Our Children Are Leading Us. Hallelujah!

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In December Time magazine named then-16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg their 2019 Person of the Year—the youngest person ever honored. Time noted that this brave, determined teenager represents a new wave of young people who refuse to accept the world adults have created for them:

“Her global climate strike is the largest and most international of all the youth movements, but it’s hardly the only one: teenagers in the U.S. are organizing against gun violence and flocking to progressive candidates; students in Hong Kong are battling for democratic representation; and young people from South America to Europe are agitating for remaking the global economy. Thunberg is not aligned with these disparate protests, but her insistent presence has come to represent the fury of youth worldwide . . . She is a reminder that the people in charge now will not be in charge forever, and that the young people who are inheriting dysfunctional governments, broken economies and an increasingly unlivable planet know just how much the adults have failed them.” Time adds: “Leaders respond to pressure, pressure is created by movements, movements are built by thousands of people changing their minds. And sometimes, the best way to change a mind is to see the world through the eyes of a child.”

When we look at our nation and world through our children’s eyes and hearts we are able to see how much urgently needs action. I am so proud of Greta Thunberg, the young people leading the March For Our Lives protests, and all of the children and youths who are standing up to fight for the future they want and deserve that we adults have failed to create. Courageous children like young Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and the Clinton 12 were the frontline soldiers of school desegregation efforts in America. The brave children of Birmingham stood up to police dogs and fire hoses. They embody the Children’s Defense Fund’s belief that children are never too young to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation, and world. Greta Thunberg’s example is especially powerful because she also has reminded children and adults across the world how one person can make a difference: as one child sitting alone outside Sweden’s Parliament holding a homemade sign, Greta sparked a movement that has galvanized millions worldwide. The fact that the President of the United States is taking time out of his day to tweet bullying remarks about her is sickening and shameful but underscores how much power and attention this single passionate teenage girl demanding we save our planet commands.

As remarkable as our children and youths are and as much hope as they bring for the future, children should never have to take matters into their own hands and act because they see adults not acting. I am so grateful to see all of the brave and brilliant young leaders right now but let’s not sit back and wait to follow them. Adults should be stepping up themselves in every arena to do what they know is right. Greta Thunberg said at her September speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She added: “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

How will we answer Greta and the young people speaking out against gun violence and poverty and indefensible economic inequality? At the beginning of a new decade and on the eve of a new election year with possibilities of new beginnings, I hope adults will struggle to see the world through our children’s eyes and act with urgency to pass on the better nation and world children need.

Dr. Vincent Harding, Dr. King’s and my dear friend and confidant who devoted his life to building the “beloved community” they both believed our world could and must become, paraphrased the following words to the tune of the Negro spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”:

We Are Building Up a New World

We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
Builders must be strong

Steady brothers don’t grow weary
Courage sisters don’t grow weary
Joyful children don’t grow weary
Tho’ the way be long

Rise shine give God the glory
Rise shine give God the glory
Rise shine give God the glory
Children of the light.

Let us all begin this new decade and this new year determined not to grow weary as we applaud our children and youths who are acting to build the new world they deserve and that we adults have failed to provide them.