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Street Knowledge: Power for Positive Change

By Nicole Lee

Throughout California and across the country, communities of color are caught in a cycle of violence and mass incarceration, a cycle whose wheels were in motion years before the young people being pushed into this system were even born. These wheels turn in a staggeringly unequal economy where quality jobs are scarce—especially for young people of color—and the average CEO of a large corporation earns more than 350 times the average worker;[1] they turn in the schools, where only 56 percent of California’s black male students get their diploma in four years;[2] they turn in the justice system, where the criminalization of youth of color and entire communities—especially African American and Latino men—has helped give the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Today’s young people were born into the lasting impacts of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s—a social and economic crisis that ripped through urban communities, leaving a trail of violence, incarceration, and substance abuse, hitting young people of color and their families the hardest. Today’s youth struggle with the emotional and psychological trauma that comes with this kind of social devastation and the deep inequality that makes such devastation possible. But incredibly, they are blamed for the problem!

2014 DetermiNation Media GroupTo solve the social and economic crises that we face, we need to stop looking at youth of color as a problem.  Instead, we need to look to young people of color for solutions, and we need to support the development of their leadership toward healthy, peaceful, thriving communities.

Young people have always played a key role in social change movements, particularly in U.S. racial justice movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by young African American college students, was one of the core organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. The typical member of the Black Panther Party was 18-20 years old. Students were the backbone of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. Young people are ideal “change-makers” because they are less attached to old or conventional ways of doing things. They tend toward creativity, innovation and new ideas, are less invested in the current system, and are more willing to take social and political risks.

We are finding that youth of color who have been pushed to the extreme margins of conventional society, largely excluded and disconnected from mainstream social institutions, are strategically positioned to play a leadership role in transforming those very institutions and ushering in social change. Many say these are “high-risk youth;” we think of them as “high-opportunity youth.” They tend to be older teens or young adults who have been involved with the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, or both. Most have experienced the “street life.”

The Street Is an Institution
The streets are the landing place for those pushed out of conventional educational, political, economic, and civic institutions. For those “in the streets,” mere survival in the face of hardship becomes a primary goal. The premium placed on survival pushes young people in the streets toward a certain set of skills and sensibilities that can be very helpful in other contexts. These include: 1) outside-the-box thinking and resourcefulness; 2) a willingness to take risks (i.e., the ability to move forward in the face of uncertainty and with a kind of fearlessness about taking action); 3) networking and communication; 4) adaptability; and 5) situational awareness.

Indeed, in some ways the world becomes more like “the streets” every day. Our cities, our economy and our planet are all in crisis mode whether we recognize it or not. We stand collectively in great peril, but that peril also creates great opportunity for change and for new things to be born into the world. As centenarian Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs[3] has said, we now have the chance to evolve to a “higher state of humanity,”and “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.” [4, 5]

The resourcefulness, adaptability and fearlessness that high-opportunity young people in the streets have developed can and should be a part of the reimagining. But to unlock this potential we must recognize the value of their experiences and change the context in which they operate.

“Risk-taking” is the kind of 21st century skill that we might think of within a framework that Markese Bryant has termed, “street intellectualism.”  The high stakes of street-hustling naturally bring with them a risk-taking culture. But risk-taking “in the streets,” within the contexts of poverty and mass-incarceration, and without healing and support, has destructive and potentially deadly consequences—a dynamic that plays out in cities like Oakland and Chicago. In order to leverage the ability and willingness of urban youth to take calculated risks in a way that benefits themselves and their communities, we must create the supports and safety nets necessary to ensure that the risks they take and the mistakes they make do not cost them their lives. We have to create new contexts in which they can take nurtured risks that lead to incredible innovation and transformation within their community. Because it’s one of the things that separates upper-middle-class white male entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley from the young Black and Latino males in Oakland streets.

We are certainly not arguing that it is a good thing that our young people are in the streets and pushed to the brink of survival. We are saying that, because this has already happened to them, they have begun to develop a set of skills that place them in a strategic position to meet the challenges of the new century. We also know, however, that the adversity these youth have faced in the streets has been deeply traumatic for them.  By affirming street intellectualism, we reflect the value of their experiences. More importantly, we affirm that our youth can ultimately transform their pain into freedom.

Why Healing Can’t Wait
The youth and young adults that I work with at Urban Peace Movement have lost multiple friends and family members to gun violence. Their parents and caretakers have struggled, unsupported, with substance abuse or mental health issues. Many youth have had parents or siblings who were incarcerated, and some have themselves been incarcerated. They have suffered as their loved ones were deported. And, many have endured homelessness and hunger. These experiences are all traumatic and stem directly from social and economic policies that perpetuate inequality. Because these are not isolated incidents, entire communities have been traumatized together. So, each young person ends up even more hurt than he or she would have been if their suffering had been theirs alone. Such social trauma stands in the way of our ability to create and sustain deep social change in communities of color. As social workers like to say, “Hurt people hurt people.” But the opposite must also be true: Healthy people build healthy communities.

Measure FF Visiblity Action (Peace in Action)Oppression and inequality inflict trauma at both individual and social levels. We cannot mend one set of wounds without mending the other, too. We must build the capacity to heal and transform the individuals in our communities—our fathers and mothers, our children, our siblings and cousins. We must also transform the unfair, inequitable systems that continue to inflict shared trauma and feed the cycle of violence and mass incarceration in our communities. We need “Healing-Centered Youth Organizing.”It’s easy for someone focused on organizing and systems change to argue that the world has huge and urgent challenges that won’t wait for us to heal ourselves. Some call it the “we’re too busy to heal” perspective. But if we don’t heal the damage that’s been done to us, we burn ourselves out and often replicate the very dynamics we are trying to stop and in the process, hurt ourselves and each other. After all, hurt people hurt people.

As organizers committed to transforming the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality and oppression, we can and must begin to do our work with an internal sense of hope, freedom, peace of mind, and well-being, from a place of sufficiency and prosperity, even when our social conditions and those of our communities are not yet ‘there.’ In other words, we can use what we already have inside of us—our sense of resiliency, our love for one another, and our hearts—to transform ourselves, each other, and society. We can begin to help one another in our communities to heal from the wounds of the past so that we can fully access our inner powers to change our society.

“Reimagining Everything”: The Genesis of a New World
I recently had dinner with a friend who has a deep spiritual practice. In describing the relationship between the “inner” and the “outer,” she said that she believes that a new world is being born and that it is emerging from ‘inside of us,’ from what we feel most passionate about, and from whom we feel most called to be. I have had similar experiences in those small moments when I am still and in the present moment—a feeling that something is trying to be born into the world through me and that this “new world” is bubbling up through the tender and vulnerable parts of our humanity, through the brokenness. Somehow, all of this reminds me of what activist Grace Lee Boggs says about this being a time for “reimagining everything.”

Boggs, who lived in Detroit among the ruins of the giants of the industrial age—the crumbled factories and auto plants—often said that she believes that we are on the cusp of a transition equivalent to that which humans made when going from being hunter-gatherers to living in an industrial society. She suggests that this shift is happening both “inside people” and within the institutions and structures that make up the “outside” world, and talks about reimagining the ways in which we think and talk about everything—even revolution. Boggs points out that the word “revolution” contains within it the word “evolution.” She argues for a new social change methodology that transforms us as human beings even as it transforms our political and economic structures. But unlike those who spend most of their time working on policy change and advocacy, Boggs spends much of her time supporting local grassroots community-based enterprises, such as urban farms and neighborhood bike shops, in her hometown of Detroit.[6]

Boggs is pointing us toward something bigger than just a shift in our economy, something that cannot be overlooked and must be included in the work of organizing and advocacy. She is pointing to a shift that is taking place at both levels—material/institutional and humanistic (or spiritual, as some might say). From a material or structural perspective, particularly in places like Detroit, a new window of opportunity has opened up in the wake of the partial economic collapse of some of the mega-institutions that were once the pillars of U.S. society.

From a humanistic or spiritual perspective, we know that when something collapses, it clears the way for new possibilities—for people to step in and do what they feel most passionate about or called to do. It is an opportunity for us to begin to serve our own communities in ways that are much more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and which bring us joy and fulfillment. Most types of spiritual and contemplative practice lead us to a place of presence where we can more clearly see our own gifts, talents and passions. When we step up to be who we feel authentically called to be, we begin to bring the new world into being.

A Way Forward
Giving Space to Lead—
To truly transform our communities, here in California and around the country, we must be courageous enough to make a real investment (of our time, money, commitment, and love) in the leadership of our young people. We must create a leadership pipeline for “high opportunity” youth of color by acknowledging their experiences, their assets, and their capacity to lead. This will require supports that are specifically aligned with the needs and concerns of these youth. Additionally, we must provide training and support for the youth-service workers and youth organizers who support these young people. Ultimately, our job is to give young people the space to lead.

Healing and Transformation—This includes the work of helping our communities and our young people heal from the personal and social trauma they have experienced, as well as of empowering people from the “inside out” to determine and manifest a new course of history. From Transformative Organizing to the practice of sacred healing circles within social change organizations like the Milpa Movement (Salinas), the Determination and Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) programs (Oakland), and Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (Stockton)—more and more groups around the country are working in various ways to integrate healing with traditional organizing and policy advocacy.

Political Engagement, Advocacy and Organizing—The work of social change requires us to pay attention to the “rules of the game”: What are these rules? Who sets them? Who implements them? Who benefits from them? And, how do we influence these rules so that they yield more just and equitable communities? Community and youth organizing are fundamentally about challenging the current political and economic structures that perpetuate inequality and maintain the status quo. Young people are organizing and speaking truth to power in places around the country on issues, such as immigration reform, education, juvenile and criminal justice, and racial and economic inequality. In Oakland, young people are helping to lead the charge on the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula, on public safety and re-entry, and on helping to advocate for quality jobs for city residents.

Building Alternative Economic Models—In addition to policy advocacy and community organizing, the work of structural change also requires us to begin to build economic alternatives to the old models that put profit over people and locked so many of our community members out of opportunity and into poverty. All over the country, small community-based enterprises, such as urban farms, bakeries, neighborhood art galleries, and music studios are popping up. As a movement, we can begin to create the kind of community-sustaining, grassroots institutions that can serve as the foundation of the new world we want to bring forth.

Nicole Lee is the founding director of the Urban Peace Movement. This article is adapted from her paper Healing-Centered Youth Organizing: A Framework for Youth Leadership in the 21st Century available at

1.    AFL-CIO Website, CEO-to-Worker Pay Ratios Around The World, 2012.
2.    Scott Foundation for Public Education, The Urgency of Now, State Graduation Data.
3.    Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist and philosopher who worked under C.L.R. James in the 1940s and ‘50s and in the ‘60s, became a member of Detroit’s Black Power Movement. She died at the age of 100 on October 5, 2015.
5.    Grace Lee Boggs in Conversation with Angela Davis, UC Berkeley, March 2, 2012.
6.         “American Revolutionary: The evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” a film produced and directed by Grace Lee, 2013.
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