Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal have sparked a heated and important national conversation. Many intelligent thinkers are trying to make sense of this tragedy, searching for ways that we as a nation can heal and move forward. As I reflect on the work that we at YPT do with young people, specifically teenagers, I feel compelled to speak from my point of view as both an artist and an educator.
As adults, we have got to listen to teenagers. Now more than ever. We have got to let African American teenagers and teenagers of color and all teenagers know that they deserve safety, health and happiness, and that their voices matter.
Too many teenagers in our society are plagued by violence in their schools, in their homes and in their neighborhoods. They are marginalized because of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia and combinations thereof. They are judged unfairly, labeled “dangerous,” “threatening” and “difficult.”
I am deeply troubled by all the negativity surrounding the “millennial” generation. Millennials are supposedly “lazy” and “entitled.” They’re attached to their phones. They’re the “me generation.” At the same time, studies report that the time to invest in young people is in early childhood, an excellent strategy but one that I worry may inadvertently suggest a hidden corollary: that by the time children have become teenagers, they cannot learn, cannot grow, cannot make important contributions to their communities.
In my five years with YPT, I have met amazing teenagers. YPT’s teenage playwrights have written insightful plays that comment on real issues facing their communities such as gang violence, teen pregnancy, bias crime, bullying, gentrification and immigration. And they’ve also penned delightful comedies that lift the spirits of all who watch or read them. I’ve met teenagers who surprised me by sitting silent in the back of the class for a whole semester, only to hand in brilliant plays. I’ve seen teenagers work together and forge connections with other students who were different from themselves.
When I walk into a high school classroom, I know that I will have to work hard to earn the respect and trust of the teenage students. Why should this reflect poorly on them? Teenagers are savvy. Just like adults, they ask us to prove ourselves. That doesn’t make them “bad” or “difficult” – it is their right as human beings.
Now more than ever we need to empower young people. We need to listen to their stories and honor their perspectives. We need to encourage and allow them to speak their truths to help us as adults “widen our circles of compassion,” as President Obama put it. Our circles of compassion must grow to encompass all teenagers. To do that, we’re going to have to listen up.