Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jessica Taft: Growing Up and Rising Up

Growing Up and Rising Up
by Jessica Taft
New York University Press

Nenetzin stands in the center of the plaza, her arms painted white, wearing a skeleton mask and a bridal veil. Along with a dozen other young activists all dressed as skeletons, she sings a song about remembering those who have died due to poverty, domestic violence, state repression, and other social and political injustices. It is “El Dia de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, and Nenetzin’s Mexican youth activist collective is interweaving tradition with political theater to educate others and build oppositional consciousness. At the end of the singing and dancing, another young skeleton steps forward to inform the audience that this performance was part of the construction of La Otra Campaña, a Zapatista-initiated campaign for building an alternative progressive politics in Mexico.

* * * *

Emma reports on labor issues for an independent, public access television show in Vancouver. She has presented stories on a speech given by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, a day of mourning for workers who have died on the job, and other “progressive, or working things that are going on around the city.” In addition to being a media activist, Emma also played a key role in the organization of a student rally in support of striking teachers. Emma and some of her pro-labor friends convinced a citywide student organization to take a stand on the issue and coordinated an exuberant display of student solidarity. Taking over a major intersection, the teens played music, danced, had fun, and demonstrated to the city that they wanted the district administration to return to contract negotiations with the teachers’ union.

* * * *

Manuela and I sit at her kitchen table, making pins out of foam, ribbon, and printed logos for tomorrow’s Communist Youth of Venezuela (Juventud Comunista de Venezuela or JCV) concert and cultural event. We talk about Presidents Chavez and Bush, and discuss the future of social movements in Venezuela and the United States. As members of the JCV, Manuela and her comrades see themselves as having an important role in Venezuela’s revolutionary Bolivarian process. They spend most of their time and energy doing political education work with the many young people who are excited about Chavez and the possibilities of his government, but, according to Manuela, do not yet understand all of the economic and social problems and their potential solutions. Chavez speaks openly about socialism, and the JCV is trying to work with youth to mobilize for substantial, “real” socialism, not just a few minor reforms. To do this, they hold study groups, discussing global political economy and reading Marx, Lenin, and Che. And they organize community events, like the upcoming concert, trying to bring youth together to talk about the problems they see around them and to develop their collective knowledge.

* * * *

Pitu, a tiny seventeen-year-old with a pixie haircut and wearing a fluffy pink sweater, takes my hand and leads me around one of Buenos Aires’ most well-known comedores, a new set of social institutions that can be loosely translated as soup kitchens. A cooperative, self-governing, and democratic enterprise that includes a pasta workshop, soup kitchen, photo shop, textile factory, screen-printing operation, and bakery, this comedor provides prepared and raw foods, employment opportunities, and political and social community for its members. Pitu is the youngest member of the center’s youth group, a subsection of the organization where youth participants gather together to talk and learn from each other, and to work on their own projects or assist in the various facets of the organization’s operation.

* * * *

Lisette’s dedication to fighting against environmental racism and for community health and safety finally paid off in the summer of 2001 when a San Francisco Bay Area toxic waste disposal facility, which her youth organization had been trying to shut down for more than eight years, was forced to close. Motivated by her anger at the health problems her community has experienced because of the facility’s lack of concern for the well-being of neighborhoods of poor people of color, Lisette spent countless hours planning and implementing educational events, rallies, and press conferences. She and her peers also documented the company’s violations, went to planning meetings, confronted the regulating agency, and lobbied politicians. As an activist, Lisette has been focused primarily on this one campaign for several years because, she said, “I know everything is connected and messed up, but let me try to just focus on this one thing because, if not, then I just feel like it’s too much.” Now, with the facility closed, she and her group are moving on to new projects, and Lisette is hopeful that she’ll see some major “systemic changes” in her lifetime.

* * * *

These brief stories about five teenage girl activists provide just a glimpse of their vibrant political identities and practices. From the young Zapatistas with the braids and bandanas who climbed the fence at the WTO protests in Cancun to throw flowers at the police to the U.S. high school students designing curriculums to educate their peers about child labor and sweatshops, teenage girls in the Americas are participating in a variety of struggles for social justice. Radical cheerleaders at a high school in Los Angeles, wearing red shirts with black stars, chant against the U.S. war in Iraq and in support of striking workers while doing splits and pyramids.1 Forty-four juveniles were arrested at the 2004 American Indian Movement march against the celebration of the Columbus Day Parade in Denver, Colorado. Girls and queer youth are increasingly visible in the boisterous pink blocs that have mobilized at numerous large-scale protests since the initial pink and silver column at the IMF/World Bank protests in Prague in 2000. The MST land occupations in Brazil include whole families, not just adults.3 The YouthPower! program of Desis Rising Up and Moving in New York, Khmer Girls in Action, in Long Beach, California, and other community-based youth groups organize for immigrant rights and against the detention and deportation of community members. Philadelphia students have resisted the privatization of their schools. Teenage women working in export processing zones are forming workers’ organizations. Young sex workers are organizing for their rights to health and safety. Anti-capitalist urban youth are reclaiming buildings, setting up squats, and creating autonomous spaces. Across the United States, youth are fighting for increased spending on education and against the development of more juvenile justice facilities and youth jails.4 Teenagers are actively participating in indymedia centers and youth media projects, producing a variety of alternative media and challenging the corporate concentration of television, radio, and print news. And, on March 6, 2003, hundreds of thousands of students walked out of classes around the world to protest the impending U.S. bombing of Iraq.

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