Concerns and Hope for Youth: A Conversation with Young Activists

Photo from Unsplash by Nicholas Green

ARTY MANGAN: As an elder who has had the privilege of being involved in organizing Bioneers’ Youth Education and Leadership Program for over 16 years, I am increasingly impressed by the resilience and creativity of the young people we work with, but at the same time I’ve become increasingly concerned about what the world is offering them—a confluence of intense anxieties surrounding climate change, racial and gender oppression, the menace of gun violence, social isolation, increasingly corrupt political and economic systems, etc. That’s a lot for teenagers to absorb, let alone navigate, while their minds are developing and their bodies are changing. With the pressure of all of those discouraging realities, it’s often difficult for them to envision a positive future.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a 2022 study of high school students asking the question: “Do you feel persistently hopeless or depressed.” 45% said yes, almost double what it was 20 years ago. That level of psychological suffering in youth is a pervasive public health crisis.

At a recent Bioneers event co-produced with the David Brower Center in Berkeley, I had the opportunity to talk to some frontline youth organizers about how older generations can support them in creating spaces that foster self-confidence and leadership and help young aspiring activists move beyond feelings of alienation and confusion. I asked them to share their main concerns and their greatest hopes about the current condition of young people.

The three young leaders I spoke with were:

Sam Martinez, a youth leader at Bay Peace (a group that works with youth to help them heal from systemic violence and intergenerational trauma and empowers them and nurtures their creativity through the arts), a first-generation Mexican/Vietnamese-American, and a queer trans person of color.

Julianna Horcasitas, also of Bay Peace, a native of the East Bay who grew up in a Hispanic family culture surrounded by strong women mentors.

Ayo Lewis, the Youth Coordinator for RJOY (Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth), an organization that seeks to shift the way we think about justice from seeking vengeance and retaliation to a focus on healing broken relationships and trauma.

ARTY MANGAN: What are your main concerns about the challenges young people are currently facing?

Sam Martinez and Julianna Horcasitas.
Photo by Jan Mangan

SAM MARTINEZ: A big thing that concerns me is the prison industrial complex and the “school-to-prison pipeline” that incarcerates so many young people of color. Bay Peace is working to close youth detention centers, and we help youth find health resources and provide spaces of belonging and safety, so they can be who they really are, whether that be artists, creatives, organizers, or whatever field they are drawn to.

JULIANNA HORCASITAS: A main concern of mine is the level of violence youth are exposed to. Sam and I are both impacted youth. The violence that we endure at homes, in our schools, in our streets, and just within our general community troubles me. When violence is at the forefront of one’s life, it influences you to adopt that energy and that role because you only know violent ways. With violence and horrible stories always in the news, my main concern is that a lot of youth feel like that’s how they need to act.

We also talk a lot about intergenerational trauma, so as youth ourselves, we want to make an impact to stop that cycle. My hope for youth who are affected by intergenerational trauma is that they can understand their power and the important role they have as young leaders in the community. Fortunately, in the Bay Area there are many community members who have that same vision. I just hope that the empowered youth of the Bay Area will be able to spread that vision all around the world.

ARTY: How does Bay Peace work to try to accomplish that?

JULIA: Bay Peace offers leadership intern programs. Sam and I were interns when I was in high school. The program empowers and uplifts youth by putting them at the forefront of actions or marches, or even by hiring them to be full-time staff. They are put in a position in which they can be heard. When we give those opportunities to youth, it allows them to get outside of their comfort zone and see themselves as leaders able to make decisions. At Bay Peace, we always have youth leadership at the forefront. There are no adults making the big decisions; it’s all youth leading Bay Peace. With that feeling of being empowered, they keep coming back and taking the work outside of Bay Peace.

SAM: A big thing that we do every year is organize healing circles where we talk about our issues, because youth often don’t have spaces where they get to openly talk about the violence and harm they’ve endured and the trauma they’ve been through. The youth in our program get to experience us as people. We answer their questions and work with imagination, asking the question: “If anything were possible, what would you need to feel safe?” And we end it using art, whether that be digital, painting, music, poetry, any form of art that gets their creative juices flowing. And we take pride in creating community-based art.

ARTY: Ayo, what are some of your main concerns about the lives of young people?

Ayo Lewis. photo by Jan Mangan

AYO LEWIS: A lot of our youth are hurting and don’t have spaces to be open and vulnerable. Personally, in my family, if my younger cousins didn’t have me, they wouldn’t have a lot of other people to talk to about what they’re going through. And often a youth’s perspective is dismissed by adults who say, “Oh, we’ve been through that,” or “You don’t have anything to stress about.” Having more spaces to be vulnerable, more spaces where youth are seen as full humans, as people not just kids, would be a great start in helping address some of these issues.

ARTY: That’s the kind of space that RJOY creates for youth. What do you see happening with youth in the RJOY healing circles?

AYO: Youth, like all people, have different personality types. Some are quiet and reserved, while others are more open about the challenges they’re going through, and what excites them and what makes them happy. You see it in the way that people handle conflict. Before going through the Restorative Justice process, most youth handle conflict negatively, whether that’s with violence or harsh words or detaching. At RJOY, they learn to lean into discomfort and have tough conversations. Oftentimes, it ends up building stronger relations and changes how people show up and how they express themselves and interact with others.

What brings me the most hope is when I see our youth groups within the program having honest conversations and figuring things out. Adults don’t always have the answers, but I don’t think they have to as long as they have the space to work together with youth and figure it out honestly, together.

The Bioneers Youth Education and Leadership Program works to engage youth fully with their minds, bodies and spirits so that personal healing can lead to collective healing, clear thinking, and an open heart as the foundations for building a sane, respectful, inclusive, and fair future. Bay Peace and RJOY will be holding workshops for youth at the Bioneers Conference in April.

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