Kids speak. We should listen.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, everyone wants to talk about gun violence. Why, they ask, does the U.S. have so much of it? Why do nearly a third of Americans own a gun? Why do young people have to lead the opposition against gun manufacturers and their paid lobbyists?

The first two questions are too complicated for a short blog post, but to the third I say: Why not young people?

Let’s think about this for a moment. Adults have proven themselves incapable of stopping tens of thousands of Americans from being shot and killed each year. These stats aren’t new, but they’re always worth re-stating. Every year US Americans can count 13,000 homicides by gun, 21,000 suicides by gun, and 80,000 human beings who’ve been shot in some non-fatal manner. This doesn’t count the people who’ve otherwise had their lives irrevocably altered by a gun – for example, the students at Stoneman Douglas who were not shot or killed on February 14.

Adults as a body politic are not taking action, so maybe someone else should take a crack at it. What’s more, we’ve got a long history in the US of disenfranchising our youth until they stand up for themselves. This may be another sea change moment. I hope it is.

Ultimately, the reason I’m in Aotearoa New Zealand is to look at how schools and communities partner to empower young people to become active participants in society. This is the true aim of a culturally-relevant, place-based education. Over the past couple of weeks, however, I’ve been thinking I need to tweak my focus. Students aren’t becoming members of society – they are members of society. We minimize the voice of young people at our peril – they often have their fingers closer to society’s pulse than we do.

The classes I’m taking at Victoria University of Wellington have helped me think about these issues. In one, we are looking at the way adult society both fetishizes and criminalizes youth. We want to stay superficially young while shouting down young people as inexperienced, immature, and perhaps dangerous. Whether this sense of superiority is based in pseudo-science (their brains aren’t even finished growing until they’re 25!) or purported life experience (you’ll understand when you’re older!), it exists. As teachers, we need to structure our classrooms so that students enter as full members, thus helping them understand that they are just as equally full members of our society as a whole.

In the other class, we are studying how teachers help students actively participate in their society. Joel Westheimer, building on the work of Paulo Freire, Ira Shor, and others, identifies three different types of citizens: Personally Responsible, Participatory, and Justice-Oriented. Each type of citizenship has value, but the latter two categories imply a greater focus on identifying effective solutions to larger societal issues. It’s wonderful to so publicly see students acting as Justice-Oriented citizens across the United States. It’s equally disheartening to see so many adults dismiss their voices and actively pass laws intended to make it both less appealing and more difficult for young people to be politically active. If the role of social science teachers is to assist students in their growth as citizens, we must question any society that seeks to counteract those efforts.

Of course, the United States is certainly not the only country to limit youth voice. It happens in New Zealand too. However, there is a growing movement in the country to lower the voting age to sixteen. Whether or not it actually happens, it is an interesting proposition. Some point out that young people appear to be single-issue voters, but the same could be said for adult voters who evaluate candidates solely on their stance on abortion or gun rights. Others simply want to shrink the electorate rather than expand it – and young people certainly tend to lean more toward one end of the political spectrum than the other. The point is that the conversation is happening in earnest, with editorials written by young people popping up in the national news and politicians left and right forced to comment.

Whether or not we allow young people to vote, their voices must be part of the national conversation. They are not becoming people, they are people. It’s time we recognize that fact.