Where is the Youth?

The Shriver National Center on Poverty Law today tweeted a link to an Economist article, about how little attention issues of American poverty received in the last election.

It just so happens that I observed a “march against poverty” staged by AmericanPoverty.org, an organization of photojournalists committed to poverty alleviation in the United States. Criticizing activism always feels wrong but I don’t think that it is always wrong. The march felt rather more like an art project than a sincere gathering of like-minded people concerned about poverty in America. It seemed more people were carrying expensive cameras than signs.

I walked alongside the march for a while, listened to the young woman in front trying to get people to join the march with an offer of “free pizza” afterwards. Most flipped between seemingly unrelated chants and several recoiled when one young man aggressively shouted that we needed money for housing and education, not wars and corporations. I heard more than one say that he needed to tone it down.

I don’t know anyone involved in the march, so I can’t say how well they understand the issues of poverty in America, but their reactions to those ideas and their tenor in the march felt out of place with the issue. My understanding is that they were all undergraduates from a couple of classes at the same school, so I have to wonder how much practical experience any of them yet have with household economies, much less with the realities of making spending decisions when your income is well below the minimum you might actually need to spend this month. I’ve never been that broke myself, but I’ve represented clients who are. I’ve had to try to maneuver them through the court system.

I’m not suggesting the marches lacked compassion or lacked the capacity for engaged and informed political thought/action. I just did not get the sense that either compassion or informed political thought brought any of them to the march that day.

I’ve been in marches–mostly abortion rights rallies–with strangers, and I’ve served as a legal observer for rallies and marches and they’ve all seemed more present than the people were in this case. This was the first group that seemed so uninvolved with their own effort. I find this very curious. I wonder: is it better to convince a bunch of people to march with signs when they have no strong feelings on the matter or is it better leave the agitating to people who care deeply?

My very first political action ever was the second or third Day without Art–I don’t recall which year of college it was–which overlapped World AIDS day. We dressed in all black, pinned white mouthless masks all over our clothes, and refused to speak, handing fliers explaining how silence=death and what HIV and AIDS were doing to communities and even students at our school to anyone who asked what was going on. We drove to the state capitol and laid on the lawn with candles, dramatically extinguished, for Night Without Lights.

It was so long ago, now, that any conceit that I remember my motivations or the extent of my political agency is silly. But I did, at the time, have–quite literally–at my fingertips the facts and figures which were supposed to spur us all to necessary action. I had them; I knew them; I believed them and I cared to share them. I volunteered with AIDS Services of Austin for many years, then moved and, eventually, focused on other causes.

I suppose that’s how it goes with all but the most extraordinary people.

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