Youth Speaks Out, But Who'S Listening?

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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If you haven't seen it yet, you really need to watch The Motorcycle Diaries, the brilliant movie (Spanish with English subtitles) about an eight-month motorcycle trip across South America in 1952 by two youthful Argentinean medical students, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and Alberto Granado.

The film, based on a diary kept by Guevara during the trip, is a coming of age story of two young men who were changed forever by their experiences on that 8,000 kilometer trek.

What began as a youthful lark, undertaken simply for adventure, quickly became a profound exposure to the ways in which so much oppression and injustice was occurring throughout the region. Each single encounter with starving miners, dispossessed campesinos, out of work factory laborers or the inhabitants of a leper colony deep in the Peruvian Amazon added to these young men's understanding of what was taking place in their world … and their determination to do something about it.

Eight years later, Guevara joined the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, and in his persona as “Che,” the thoughtful, charismatic conscience figure and inspirer of social upheaval, he moved throughout the developing world, challenging injustice and supporting rebellion—until he was killed (reputedly by the CIA) in Bolivia.

Granado is still alive. He went to Cuba while Guevara was there, married, started a family and in time founded a medical school, one which continues to this day, educating many of the young doctors and health educators who have made Cuba an incredible health care success story in the Third World. (On most outcome measures, while spending a fraction of what we do on medicine, Cuban health care surpasses that of the United States, though we are better at enlarging breasts and fixing erectile dysfunction.)

I bring up The Motorcycle Diaries because I have been struck by how difficult we have made it for young people in our own society to be involved in hands-on experience with social issues. Even more, we have made it hard for those who have gotten involved to be heard when they are inspired to speak out.

Yet, in many ways the voices of the young, precisely because they are fresh and unfiltered, can describe the too-familiar for us in ways that produce insight. But it has to be worth investing the time to listen to those voices. As a society we need new perspectives if we are to come up with new solutions. Also, we need to nurture the sense of community ownership of the young, since so many of the problems we confront will eventually be resolved by future generations.

There is a tremendous reservoir of energy and talent among our teenage population. It is important to cultivate their sense of caring as well as their sense of outrage. Both spring to the surface readily within the young, just as they surged so vigorously in Che and his traveling partner, Granado, over 50 years ago.

Fortunately, there are a couple of efforts underway in our state designed to open our ears to the concerns of the young.

One is the relatively new Youth Alliance. It is still struggling to establish itself and it is plagued, as many new initiatives usually are, with leadership changes and a certain hesitancy to move forcefully in any particular direction.

But this state-sponsored panel of 112 young people, ages 14 to 24, has great potential. It is intended to be an advisory body, a council of diverse views representative of a full range of youthful perspectives, for the governor, Legislature and those departments within state government that make up the Children's Cabinet.

When it finds its voice, the Youth Alliance has the potential to become a great influence in policy formation. Instead of screening policies through adult “experts” on youth issues, it will be possible for policymakers to go straight to those who will be affected and get their views and guidance directly.

There is another initiative underway, in many respects a lot closer to this point, which is supportive and closely-linked to Youth Alliance: New Mexico Civic Engagement, a project of the UNM College of Education's Community Learning and Public Service Center. For the past three years, Civic Engagement has been building a network of young people in high schools and colleges around the state, training them to identify opportunities for getting involved in community issues.

For four days, starting June 9 at UNM, several hundred of the young citizens who have been working on community issues around New Mexico will come together to voice their views and concerns about issues in our state through digital recordings, a radio town hall broadcast on KUNM 89.9 FM and community workshops.

Civic Engagement encourages our youth to speak out. The Youth Alliance provides one formal mechanism for state leaders to hear youth views. There will be no shortage of information flowing from the spokespersons for the next generation.

The one remaining question is—having heard their counsel—will anyone pay attention? Are New Mexicans ready to listen to our young activists and are they open to engaging them in conversation or have we grown deaf to the insights and passion of our future Guevaras and Granados?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. E-mail

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