Young People Take Charge
By Terry Austin, Ann Lennon, and Isabell Moore
"When I was in high school, recruiters seemed to be everywhere: at the school, calling at home, at the mall. I was raised by a single mom and had a twin sister looking at college, too, and I didn’t know what my options were to pay for college and to find work,” says Terri Johnson, a war resister who now works as a truth-in-recruitment advocate. “If I had known about other options, I might not have joined the military in the first place.”
Organizers of the Take Charge of Your Future: Resources for Alternative Jobs & Service fair, held in Greensboro, N.C., in July 2009, designed the fair to address exactly this issue: Many young people, especially working-class and of color, join the military not only because they don’t know that what the recruiters tell them is often untrue, but because they also don’t know what other options they have.
The alternatives fair, organized by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Area Office of the Carolinas and four other North Carolina social justice organizations, connected economic justice with truth in recruitment work and connected young people and people out of work with community-centered alternatives to military service. The fair was the first of its kind in the nation and was attended by about 100 people. “We need to be creating community. It’s people who are unemployed and underemployed and people who don’t feel a sense of community who get pushed toward institutions—like the military, like gangs—to fill that void,” explained Ann Lennon, director of AFSC-Carolinas.
Thirty organizations, businesses, and individuals staffed resource tables that included topics like beauty school, how to start a scented-oils business, working for nonprofits, and paying for college. Attendees talked with social justice-oriented life coaches and career counselors who helped them consider their next steps through the lenses of fulfillment, purpose, and community need. Organizations looking for interns and volunteers introduced attendees to opportunities for jobs, service, and work experience. NC Choices for Youth and AFSC provided counterrecruitment information.
Perhaps most popular was the “cool jobs” area, where self-employed people explained how they started their own businesses, including a natural skin-care products line, t-shirt screen-printing, and a bike shop. “Being at the fair was such a great feeling,” said Folami Randolph, one of the resource people who provided career counseling. “We were building a community of shared values.”
In addition to connecting job-seekers to existing possibilities, the resource fair provided information on how we can imagine a better community and future. Lamar Gibson, one of the event’s organizers, explains, “The fair was not just about ‘What can I get for me?’ but ‘What is available to us as a community?’ and “How can we help each other?’” “Improving the community” tables introduced attendees to organizing to change the economic landscape, including information about workers’ rights, a local campaign to raise Greensboro’s minimum wage, and efforts to improve access to health care.
Throughout the fair, attendees and resource providers networked with each other and struck up informal conversations about how we can all build peaceful, safe, supportive communities. “The economic crisis right now gives us a window to start talking about class in a real way, to look at what values we really want our economy based on. There’s a real opportunity for a cultural shift,” AFSC’s Lennon pointed out.
In response to an evaluation question about how her plans for her future have changed as a result of the fair, one attendee stated, “I’ve opened my mind to new possibilities.” Another reported, “I’ve seen the good health of the grassroots movement for democracy and community empowerment. A silent revolution is taking place.” Gibson noted, “My cousin has been in community college and wasn’t sure what was next for him, and the military was definitely an option. He met a financial aid officer from a local college and is now seriously considering attending that school.”
The event went so well partly because of four months of hard work by the planning team, which was an intergenerational, multiracial, cross-class group of social justice advocates. Several of the planners had members of their families currently in the military. “Those most affected by economic hardship and racism are going to be closer to the solution. If you come from a community under heavy recruitment, you’re going to have a better idea about what will help the youth of your community put their talents to work outside of the military,” explained Lennon. Dara Montaque, another planner of the fair, reasoned, “We worked so well together because of the excitement of doing something different, something outside the box, that we knew could make a big difference.”
The Take Charge of Your Future model is beginning to spread; truth-in-recruitment advocates in Atlanta and New Orleans hosted fairs during fall 2009. “Often in social justice movements we are so focused on the macro issues that we forget the local micro issues,” reflected Folami Randolph. “Look at the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program. They met community needs while educating about larger issues. They promoted and demonstrated an alternative value system. Events like this give us a chance to be part of creating a cultural shift to a more just and humane society.” Plans are under way for a second Take Charge of Your Future: Resources for Alternative Jobs and Service event in Greensboro in spring 2010.
LINK | afsc.org/greensboro
Terry Austin has been working against racism and classism, particularly with other white people, for over 40 years. She was radicalized in antiwar activities with Students for Democratic Society in the 1960s. She lives in Jamestown, N.C. Ann Lennon is the director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Area Office of the Carolinas in Greensboro, N.C. She is a long-time racial justice, economic justice, and truth-in-recruitment organizer in the Southeast United States. Isabell Moore teaches history at a local community college and works for racial and economic justice, peace, and queer liberation in her free time. She lives in Greensboro, N.C, and is a member of the WRL national committee.