By Monique Verhoef
Young adults often get a bad rap. If they aren’t failing to launch, they are too addicted to their “likes,” unreliable, and unengaged.
Besides for a few small caveats, I couldn’t disagree more.
Young adults really care, and when given the proper space, place, and some tools, they exercise incredible levels of ingenuity and creativity to raise awareness among their peers and take action in their communities. I have worked with university students in a variety of capacities for 18 years. Most of that time has been at a large, public university. It was there that I started a peer-to-peer education program. It fostered in the student leaders, and through them the campus, the knowledge, skills, and awareness to work competently across lines of difference and to engage with issues and topics that impact social inclusion. They addressed the daily issues now crossing our Facebook feeds such as racism, power, privilege, historic injustice, fear of difference, xenophobia, and sexism and discussed how these issues impact our social realities.
Jesus said that those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will truly understand the wisdom of God. I do not claim to be passing on the very wisdom of God, but Jesus’ words stick with me as a great place to start in giving students tools for inclusion work as well.
Helping Students See and Hear
Every week we sat together circled up around a few snacks and some candles. The question was always “what did you see this week?” or “what did you learn that speaks to how other’s experience belonging?” That’s where we heard the stories. A Muslim student leader told us, “My friend and I were on the bus and someone tried to rip her hijab off.” A visible minority said with tears, “I was in the mall and a man shouted at me to ‘go back where you came from, terrorist’…but I was born here”. A Sudanese immigrant student shared that, “I gave my mom most of my school loan to cover our bills. How else would she have gas money to get my little brother to school?”
Stories shared and heard and eyes opened. These students shared in the day-to-day experiences of their peers and applied what they learn in the classroom and training. Through this, they recognized the diversity of experiences that people have navigating systems, attitudes that exclude and oppress, and harmful actions.
Moving to Action
Stories are powerful, and I have seen the power they have to move students to act. Taking the things students are already passionate about builds their motivation for action. Sometimes that’s a direct action like making warmth kits and delivering them to those who experience homelessness. Other times it’s exercising creativity to figure out how they can raise awareness about the social exclusion or suffering of others.
This is especially powerful when students respond to real-time events. When the Syrian refugee crisis was just exploding into mass awareness, the student leaders created an intricate experiential exercise for their peers. Set up in the busy hallways of campus, participants had to franticly pack a suitcase while being timed. They felt what it might be like to make the decisions to leave family, an heirloom, or a loved pet behind. Next, they experienced what it might be like to try to get through all the hoops of government systems to become a refugee and end up in a new land. By the time they went through the simulation, they felt even to the smallest degree something of what a refugee might feel, learned about the realities of the refugee crisis, and connected to real refugee stories.
It can be difficult to keep momentum going during students’ busy lives and to get students to go deeper toward the roots of issues that come “into the circle.” But my experience is that young adults do care and want to participate in movements that promote change.
It is difficult to engage societal issues alone. But we can bring students together so that their actions are supported in community. By helping them discover the tools available to them, we encourage them to claim their space and place, engage, and make social action come alive.
Monique Verhoef has worked as the Director of Community Life at Ambrose University in Calgary for the past two years. She has lived in Calgary for the past 13 years with her husband Paul and three kids. She is in her fourth year serving on the board of CPJ.