Last week, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, of Pakistan, became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
A leading advocate for girls’ education, Yousafzai first came to the world’s attention after the Taliban shot her in the head two years ago. Since recovering from her wounds, she has organized a worldwide campaign for the rights of young people.
Yousafzai shared the prize with India’s Kailash Satyarthi, a longtime leader in the struggle against the exploitation of children.
The peace prize announcement comes in the same week when other 17-year-olds in Hong Kong and the Denver suburbs of Colorado have taken to the streets — standing up for their principles and ideals.
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The two protest movements are, of course, quite different in scale and degree of risk. Students in Hong Kong face arrest and repression, while students in Colorado will get, at most, a slap on the wrist.
But both street demonstrations are a reminder that civil disobedience is an essential instrument in the toolbox of democracy. And both are a reminder that revolutions — big and small — are often sparked by the very young.
Only 17, Joshua Wong has become the face of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, a movement largely inspired and led by students in a city controlled by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Over the past two weeks, Wong has been arrested, labeled an extremist and derided as a buffoon by Hong Kong officials and Chinese media. But Wong isn’t backing down.
“The short-term burden on our daily life,” Wong told reporters this week, “is to achieve long-term reform.”
Government leaders called off talks scheduled for this week. But with pro-democracy forces vowing to continue civil disobedience, pressure mounts for the government to sit down with the “buffoon” and other student leaders.
Whatever the immediate outcome of the demonstrations, pro-democracy students have already succeeded in galvanizing a new generation of political activists.
On a much smaller stage, high school students in Jefferson County, Colo., also marched and rallied in recent weeks to protest proposed changes to the history curriculum — changes the students believe would present a false picture of American democracy.
School board members favoring curriculum revisions argue that the current Advanced Placement American history course isn’t “patriotic” enough. Among other things, they seek to eliminate lessons that “encourage or condone civil disorder” in favor of a more positive view of America.
In an act of civil disobedience — perhaps inspired by the offending AP class — hundreds of students staged walkouts and organized demonstrations to oppose the proposed changes.
Speaking at a rally last week, 17-year-old student Sarena Phu reminded the crowd that most great social changes in American history — from women’s suffrage to civil rights — were accomplished through protest and civil disobedience. She and other student speakers warned against whitewashing America’s story to eliminate or downplay struggles against injustice and discrimination.
The Colorado students have also been heard. Last week, the school board backed away from language calling for more “patriotic” lessons, appointing a curriculum review committee that will include students and teachers. Students remain skeptical about the motives of the school board, vowing to keep working to prevent the district from sanitizing history.
Joshua Wong knows first-hand the power of education to control minds and hearts with government-imposed definitions of patriotism.
Wong actually got his start as an activist for democracy in 2012 by organizing protests against a curriculum on “moral and national education” mandated by Beijing in the schools of Hong Kong. A key aim of the curriculum is to instill commitment to China in the citizens of Hong Kong with lessons that extoll the Chinese Communist Party as “an advanced, selfless and united ruling group.”
At a time when many American schools are increasingly afraid of freedom — censoring student speech, shutting down school newspapers, ignoring religious liberty rights — teenagers like Malala Yousafzai, Joshua Wong and Sarena Phu are timely reminders of the power of student voice.
Far from being a menace that governments need to control, students who dare to speak up for their convictions are our best hope for changing what is wrong and unjust in this society and in societies around the world.
To other teenagers out there who see injustice but think they’re too young and powerless to make a difference, I offer the advice of civil rights icon John Lewis — who was a teenager himself when he started sitting in at lunch counters to end discrimination.
“Find a way to get in the way,” said Lewis in a recent talk at the Aspen Institute. “Find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. Be prepared to speak up and speak out, be courageous. When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to get in the way and make some noise.”