Wokie Weah: The Reality that Young People Live

How Young People are Uprooting Racism, White Privilege, and Institutional Inequities

In April of 2018, Youthprise proudly partnered with Saint Paul Public Schools as hosts of ‘Beyond Our Walls,’ a one-day Summit highlighting SPPS’ commitment to equity work. The Summit kicked off with remarks by Superintendent Dr. Joe Gothard, who spoke to an audience that included School Board members, administrators, educators, funders, policy makers, youth service providers and young people. He spoke about the importance of engaging in dialogue and learning opportunities centered around the intersectionality of gender equity, racial equity and educational equity, a theme that resonated throughout the day. Summit organizers invited renowned anti-racist activist Tim Wise, described by some as the “wokest white man in America,” to keynote the event.

Wokie Weah

President, Youthprise

As the President of a youth-centered philanthropic organization and an advocate for youth, I was asked to give brief remarks on the role of young people in uprooting racism, white privilege, and institutional inequity. My first inclination, based on decades of experience in working with youth of all races and economic backgrounds, was to say their role was to disrupt current systems, and replace them with a new model that works for young people. I was thinking in particular about the educational, juvenile justice system, and health care system that are fraught with inequities. Of course, I turned to young people to help me answer the question. Below are the results of these conversations.

“Young people have a pertinent role in addressing racism, because these are realities that young people live and experience everyday”

~ Renelle Mensah

“Young people have a pertinent role in addressing racism because these are realities that young people live and experience everyday,” says Renelle Mensah, a college sophomore and co-Chair of Youthprise’s Board. She believes that young people have the vigilance to recognize the problem and the power to stop institutional inequities through much of the activist work that characterizes the new generation. Examples of initiatives currently supported by Youthprise includes YouthBank and Youth Participatory Action Research which intentionally center youth people in the process and decision of responding to authentic community needs. Through collective work with the wisdom of adults, Renelle feels that young people can ultimately restructure systems that promote inequities and make more inclusive communities.

"Young people drive the movements that disrupt systems because young people are often more impacted by these systems. They are the insiders that are looking to solve problems from the inside out rather from the outside looking in."

~ Shanell McCoy

Shanell McCoy, former Youthprise Youth Fellow, Podcast Producer Extraordinaire and now CEO of the Black Honey Collective, agrees with my initial assessment that young people are systems disrupters. But she feels the model works best in collaboration with adults/gatekeepers that give young people the space to explore systems change. “Adults have the power to drive the implementation of new models within systems with young people at the center of decision making.  Young people drive the movements that disrupt systems because young people are often more impacted by these systems. They are the insiders that are looking to solve problems from the inside out rather from the outside looking in." On the other hand, Shanell warns, "when the adults don’t support them, young people learn to create opportunities for themselves and build new systems." In her role as a Youth Fellow Shanell contributed to Youthprise’s effort to shift the way funders, policymakers and providers work with youth.

"As young people we have the ability to try and change the landscape that we are in. We understand that racism is out there in every second of every day and we can start by making a change among our family and friends."

~ Colleen Jordan

Colleen Jordan, a young white woman on Youthprise’s staff, was most compelled by the role young people could play in uprooting white privilege. “In a recent staff meeting, I read an excerpt from Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and was really moved by many of the things brought up in her piece. Being a white person and growing up in a middle-class home my idea of racism was vastly different than that of my peers of color.” Colleen points to a quote, as McIntosh explains, “In my class and place I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” Colleen believes “as young people we have the ability to try and change the landscape that we are in. We understand that racism is out there in every second of every day and we can start by making a change among our family and friends. We can educate those around us even it may be uncomfortable, but uncomfortable conversations start change and we are changemakers of this generation.”

Neese Parker, a young African American woman from North Minneapolis and Youthprise’s Youth Engagement Manager co-leads the organization’s Design Thinking training efforts and often works with government agencies, philanthropic entities and youth service providers agrees. She explains,

“Young people have the readiness to build new systems that promote equity and inclusion. This will only work if we stop leaning on these traditional, failing systems that are getting in the way.”

~ Neese Parker

Recurring in all these remarks is the acknowledgment that the next generation has the will, know-how, and skills to radically change the systems that impact their lives. Nadia Linoo, an integral part of Youthprise’s Youth Participatory Action Research Team sums it all up, “I think the roles we have as young people include being innovators, researchers, collaborators, and leaders. Youth are often said to be the future but we have the ability to impact change immediately not just when we grow up. As innovators, we have the creativity, and energy to dream of new possibilities. As researchers, we are experts, of what impacts us and have the tools and knowledge to create solutions. As collaborators, we have to recognize the community and others who have wisdom and experience to pass down to us. Lastly, we need to be recognized as leaders now!  We are intelligent, insightful, passionate and powerful and that is not something to sleep on.” You can read more about our YPAR work here.

“As researchers, we are experts, of what impacts us and have the tools and knowledge to create solutions.”

~ Nadia Linoo

So, what is the role of young people in uprooting racism, white privilege and institutional inequity? I don’t think my original inclination, to disrupt and dismantle systems and replace them with new models was far off the mark. But don’t take my word for it. In addition to the quotes above, you can listen to young people speak about this directly. Youthprise podcasters-in-residence, Hear Us Out, did a special episode as a part of the conference and interviewed Tim Wise. Listen to the episode here and hear GaoZong and Mai Shoua speak about young people’s role in dismantling white supremacy.

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