Keynote Address to Hewlett Model Congress
This speech delivered on April 14, 2000 at the Hewlett Model Congress in Long Island, NY.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.” Today, as John F. Kennedy so aptly put it, freedom is again in an hour of danger, and we are the generation who must stand up and defend that freedom. The freedom of everyone in this room is unjustly stolen from us, unjustly we are deprived of basic, fundamental freedoms and rights. Just because of our age. Right now you are in high school, many of you are thinking about college and careers and your future. You are all bright individuals, competent and capable citizens of this nation. Involved and knowledgeable about the political process and with this country. But yet, society still treats all of you like potential criminals. Making laws and suppressing our rights on the assumption that we are out of control delinquents.
You can’t go to some concerts or all but a few clubs because of the drinking age. You can’t see two-thirds of movies, or can’t take friends to them, because of the movie-ratings system. Businesses ignore anti-discrimination laws by refusing to serve you. Your ability to drive – which in the suburbs is akin to your freedom of movement – is subject to draconian restrictions. And just when it seems like they have prohibited you from doing everything, they prohibit you from even being out of your house at night in many communities.
You might think these laws are annoying but necessary. But the fact is the United States is the only place in the world where young people are subject to restrictions to such a degree. Juvenile curfews are all-but-unknown outside of the U.S. No other Western country has a drinking age of 21, and anyone who’s been abroad knows other places don’t enforce it as they do here. Many movies that receive an “R” rating from the secretive Motion Picture Association of America are considered appropriate for 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds, even children elsewhere. And our parents, when they were our age, weren’t told they couldn’t drive after 9 or 10.
A term was coined years ago to express the kind of discrimination certain groups in our society faced; this term is “marginalization.” This term describes how certain groups were pushed to the margins and edges of society. To say today that young people have been marginalized would be an understatement. Because young people have not just been pushed to the margins and into the background, but have been pushed completely out of the realm of our nation’s thinking. It is as much of a non-issue as there can be. In our society today it is assumed that young people are much less capable and responsible than we really are, and rights enjoyed by the adult population – and by “adult” I use the legal term, since by all other senses of the word most of us are adults – would be somehow harmful if given to us. This complete dismissal of the political and social rights of youth deserves a much more accurate term than marginalization, because the youth of today are not merely marginalized – they are totally eclipsed by society.
This weekend, you will learn about and experience the American democratic process first hand. You will emulate the process that runs our nation. You all will act out the role of representatives of the public will, legislators who are chosen by the people to represent their wishes and desires in government. But these lawmakers are not representing us and our interests. Politicians race each other to see who can introduce the most onerous anti-youth legislation. “Get-tough-on-teenagers” laws pile up. They take pride in treating young criminals as adults, yet treat good kids like us as children. I’m sure the situation is the same in Albany as it is in Lansing, Annapolis or Washington.
At the local level, too, the powers that be make our lives miserable – especially in schools. While schools painstakingly teach the American Bill of Rights they make few efforts to follow it themselves. This is especially so after the Columbine tragedy, as all of us have had to suffer for the actions of people who share with us only a year of birth. Basic first amendment rights that are taken for granted in the rest of society are routinely denied to students. Student newspapers suffer untold censorship. Students are forced to conform to uniforms and dress codes that restrict their freedom. Unfair searches and seizures are becoming routine.
We’ve all heard examples of the results of these “zero-tolerance” policies, but let me give you one that even shocked me. His name is Matt, and he was a good kid. Never getting into trouble, getting good grades in class, he never had any behavior problems in school. The one thing about Matt though, is that he was a bit different. He was not a follower, and tended to do things his own way. He liked to wear black clothes and listened to bands like Metallica. Last fall was Matt’s birthday. And in anticipation of the big day Matt started a countdown at school. Telling people “5 more days, 4 more days” Clearly an innocuous thing. But school authorities interpreted this countdown as a countdown to a bombing or a shooting. So with no evidence whatsoever the school administrators suspended and finally Expelled Matt from school. Only going on the fact that
Matt was a bit different from the rest of the students the Police were called in on the matter, and Matt was forced to spend a week in a mental hospital. Absolutely incredible that an innocent person can be locked up in an institution like this and kicked out of school due to this anti-youth, post-columbine hysteria. In addition to being expelled from school, and the threat of being arrested held over his head, Matt’s family was stuck with a several thousand-dollar bill for the “mental evaluation” that Matt was forced to receive.
The reason for the anti-youth trend in American politics is simple: Young people don’t have an interest group organization representing them at state capitals, town halls and Congress. That’s why we’ve founded the National Youth Rights Association, or NYRA.
We recently organized our first chapter in the Washington area. We have been involved in protests against the recently passed curfew law in Washington and will soon be making contacts in the state legislature in Annapolis, Maryland. We’d like to see chapters formed in the greater New York area as well. I have membership forms with me, for everyone willing to join.
Now I know you’re hours from Albany; you may ask what you can do in Islip or Levittown or Great Neck. Let me give you an example of what I did in my little hometown of Holland, Michigan. Michigan has a law – as does New York state – that prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers by age, except where otherwise required by law. Several local businesses discriminated against young people by posting limits on the number of students allowed inside their stores at the same time. Often this resulted in students standing outside in lines in the rain before they were allowed inside to purchase anything. I approached the storeowners and informed them that they were breaking the law, but still they refused to comply. So I took my complaint before the city council, presenting my case before an open meeting last spring. After the meeting I spoke privately with our cities’ Human Relations Director and in response to my complaint he threatened each of these four convenience stores with State legal action if they did not comply with the law and cease discriminating against youth. In response, Every Single One of these stores took down their limits, and now treat students with the same respect and dignity as adult customers. My victory was publicized on the TV news and on the front page of the newspaper, both reaching half the state of Michigan. Since similar laws exist in many states in the country, NYRA is launching a campaign across the nation to deal with instances like the one I just described to you.
I am very proud of my accomplishments with NYRA, but it wasn’t very long ago that I was in your shoes, and in your chairs. I too had to listen to speakers at leadership conferences. But I never dreamed that I would very soon be the speaker, never dreamed that I’D be the important one fighting for change in this country. But it happened, and it happened quickly. We are a young organization, and one person’s passion and determination counts for far more in this organization than in most others. Who knows, perhaps the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Susan B. Anthony is in this room right now.
Other causes and movements have thousands of people working for them and millions of dollars supporting them. You could spend a lifetime working for some big organization and never see directly how your efforts improved the nation, yet with youth rights and with NYRA every motivated person can make a world of difference.
You are the future leaders of America, you sit here today with bright minds and hopeful dispositions. Many more have sat here just as you are, and a few years after experiencing Washington, DC they become embittered and frustrated with the political process. Youth Rights will Never loose its vitality and vigor, with us you can look back on your life with pride. This is a pride that grows from accomplishing something great and doing what is right-by fighting for something you believe in. What is happening today to our nation’s youth is inexcusable; it cannot be allowed to continue. Together we can organize to take back our rights. Create the tools and fight the battles, it is true. We are the leaders of the future. Let us make a better world in the future, a world for All of us young and old alike.