‘Continuing the work’ — the next generation addresses modern-day inequities

Jahna Riley, a literacy tutor in Kansas City, remembers wondering how to talk to her students about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Jahna Riley, a literacy tutor in Kansas City, remembers wondering how to talk to her students about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Courtesy of Jahna Riley

When Spencer Hardwick helped develop the Ewing Marion Kauffman School black history program this school year, he thought of his students at the public charter school.

Many cannot recall a world without Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. Hardwick knows the civil rights movement can sometimes seem like a succession of victories and setbacks for racial equality that occurred lifetimes ago, even as institutional racism remains deeply embedded in society.

“I’m very conscious that they are now two or three generations removed from Martin Luther King and what he meant,” said Hardwick, 27. “You must contextualize Martin Luther King for their world, or you risk them not feeling it in the same way.”

In many ways, the same could be said for Hardwick’s own generation, the children and grandchildren of people who lived alongside King and other civil rights leaders the nation honors each year but are removed by time and a society that has evolved in ways of technology and globalization.

Those in their 20s and 30s are realizing their own roles in the continuum of civil rights efforts that started long before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and will continue well into the future.

“It never stops,” said 18-year-old India Woods, a freshman at the University of Missouri. “I think we are continuing the work that (King) didn’t get to finish. We’re modernizing it. We’re making it unique to our generation.”

It is the burden of this generation — as it is perhaps of all generations — to be generalized. And yet there are experiences specific to young adults who are invested in finding solutions for civil rights struggles that consumed our attention in 2016, such as racial inequalities in rates of incarceration and officer-involved shootings, and enduring issues such as economic and educational inequalities. They know that efforts to curb achievement gaps in schools, deconstruct systems that lead to chronic poverty and maintain and expand LGBTQ and women’s rights will eventually rest on their shoulders.

While the lynching of Emmett Till or the bold actions of Rosa Parks compelled former generations to action, this generation has its own catalysts who have inspired calls for change.

Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland.

Each name has become a symbol of inequity and injustice, and a reminder that Jim Crow did not die, not really. Instead, it rooted itself in schools, in housing, in jails, in courtrooms, in law enforcement, in hearts.

Jahna Riley, 29, remembers clearly the fear she felt when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Martin, an unarmed black teenager whom Zimmerman shot.

The Kansas City prekindergarten literacy tutor felt that fear time and time again, including when Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. She worried about how to talk about the incident with the middle-schoolers she was teaching at the time.

“What are we fighting for, a place at the table, or to get rid of it completely?” Riley wondered.

For many who see police brutality and the fractured relationships between law enforcement and people of color as one of the nation’s most pressing civil rights issues, there is a sense that one day future generations will turn to those who witnessed these events with incredulity, said Lawrence Crawford, a public health advocate in Kansas City.

“It will be the story of the century,” Crawford said. “We will look back on this and shake our heads in dismay and not be able to fathom why we had so much resistance to addressing this issue.”

Unlike their parents and grandparents, Crawford and other young adults often did not learn about the decade’s biggest civil rights stories in a newspaper or newscast. They watched, learned and processed them on the internet.

The advent of social media did not just give everyday people platforms to share information and ideas, it brought the world to their computer screens.

The internet made it impossible to escape information that challenges world views imparted by parents, Crawford said, and it made it easier than ever for young adults to develop their own.

Maybe you grew up thinking that the justice system was infallible, Crawford said. And then maybe you signed on to Facebook and watched a video of a police officer in New York City squeezing the life out of a man suspected of selling cigarettes.

“That’s innately powerful, and that’s something that our parents didn’t get a chance to experience,” Crawford said.

The result has been a generation that is more skeptical of information than ever, but also deeply committed to inclusion.

“We have grown up in a world where we question the values of things we are told,” Hardwick said. “We push back on structures to make them more inclusive and responsible to people who don’t fit certain profiles.”

Millennials are sometimes hailed as the most educated generation, and they understand what came before them, but that doesn’t mean they feel bound to taking the same approach to ending civil rights struggles.

“Above all, they taught us that there is almost an imperative to challenge the status quo,” Hardwick said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean a sit-in or a boycott, though it can, but holding out for ideals and seeing them out knowing you might not see the end of the struggle.”

Talk to young adults about solving racial issues in America, and many will talk about how those issues intersect with the needs of LGBTQ people, the homeless, the impoverished. Some don’t see civil rights movements as an opposition to the oppression of black people, or gay people, or women or transgender people specifically — but an opposition to oppression itself.

At times, the varied interests of modern activists has led to people representing a plethora of issues competing for attention in both community and online spaces. Sometimes this approach has invited criticism of their initiatives, such as when new civil rights movements forming around racial issues have been the target of criticism for needing a clearer mission and goals.

“I think when folks criticize them for not having a unified platform, they aren’t taking into consideration how young this movement really is,” Riley said. “The civil rights movement started with a bus boycott, not a voting rights bill.”

So, what comes next?

“I think the No. 1 thing is unity,” said Tashia Richards, a member of the Kansas City Black United Front. “We have to be able to stand together when there is an issue that we are faced with. We might not agree on all the issues, but we have to agree that the change that would come from standing together will be greater than us standing apart.”

Crawford would like to see civil rights movements perfect their ability to shape policy and communicate everyday needs with lawmakers.

Riley sees civil rights victories continuing to be played out in local communities where “you see smaller wins in all of these different places.”

For many in Kansas City, that means continuing to do what they can in their own space.

And so Hardwick gets up and goes to school each day, and even when some local or world event seems traumatic, he reminds himself of the opportunity to impact the lives of his students.

“This is my way of making a change,” Hardwick said. “For me, that’s my brand of activism that I get to do every day.”

And Richards tells people not to wait for injustice to happen to them or someone they know before becoming involved.

“Unity is the only way we are going to push forward,” she said. “It’s proven you can’t do it alone. You have to do it with like-minded people. And get involved, and do what you can.”

And Woods spent the summer before her freshman year in college working for More2 — Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity — and switched her major to social work by the time she returned home for Christmas.

“We’re the next generation,” Woods said. “Our parents and our grandparents — they can tell us things. But eventually, they aren’t going to be here, and we’re going to be the ones to tell the story.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen