The Youth Empowerment Dilemma

By Cameron Young

Because of the permanent and long-term damage climate chaos stands to inflict on our planet, it’s only fitting that the climate justice movement be represented by people from the generations that stand to be most impacted by it. In desperate efforts to reverse the course of destruction we’ve been placed on, the world is turning to the prophetic voices of young activists such as Unitarian Universalist Levi Draheim, Autumn Peltier and these 8 other young POCI activists that you should know about, and of course, perhaps the most high profile among them, Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg, whose efforts have garnered her accolades such as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations, is outspoken and brilliant, and a hero for, among others, those who are neurodivergent, citing her Asperger’s diagnosis as her “superpower.” It’s hard to help but wonder, though, what kind of trauma she may have been or may eventually experience to in the midst of her rise.

Thunberg has been subjected to mass bullying, most notably by the POTUS, but much more far reaching than even him and his Twitter entourage. This is not in any way to downplay her emotional resilience, but we also can’t write this off by saying “She’s fine because she’s tough as nails!” And I don’t personally know Greta. Perhaps she CAN filter this out in a healthy way. I am more describing the phenomenon of treating young justice makers as superhumans without allowing space for their humanity and vulnerability. I know I would struggle with such massive smearing now at the age of 30, let alone when I was a teenager. This also begs another question. What if she screws up?

A young and famous activist would likely find themselves in similar predicaments as that of child stars- encountering lots of people and situations that most others in their developmental stage might not come across. For as many people that might harass or scrutinize them, they might find just as many (often toxic) people wanting to woo them and be their friends (and sometimes both!). Plus, the positioning of child actors isn’t even as controversial with regards to ideology. Even fame aside, becoming a young adult, leaving home (and perhaps going onto higher education), experimenting, and making huge mistakes IS developmentally healthy. The public is less forgiving, however. This not only includes the bullies, whose fires will only be fueled, but also the allies and followers who have anointed these young leaders.

On a smaller scale, I’ve witnessed the above at play in Unitarian Universalism. We are a faith with youth leadership in our DNA. The Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), which served both Unitarian and Universalist youth, was the primary motivator for the eventual consolidation of the two faiths in 1961. LRY had profound involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s. It also, as the result of its philosophy of total youth autonomy, fostered an often boundaryless and unsafe environment. Untold amounts of youth experienced harm as a result of this, and despite LRY’s eventual disbanding in 1982, this culture, the good AND the bad, would continue to linger in the faith for decades to come.

Though we still do well to empower young leaders and raise them as agents of change in the world, we often also fall into the traps of tokenism and idolization. This is especially hard on youth and young adults of color. I’ve seen young UU leaders (many of whom also carry marginalized identities) placed on a pedestal only to have it kicked out from underneath them when they inevitably make mistakes. I’ve heard many religious professional colleagues express overt gratitude that they weren’t with the faith in a leadership capacity in their 20s, because of their own mishaps or emotional vulnerability, or both. I can speak from this firsthand. I remember the first time that I was told I was “UU famous.” At first, I thought it was kind of cool. Over time though, it can manifest in this weird paranoia that your every move is being watched. Despite our context being truly a tiny one in the grand scheme of things, it sure doesn’t always feel that way. It’s not unlike the feeling of being a PK (preacher’s kid)- and many young UU leaders are just that. This can lead to anxiety and self-sabotage, among other things. Young people deserve a voice. Now, more than ever, given the world they are inheriting. They also deserve our protection. Can we hear our prophets without making them into martyrs?

About the Author

Cameron Young

Cameron Young is a native Texan and lifelong Unitarian Universalist. Having grown up in those programs, they developed a particular affinity for youth and young adult ministry. Prior to joining the UUA, Cameron served as a lifespan religious educator in Fort Worth, Texas for five years, having...

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