Monday, July 18, 2005

What is Right in America - All of Our Young People Are Not Lost

By Joseph C. Phillips
Joseph C. Phillips

Far too often, when one reads about young people it is because they have engaged in some foolish, anti-social behavior. There is a continual cultural loop of vulgar, rump-shaking, misogynist and nihilistic videos playing counterpoint to endless statistics of drug use and teen pregnancy. It is easy to believe this is the sum total of what young people are about.

Last week in Sacramento, I had the pleasure of speaking before a group of 11th and 12th grade students at the African American Youth Leadership Conference. Every time I begin to think about all that is wrong with the youth of today, I will think of the young people I met last week and be reminded of what is right.

The conference was the brainchild of the 100 Black Men of California and the black caucus of the California State Assembly. Working in cooperation with the Research and Policy institute, an African-American public policy think tank, they set out to develop a program for high school students that would expand the vision young people have of the future and encourage them to reach out and seize their portion of it.

The participants spend a week meeting with business, community and legislative leaders. They are immersed in governmental, non-profit and corporate business practices in addition to receiving academic and career guidance, all with the goal of preparing them to become leaders in their communities.

It is my firm belief that some of our greatest leaders have not been folk whose names we read in the paper or who showed up on the television news. Many a trailblazer has lived anonymously leading by example. Though civic minded, my father never led any marches, but he busted his hump in order to put four children through college. There are countless other “leaders” like my father. The kids going through the program may never become household names. However, the skills they learn and the attitudes they build will enable them to be successful in the kind of silent leadership we can never have enough of.

I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if some of the kids make big names for themselves.

After my presentation, I was approached by a young man who asked if I was interested in real estate. “Why? Do you have any to sell?” I asked jokingly. To which he responded, “Yes.” It seems he and his father have gone into business purchasing foreclosure property and reselling it. He has a small real estate portfolio and is headed to business school.

A young woman told us of her dream to attend Spelman College and study journalism. She wants to write stories that will uplift and change peoples lives. If only I had had this kind of sophistication and gumption when I was in high school!

Don’t misunderstand. What I found impressive was not that these young people had a mind towards building wealth. There are many things more important than the size of your bank account. What I enjoyed was their enthusiasm, their optimism in addition to their conviction that life holds promise for them and that nothing and no one was going to hold them back from their dreams. That is the road to a life of joy and fulfillment. These are the attitudes that for young people will mean the difference between seeing some of their dreams come true and standing on the sidelines complaining.

Too often, I find myself caught up in the cultural loop of “thug life” and MTV, wondering: “Where is the hope for the future?” After spending a few hours with these kids, I can assure you that the future is in very good hands indeed.

Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and syndicated columnist living in Los Angeles. 

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