Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow, Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (New York: Nation Books, 2005).
Think the movement died in the 70s? Think that there are no young people actively organizing to end the multitude of oppressions that still exist in our society? Well, think again. Thanks to a new generation of young activists, the Movement continues, vibrant and strong.
In Letters from Young Activists, Berger, Boudin, and Farrow — all activists themselves -– introduce us to a new generation of people organizing across the country, as well as internationally, for social justice. The book came into being because, as the editors state in the introduction, “Our generation of activists needed a platform to define ourselves” (xxvii). The writers in Letters from Young Activists do this by examining how their activism is shaped by their multiple identities, which vary immensely in race, gender, class, and sexuality. These young activists invite you into a conversation that bursts with honesty, passion, hope, and rage.
Letters from Young Activists was first assigned to me as course material for a graduate class. The format immediately put me at ease and I found myself reading anywhere I could carry the book with me – on the bus and on the train, in bed at night, out loud to my students. The format of Letters from Young Activists welcomes us to join in the conversation about radicalism, social justice, and activism. As the editors state, “By doing a book of letters, we hope to create spaces for all activists, especially those not traditionally looked to for social or intellectual commentary. The following letters have a range of approaches and voices, but the format itself introduces the possibility for dialogue to take place. Letter writing is one of the oldest traditions of story telling; blending the personal and political, they offer the greatest potential to speak to the widest range of people” (xxviii). Importantly, Letters from Young Activists breaks down the academy/activist dichotomy that exists today. In his letter, Kevin Etienne-Cummings writes, “Academic language can become a tool of marginalization, especially for the young scholar from a low-income or first generation college, or first generation graduate-school background” (191). No one is left out of this conversation; Letters from Young Activists will speak to you whether you are in the academy or not.
As a young activist, I feel like my work is, at times, invisible. The racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia that I work to end seem so immense that they become the objects in focus, not my activism and certainly not me. In the preface to Letters from Young Activists, longtime activist Bernardine Dohrn writes, “This volume… arrives at a moment of U.S. triumphalism, permanent war, global domination, and reactionary fundamentalism so deliberately intimidating, so insistent, so totalizing that we are meant not to see” (xiii). One place we fight invisibility is within the media. In his letter to James Baldwin, Mervyn Marcano writes, “All my life, I’ve been faced with the alleged worthlessness of my own body. Most Black men can say the same, and we are constantly reminded of this farce through our nonexistence in the media landscape” (106). But Letters from Young Activists reminds us that while at times it may seem like we are invisible, we are actively fighting against the powers that try to leave us –- and our work -– unseen. We are organizing in our high schools, on college campuses, in our communities. We work at women’s shelters and homeless shelters. We organize to raise class-consciousness and anti-racism. Letters from Young Activists creates a space for a new generation of activists to be recognized.
But is it really surprising that we are activists? Dan Berger writes, “For as long as I’ve been alive, then, the mainstream U.S. political climate has been one long succession of small-scale wars, callous individualism, and blunted dreams” (230). Our society has set us up for war. Our fight to combat that war comes out of a deep need for peace and a genuine compassion for humanity. Dara Levy-Bernstein writes, “I can’t pinpoint the exact moment; it must have been in sixth or seventh grade, when I realized I cared about the world a whole lot more than most people knew” (220). In many cases, our activism is not a choice. Rather, we become activists because our life and our survival demand it. Sara Marie Ortiz writes, “We are the children of survivors. We are the children of activists, artists, and literary figures of the American Indian Rights Age. You thought the movement was over? Nah… Ours is a collective memory, and we remember all of it” (78). Ortiz goes on to write, “Once you recognize your responsibility to change the world for the people you came from – for the people who have given you every good, human thing about you – you don’t question it. You just do it” (80).
Because so many young activists are often alienated from their families due to their activism, Letters from Young Activists also offers us a place to call home. It allows us to be who we are without apology, giving us a space to critically examine our goals and strategies while building on movements that came before us. As the editors explain, “Although young people play leading roles in these movements, they are fundamentally multigenerational -– as is the Movement itself” (xxxi). Letters from Young Activists reminds us that we need to learn from the past in order to effectively envision a more just future. In a letter to an older activist, Chris Dixon writes, “Yet I also see that, in general, younger radicals lose out when they don’t have access to the lives and experiences of older radicals, and, in turn, older radicals lose out when they don’t have access to the imagination and energy of younger radicals” (52). In this relationship between past and present we are able to work together for a just society.
And we have so many movements to learn from. As today’s young activists, we’ve inherited tactics and strategies from older generations of activists who participated in the Civil Rights movement, the Multiracial Feminist movement, the labor movement, and the Native American movement, just to name a few. Marc Washington, in a letter to an older activist, writes, “I feel I inherited the spirit of activism. I know its spirit is alive and well because it is both a part of my consciousness and the consciousness of others. Activism is alive and well within many of us!” (62). Having older generations of activists to look to allows us space and guidance to examine our own identities and activism. Eboo Patel writes, “I was raised in a devoted Muslim family. My heroes include a Hindu (Gandhi), a Catholic (Dorothy Day), a Jew (Abraham Joshua Heschel), a Baptist (King), and a Buddhist (Thich Nhat Hanh). Studying their lives has encouraged me to find social justice resources in Islam” (95).
While Letters from Young Activists offers us a space to honor the struggles and successes of older movements, it also allows us a chance to critique them. As young activists, we know that activism doesn’t just occur during protest marches or rallies. While there are important parts to the variety of causes we stand up for, we have found other ways to become activists. We actively teach anti-racism in our classrooms. We actively parent our children to become socially responsible beings. Michelle Kuo writes, “But it was here, in this classroom, that I felt my most genuine understanding of activism” (218). We know the impact teaching and mothering can have because we have felt it in our own lives and seen it often go unrecognized as activism. In Letters from Young Activists, the writers broaden the definition of activism.
Letters also gives us a space to critique the current movements we participate in. Without hesitation, these young activists delve into the consequences of contradictions and oppression within the Movement. Here, we find young activists’ voices compelling, angry, and articulate. One person active in the labor movement describes her inability to dress as she desires because of gender constrictions in the work place. Another points to the contradictions within the Gay Marriage and Pro-Choice movements that often leave out an analysis of capitalism. There are letters urging us to global action, as well as bringing feminist consciousnesses with us into all our work. Laurel Paget-Seekins writes, “Sexual assault and domestic violence happen in every community. And if we’re going to stop them we have to be talking about them in every organization we belong to, every school, every neighborhood, and every church” (108).
Matching rich metaphor and description with wisdom, the writing in Letters to Young Activists is thought-provoking and compelling. Eugene Schiff writes, “As an activist who is used to making demands, I realize that consciousness, knowledge, and commitment to social change also must be nourished” (157). Myron Strong writes, “If you are going to be an activist, be an activist wholeheartedly; anything else only exploits the efforts of others” (212).
Not only will Letters from Young Activists leave you with the hope these activists share of creating a just world, but it will also inspire you to action, reminding you that “There is no time like the present to act” (xxxii) while enticing you to examine, as Kat Aaron writes, “What are you for – not generally, but exactly?” (171).
Reviewed by Shannon Farrington, Graduate student, Gender & Cultural Studies
Simmons College, Boston