A society is playing with fire when it neglects the needs and desires of its young people; not only are natural talents wasted, but a sense of desperation grows in the shadows. Young men in particular can feel driven to desperate acts if they do not feel welcome in society and valued for who they are in their essence. Most people have heard the old African proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child." Fewer know that the second part of the proverbial statement suggests that if young people are not fully invited into life they will burn the village down.
It takes a village to raise a child, but once childhood is over it takes a culture that blesses the dream trying to awaken in the soul of each young person. Children can be admonished and even controlled, but youth are on the edge of the great passions of the human soul that can burn towards destruction or else become a light that brightens and animates an entire culture. Young people are not simply awash with hormones, they are also imbued with dreams. The trouble with dreams is that they aim at higher goals like beauty and truth and they touch the deepest human senses like our sense of justice. A society is playing with fire if it denies the dreams of its youth in favor of a status quo that favors some and excludes others.
"What happens to a dream deferred?" asked the poet Langston Hughes over 60 years ago in a poem entitled: "Harlem." Unlike politicians, business leaders and many authority figures, poets have to tell the truth or else lose their muse. And Langston was lamenting the burden of enforced poverty and institutionalized racism that weighed so heavily on the African American community. Poets can't help but be prophetic and Langston was warning of the dangers that must eventually follow the tragedy that occurs when young people lose their dream of a meaningful future.
More than a half century later the prophetic voice of the poet still asks what happens when the dream of another generation becomes lost: "does it sag like a heavy load" or "does it explode"? Recent unrest and fires in Baltimore and other cities speak the language of desperation born of unlived dreams and dashed hopes. Dreams do not simply disappear; they fester inside and cause the psyche to sag in depressions that drag people down in the middle of their lives. And occasionally they explode in fires born of the burning agony of continued insults to the soul. The soul of each child born bears a dream that is the seed of a meaningful life trying to awaken and find fulfillment.
These are extreme times during which the growing disparity in terms of wealth and opportunity adds more fuel to the fires of despair every day. As the distance between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider, the state of despair inside the culture grows ever deeper and greater. Yet, it is not only that opportunities have been denied to so many for too long, though they have been; but also that human dignity has been systematically abused as injuries to the soul have been sanctified under the rule of bigotry, denial and ignorance. A society is a living body in which hatred and despair can grow if the gaps in justice and understanding become too great.
Despair means "to be without hope," to be in a dark place with no hope of finding a way out. The struggle in the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere involves a battle between hope and the despair that is growing in the heart of America. Eventually, the "politics of hope" run into the smoldering fires of distrust and something deeper than familiar promises and false hopes must be shaped from the ashes. Justice must be struggled for by each generation and the unfinished business of the past surfaces each time the age-old wounds of racism and inequality intensify again. At this point, we may have reached a tipping point in terms of despair as the embers of injustice smolder sullenly beneath troubled streets of many cities.
Something I learned in decades of working with at-risk youth in the streets of America is that they are lost until someone can honestly recognize the unique genius they carry and often hide. An honest job and a chance at the doors of opportunity helps, but someone must bless the dreams that young people often keep hidden behind rough or adamant demeanors. Each soul, regardless of outer circumstances or appearances, is born with an inner nobility and sense of purpose that longs to be recognized and given a chance or even a second chance to manifest. Denying an individual soul, much less an entire group, the opportunity to find and follow their dream is not simply a mistake or a justifiable omission; it is also an assault on their natural nobility and an insult to their soul.
A society is playing with fire each time it rejects the innate nobility of its youth. Youth not only carry within them the dream of the future; they also tend to act out the imbalances and injustices of society as well as the deep grievances of their communities. Injustices that are not faced inside a culture will eventually be lived out on its streets as a kind of fate.
America repeatedly struggles between being a country of laws and the land of dreams. And though many prefer to see a "nation of laws," the real America, the America that would be, has always been a land of dreams trying to awaken and become realized. Laws and rules may tell us how to live, but a person must have a why to live. In the soul of America, the why to live has best been imagined as a dream. Not the simple "American dream" of blind materialism, but the wild complexity of dreams trying to live through the great diversity of souls that makes up the America that has not been yet.
Good role models are important at all levels of society and genuine job opportunities can bring security and a level of dignity that can make life manageable, but a living dream brings forth the true nobility of the soul. What remains trapped in the opportunity gaps, in the divides caused by racism and bigotry, in the midst of failing institutions as well as in the shadows of dilapidated buildings is the long deferred dream of freedom that can only grow when offered to everyone. Those who would deny any young person the opportunity to learn and find a purpose in life have already lost their own dream and are unconsciously contributing to the shadows of despair.
So, it takes more than a village to raise the hopes and dreams of young people to a level of consciousness and purpose. It takes genuine opportunities and some chance for success, but it also takes a blessing that confirms the inner value of each life regardless of what the outer circumstances might be. The dream of life must be reclaimed from the shadows of distrust and the ashes of despair. It takes young people that are willing to follow their dreams, insist upon justice and contribute meaning to life. And, it takes older people who can act as elders and bless those young hearts and the dreams they try to carry that might just heal and renew this uneasy and uncertain world.
Michael Meade is the founder and executive director of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation. Through his Voices of Youth programs, he uses myth and art to lead youth to discover and express the story of their lives while developing mentoring relationships within their own communities.