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Ismail Khalidi and Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr

Rebellious youth

Young activism finds a collective voice in a new book

By Martha Coventry

January 6, 2006

Reports of the death of youth activism have been greatly exaggerated. Not only is it alive and well, but its earnestness, purpose, and breadth make it feel like the revolutionary Sixties finally come of age. Never before in our history have so many young people challenged--and with such determination and organization--things that are both deeply rooted in our culture, like sexism, racism, and homophobia, and lately overlaid on our country, like current policies and political practices.

To get a sense of what they're up to, find the book, Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, available at the University Bookstores and nationwide. The writers are from 10 to 31 years old, and the editors chose them for the range of issues they're fighting for. The "letters" format makes even the most inexperienced writer articulate and opens the doors for people who could have been intimidated by a different assignment. These young rebels address their eagerness to change the world to three different groups: the previous generation, the people associated with various movements, and the next generations.

"I know I am never doing enough and that I have much to learn, but... I know you understand that, and that is what pushes me onward when the wind chill plummets and when lies pass for truth."

Their writing is intimate and fiery and heartfelt. Two of the authors read their work and answered questions recently at the bookstore in Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus.

Recent Macalester College graduate Ismail Khalidi, 22, was born to Palestinian parents in Lebanon and grew up in Chicago. His letter is to his parents and he wrote it right after the seige and bombardment of Fallujah in November 2004. "It was written in a desolate time of year--winter--miming the desolate time in our country and other countries," says Khalidi. "It's really kind of a 'sad poem,' but also a way for me to take stock of what I believe in." And what he believes in is the struggle for justice.

In his letter, Khalid writes, "I know I am never doing enough and that I have much to learn, but I know that I am still learning, and that I will find my own way to fight. I know you understand that, and that is what pushes me onward when the wind chill plummets and when lies pass for truth."

Second-year U medical student Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr writes a letter to herself on the day she graduates from medical school. As a single mother of a 6-year-old son, a high school dropout, and a welfare recipient she cannot, she used to tell herself, "climb through the back windows into halls of power." But she will become a doctor, the reader is sure, and once there she will continue her struggles for reproductive freedom and family justice.

She challenges the activist movement to change its notion that motherhood and school is a "sell-out," and academics to broaden their idea of what makes a whole, committed person. "I don't want to constantly trade off my parenting, my activism, and my studies to be an amazing doctor," writes Trotzky-Sirr to herself. "Both academics and activists present these false dichotomies: either I could be a good mom or a good student; a good student or a good activist. To me, providing women with access to reproductive health care is about all three: motherhood and revolution and learning."

She's devoted to serving a community of underprivileged women and children when she graduates, but asks herself, "How can the movement for basic human rights like community health care ultimately rest on the continued commitment of a few altruistic physicians? More personally, only a year into the discipline of medicine, I know how it breaks you apart, piece by piece. Can we build a movement of battered, scattered individuals?"

As for the activism climate in the Twin Cities, Khalidi finds it to be "very warm and active on many levels and welcoming, but it's also small." Trotzky-Sirr says of the U that the administrators and professors are more liberal than the students, "but that's [looking at] activism in a narrow bandwidth. People are fighting hard just to take care of their families and to go to school."

Although Khalidi and Trotsky-Sirr have a different focus for their social justice fights, they both agree when Khalidi says, "Hope is a revolutionary force in this world."