Teen Rising: Turning Angst Into Activism

I'm Eliza Reynolds. I’m 22. He's Josh Smith. He’s 24. And we’ve got an epidemic on our hands.

In case you haven’t heard, teen bullying is up, so are suicides, and eating disorders—rape culture is a norm in juvenile cases (take Steubenville)—and, recently, I watched the 4th grade girls walk into the bathroom and compare the flatness of their stomachs. Teen angst, teen culture, and the lack of “real” teen community are the oft-named culprits. What if the real reason was that the adults have left the room? And that young adult mentorship—once an integral part of the “village”— is no longer a norm in our fractured communities? What if the power of teens has been limited by our definitions of what is “possible” and expected in modern adolescence? Well, I’m 22, he’s 24, and we’re Teen Rising, a new workshop that turns that infamous teenage angst into activism. We’re here to turn teen vision into action.

What if we, the angst-filled 15- (and, yes, 22-) year-olds, are the answer we’ve been looking for—to the questions the adults can’t seem to solve? What if we, adults and teens alike, could reimagine what it means to be a “teen”? Let’s look, for example, at our words—which create and recreate our stereotypical understandings of teen angst. Let "bossy" become "assertive," "sassy" become "irreverent" and "enthusiastic," and let "ADD" become "energetic" and "passionate." As we change these buzzwords that describe our behaviors and feelings, we are already taking the first step toward changing the behaviors and feelings themselves. What could we teens do if we claimed our stereotypical instinct to "rebel"—to rise against, and flipped it right on its head? What if we could rise for something, or someone, instead? Teen Rising is about defining what it means to rise—not against, as the cultural assumption would have it, but for—for our own growth, for people we love, and for issues we care about.

I realized when I was 15 that there are ideas out there that are bigger than my anxiety about the size of my thighs, and there are feelings so immense that they take over my lungs and take residence in my stomach and take me outside of myself, and into the painful, beautiful mess that is the world. What profound wisdom is lost in the miscommunication of a wide generational divide—where a parent of 45 tries to find the words to speak to their kid of 15 to share the importance of authenticity, intuition, and sacred time. But without the words of teen culture, without the support of intermediate generations of aunties, cousins, and young mentors—what truth is being lost? What we have is a new challenge on our hands, and we must invite in the intergenerational dialogue that translates “authenticity” into “being real,” and “intuition” into “trusting your gut,” and “sacred time” into “you know, that extra long shower where the world just drops into perspective,” or “writing in your journal,” or “spending every Friday night laughing at the movie’s with a certain heart friend,” or “siting in the nook of the tree behind your house and watching a storm form in the patterns of the clouds, as you make up superhero stories in your head.” Whatever it is! This is the language of Teen Rising.

What if we teens could get over the pressure of being cool, and get on with the fun of being ourselves? What if our culture’s story of peer bullying, the plugged in/zoned-out teen, and the pressure to conform to narrow stereotypes could be replaced with the alternatives of community, being REAL, and giving voice to your passion? We want to write a new story; one where love, loneliness, social pressures, sexuality, the joys and stresses of navigating relationships, and the fear of being judged just for being ourselves are all real topics up for discussion.

Let’s subvert the norm using everything available to us: music, spoken word poetry, discussions of gender, friendship, body image, and much more—along with spontaneous dance parties and the hero/heroine’s Journey—to weave a new teen circle where love, trust, authenticity, and passion rank as the new cool.

I’m rising for my friends, for honesty, for belly laughs and ecstatic moments, for intergenerational dialogue, for new immigration law, for the earth under my feet, for my family, for my own growth and for the courage and insight to become a real adult.

But this isn’t just about me.  This is about you. 

What do you want to rise for?

My workshop coleader, Josh Smith, a poet and hip-hop artist, wrote this poem about his 7th grade self, a mixed up hip-hop kid from Woodstock, New York (Omega’s backyard), in a headband and tracksuit. It’s a gem of self-confrontation, and it leaves a taste in my mouth—the taste of Teen Rising—where we dare to ask ourselves the real, tough questions. To me, that’s what Teen Rising is about—committing to rising as our best selves, for ourselves, and the world around us.


What You Know
By Josh Smith

and then she asks
so what's your relationship to your whiteness?
and suddenly you are back
in a seventh grade classroom
drowning in a black Ecko tracksuit
so out of place here that Alisha says
dude, you dress like a pimp
as if either of you have ever known
the taste of a hollow cheek
the bruise of dirty money
or the need to eat a lover alive
but you are laughing it off
and rocking a white bandana
like a construction paper crown
and ignoring the stares you get after school
with Mark and Joe and other boys
with woods behind their houses
and you are buying new discs
and you are listening too long
and writing raps about guns
and rapping them on a field trip
for your cool 26 year old
Puerto Rican history teacher
who looks you dead in the eye says
why don't you write what you know
and smiles at you sadly
as if he has caught you crossing a line
you don't know is there