Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

The kids are all right. The adults, on the other hand, are a cause for concern.

Recent protests at Common Ground High School in New Haven along with wild Board of Education meetings throughout the state, Don’t Say Gay bill proposals throughout the country and gubernatorial hopeful Bob Stefanowski suggesting a personal war against trans athletes, suggest that kids are carrying more than their fair share of social responsibility, while the grownups might need some actual adult supervision.

Admittedly, I often find working with young people difficult. The traits that make teenagers both innovative and hard to work with are novelty-seeking, risk-taking, impulsivity, etc. — all things that I celebrate as an entrepreneur, but that feel deeply uneasy to me as an undercover introvert. That said, I try to look to young people as my moral compass since my liberal lens seems to dull with age.

But it seems everywhere we turn these days, we see adults politicking, decision-making, and legislating to ‘protect’ children instead of actually engaging them on issues that impact their lives more than our own.

Carrying signs that read “Advocating for those who advocated for us,” the students at Common Ground high school organized a walkout and turned roughly 200 people out to testify against their Board of Education’s decision to non-renew several long-serving teachers. The decision came after successful efforts to unionize their teaching staff with local 2110 of the United Auto Worker last fall. As such, the action has been seen as retaliation – though school officials told the New Haven Independent the decision was a budgetary one that was within their legal rights to make.

So, at a time when hundreds of schools throughout the nation are suffering from a teaching shortage and with returning students attributing their ability to stay engaged during the pandemic to some of the same teachers that were just fired, this school board — which governs the policies of exactly one school — thought this sort of decision wouldn’t make any waves.

What they failed to foresee is something I think lots of us do – young people care a great deal about socio-political issues, are more engaged than we give them credit for being, and have the right amount of risk-taking tendencies to outlast us in protest.

2021 Tufts University report revealed that nearly half of eligible young people voted in the 2020 election, representing an 11% increase from 2016. In Connecticut, the 2020 election turnout was 49% for youth ages 18-19 and 54% for youth ages 18-29. Comparatively, census data show that turnout overall increased as age increased, with the exception of the 75-plus age group whose turnout rate was below 65-74 year-olds and not significantly different than the turnout for 55 to 64 year-olds.

In pursuit of protecting kids, politicians have long campaigned on reversing policies enacted by more liberal lawmakers. The ‘protection of kids’ has been a justification for a number of asinine debates over issues like trans bathrooms, critical race theory, and Don’t Say Gay bills that do little more than further marginalize those already at the margins of society.

A new Connecticut super PAC, “Parents Against Stupid Stuff,” organized by Stamford hedge fund manager Sean Fieler appears poised to make its name ironic after recently reintroducing arguments rejecting Connecticut’s policies protecting transgender athletes in girls’ sports. 

The super PAC is backing two-time gubernatorial challenger Bob Stefanowski, who said he would revisit and reevaluate the policy. Luckily, our governor — who doesn’t always get social justice issues right — doubled down on his defense of the transgender participation policy of CIAC, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

“I think families and schools and the CIAC are going to be able to work through this and without politicizing it and harming a lot of young people,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a recent press conference. 

According to a 2021 PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, proposed bills limiting transgender rights are unpopular. Only 28% of Americans overall support these kinds of policies, while two-thirds oppose the bills.

Here in Connecticut, opinionsmore opinionsactionsadvocacy campaigns, all highlight the interest to enact progressive policies as opposed to ones that alienate, dehumanize, and work to wrangle LGBTQ+ teens back into the closet under the guise of ‘protecting kids.’

“The young people I’m in communication or contact with are certainly not asking to be protected against trans athletes,” said Sarana Carter, Vision & Strategy Director with the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union, a Hartford-based youth organizing coalition designed to support youth priorities in the state. 

“I tend to not get too involved in the popularity of narratives but what I do know is that I run pretty counter to the idea that young people are protected by these things,” Carter said. “What I think counts as protection is training, education, and an examination of history. At this point, we should acknowledge safety is a concept often unattainable. So we work toward a just world. Creating a just world inherently creates more safety.”

Carter said they’ve never felt safe a day in their life. “It’s why the work of justice is so crucial. If we want to protect kids, we have tons of data on what is causing harm to students and young people in schools,” Carter said. “It is not trans athletes. It’s police, it’s low-quality food, it’s lack of support for immigrant students, it’s lack of racial impact and ethnic studies education.”

Carter said similar to the arguments around trans students using public bathrooms, she finds that young people tend to be more understanding and reasonable than adults. “These things are usually easy to work through with them. Those conversations with them are much more easily redirected than it is with adults who come with much more of a morality clause.”

That sense of absolute right and wrong has, in some ways, blinded adults from meeting the needs of youth, even when they’re vocalized. When given the chance to actually support young people, adults in Killingly fell short again. 

In March, the Killingly Board of Education voted 6-3 to reject a proposal that would have provided a grant-funded, school-based mental health center at the high school —despite student pleas that it was necessary for their well-being. 

In response, parents filed a formal complaint that the board wasn’t providing “the minimum services and supports necessary to deal with the social, emotional and mental health needs of the students of Killingly High School.”

So, if the board members aren’t listening to students or parents, whom do they represent and work on behalf of? 

It’s a point Rashanda McCollum, Executive Director of Students for Educational Justice (SEJ), thinks a lot about. 

SEJ, a statewide youth organizing outfit based in New Haven, was pivotal in the passage of Public Act 19-12, which requires all regional and local boards of education to include an elective high school level course that focuses on Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino contributions to history, society, economy, and culture.

“Young people are experts in their lives,” McCollum said. “They know what they face on a day-to-day basis. They understand the challenges that are unique to young people and it’s critical that we make room for them and empower them to be heard as it relates to the issues their facing.”

Young people have always been the leaders in social and political movements. From voting rights with a young John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to climate advocacy with Greta Thunberg, to gun reform with the students of Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, to the students of Citywide Youth Coalition turning out more than 5,000 people on New Haven’s green in support of Black Lives Matter, we’ve always counted on young people to be our society’s moral compass. 

But, instead of utilizing their uncanny ability to spot injustice, politicians often leverage youth to politicize issues in the name of protection. It seems to me young people don’t need the protection adults insist they do.

What they do need is to be included in the conversations wherein we politicize their lives. 

“Oftentimes adults find themselves in positions of power and they make decisions on behalf of other people without including the voices of those impacted by those decisions,” McCollum said. “This is most often true about students. Youth organizing is critical because it brings their voices to the forefront as experts in their lives.” 

On so many issues – race, class, education, gender – I trust young people to point our sails in the most just direction. And as an elder millennial, it’s good to be able to pass the torch to a younger generation of good trouble makers. But the good that they’ll do is only as effective as the hurdles adults throw their way. 

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.