On March 2, 1955, nine months before African-American civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old black teenager, remained fixed in her seat—despite demands by the bus driver and the white passengers for her to move.
The iconic Parks became famous for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, it’s important to note young Colvin’s pivotal role. After all, she was no fleeting figure in the protest. More than a year later, she and a trio of her young black peers served as witnesses in Browder v. Gayle, an influential court case that ended segregation in public transportation in Alabama. The whole movement, Colvin told Teen Vogue, as she reflected on the groundbreaking events years later, was about young people who said, “We want more from America!”
When it comes to youth and the considerable power they possess to create change, little is different today than it was some 60 years ago. It should have come as no surprise when Douglas High School sophomore Sarah Chadwick, reeling from the slaughter at her Parkland, Florida school, informed the President of the United States in an understandably impassioned (if irreverently profane) tweet, “I don’t want your f*#-^ing condolences …”—her tweet almost immediately going viral and launching a modern Human Life movement. Within hours, other youths joined Chadwick in rejecting the nation’s anti-violence platitudes. And all this took place before a gunman struck down four people at a Tennessee Waffle House. Each of those victims was a young person of color. And each, sadly, an involuntary martyr. In their responses to these tragedies – whether on social media, on live television, or in newspapers and magazines – these young victims have been so articulate, so passionate, and so committed to their position that a President, Congress, and indeed the nation, might finally be moved to substantive action.
In fact, social uprisings like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the gun-control movement born in Florida recently have historically been sparked by teenagers. In addition to the black youth at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano high school students in Los Angeles staged a massive walkout amid the growing El Movimiento in 1968. Thousands of students demanded that a predominantly Eurocentric curriculum include Mexican-American history and culture. They were also taking a stand to call attention to high dropout rates, overcrowding, and teachers and counselors who steered Latino students into non-academic electives instead of college-track courses. Those protests lasted a week before the school board agreed to meet with the students, teachers, and parents, and conceded that changes needed to be made.
More recently, youth have displayed the same shrewd passion but have upped the game by leveraging social media to orchestrate change. Young people, fed up with high unemployment and soaring tuition costs, drove the Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years ago through Twitter and Facebook and other platforms. Similarly, Arab Spring protests that turned public plazas like Cairo’s Tahrir Square into sites of struggle were jumpstarted by media-savvy young people frustrated by police corruption, human rights violations, and oppressive regimes.
Regardless of your politics, if you’re like me, you’ve watched these teenagers in awe. They’ve forced us adults to do what was necessary months, in fact, years ago, when it comes to ceasing the gun-wielding terror that continues to sear the fabric of our nation. They’ve made us undertake what my colleague at inQUEST calls a “collective reckoning”—asking tough questions of ourselves as we search together for truth and understanding. The indefatigable will of the terrified kids from Parkland and their March on Washington forced Congress to begin the difficult work of jettisoning partisan politics and passing gun control laws.
The lesson here is that the actions and responses of this nation’s youth shouldn’t be dismissed as post-pubescent enthusiasm, naïveté, or reflexive militancy. These students may be young, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right. As we say in our trainings of corporate executives and staffers, theirs are voices that should be welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.
These young dissenters are doing what the young leaders of the Civil Rights Movement did years ago: remind us that youth is a valuable aspect of diversity. Too often, Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers are intolerant of, and even annoyed by, Millennial input or Gen-Z perspectives at work. But why? Because they sometimes talk differently? Because some dress differently? Because some may punctuate emails poorly?
The truth is, as it is with any of us, how they look on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what they possess inside. I often hear corporate leaders claim they are in search of diversity of thought and perspectives among the candidates for employment at their organizations. But then they proceed to limit their interaction to people that look like them. You would think it goes without saying, but to truly find diversity of thought and perspective you have to peer beyond the exterior of individuals. You have to look beyond their skin color, beyond their clothing, and beyond their language to find the value residing beneath the surface. That’s where the gold is—the nuggets of intellect, perspective, and creativity that unlock performance at your organization.
It’s no different at work than it is on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The same way the youthful leaders of the Civil Rights Movement forced a nation to think differently, and the way the victims of the Parkland school shooting are opening America’s minds to a new, safer way forward, we at work would be wise to open our eyes and really listen to the young people around us.
Roger is a Senior Partner at inQUEST. The opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect those of inQUEST Consulting.