 16, 19, and 21. As I have processed the events in Baltimore with them, all of them shared the same sentiment, “At least people are paying attention now.” While I disagree strongly with the means, I do hope that the good that comes will be that we begin to truly, deeply, listen to those in our nation who have for too long had no voice.
This past week, I went to share the vision of our Dream Catcher summer listening project with a group of High School students from one of our cities lower income communities. I went in with my normal optimistic attitude inviting the young people to become agents of change in their community. What I received from these youth was not just apathy, but out right distrust and disbelief.
“Ain’t nothing ever going to change around here.” “Why you think you can change anything? (With a clearly implied “fool” on the end). “I just want out of here! Why would I waste my time trying to change things.”, “There is no use even trying to change things cause nobody cares,” “This is just the way things are.”
It was certainly the toughest crowd I have ever tried to engage. I thought the project would end before it began.
Fortunately, my friend Taz took over and convinced these young skeptics that even if it failed, they would have fun together. We ended up with roughly half the youth, 5 brave souls, committing to at least show up at our next gathering.
The night after my encounter with these young people, I did not sleep. I knew this encounter, though a painful one, was rich in meaning.
What these youth were articulating in their resistance to my invitation is multi-layered. Unspoken but clearly communicated was,
“Who do you think you are white lady coming in here claiming you can change things?”
Though my invitation to them was simply one of listening to the dreams of their neighbors, they had met way too many people like me, or at least who they assumed me to be. All full of promises with no delivery. I did not take it personally. If I were them, I would probably feel the same way.
Beyond the obvious distrust of me personally, there was something even more significant in this conversation. When I asked them what they would like to see changed in their community, the overwhelming response was that they would remove all the rules and police presence in their neighborhood.
As I have been more intentionally listening to young people over the past year, I increasingly hear youth calling their schools “prison-like.”
This is true of youth from all socio-economic levels. I heard it from my own daughters describing their middle class suburban high schools and I hear it from the youth in my neighborhood. The culture of “power over” has given rise to a spirit of powerlessness and voicelessness among our youth – especially those who have historically been oppressed by larger social systems.
When the present reality becomes unbearable and you feel you have no power to change it, you get Baltimore.
The anger and frustration that erupted into destructive acts in Baltimore is simmering under the surface in neighborhoods across our nation.
The harder we try to use a power-over, authoritative model of control, the more pressure builds, and the more likely it is that we will see events like Baltimore erupting across this nation.
We have to stop trying to control the situation and create pathways for our youth to be heard and become part of the solution to the issues they are facing.
Treating them like the enemy and assuming they are the problem is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the most interesting facts about the civil rights movement of the 60’s is the youthfulness of the movement. Dr. King provided a pathway for young people to express their outrage that led to massive social change.
Organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement across this country are creating those pathways but from what I see locally, it is primarily college students. Many neighborhood youth who are most impacted by the racial inequity in our current economic, educational and criminal justice systems lack access to movements of this nature.
I left my new young friends saddened and less hopeful than I have been in a long time. While my visit did yield five brave youth who were willing to give it a try, my soul grieved, having felt the hopelessness in their challenges to the idea of change. In the next few weeks, we will begin meeting with these five courageous youth and I honestly have no idea what will happen.
“Might there also be a future that rejoices because we heeded Esther’s call and stepped forth boldly for such a time as this?”
The image of young Esther entering the presence of the king risking her own life to plead for mercy for her people has stuck with me for days. This is my prayer for my new young friends and for those across our nation, both black and white, young an old, rich and poor, who are trying to find the good in these recent events. I pray we all find the courage to approach those in power in a way that leads to a brighter more hopeful future for all our citizens.