I arrived hoping to be uplifted. Usually a roomful of politically engaged young people re-energizes me, re-connects me to the clear-eyed passion I once had for social change.
But the “Election Reflection” event I attended on Tuesday, hosted by youth with the nonprofit Horn of Africa Services, was a reality check: I may be distressed by the fallout from this month’s U.S. presidential election, but these kids are scared.
“If the president says racist stuff, that’s why people become more racist,” said Muna Hassan, 14, a freshman at Cleveland High School. “Because the president is saying it, the top man, the biggest man. If he can say it, why can’t anybody else say it?”
I may be distressed by the fallout from this month’s U.S. presidential election, but these kids are scared.
Hassan’s family is originally from Somalia. And the panel, organized by young people also largely from refugee and immigrant families, was a Q&A with lawyers, experts and elected officials on the local impact of a Trump presidency.
It was standing-room-only at the Rainier Vista community center hosting the event in Seattle. And the crowd quickly burned through stacks of complimentary pizza and thermoses of hot chai and coffee.
But what started as a cheerful mood quickly turned anxious as young people opened the event by asking audience members to reflect on their first reactions to the election of Donald Trump.
“I felt like how most people feel, scared,” said one young man. “I mean, I have a mom, and she’s a woman and how he talked about women? I didn’t like that.”
Another in the audience: “When I first learned of the results I was in shock,” shared a young woman. “Everyone at school was mad and arguing.”
That theme of reactions in schools came up numerous times. In fact, the first question youth asked the panel was about preventing hate speech, prompting a conversation about bullying in schools.
“Since the campaign started, we’ve had an amazing rise in bullying of Muslims in schools,” said Jasmin Samy, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Washington (CAIR-WA). “In the past year alone we’ve received over 22 cases,” she added, of name-calling, hijab-pulling and teachers who say disparaging things about Islam.
Other questions from kids focused on the possibility of mass deportations, protection against hate crimes and how to ensure that Rainier Valley — where 50 different languages are spoken — stays friendly to diversity.
Panelists, who in addition to Samy included Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González, King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Renton, and immigration attorney Jay Gairson, tried to offer the room practical information in the face of a lot of uncertainty.
Young people were told to call the police, CAIR and local representatives if bullied or attacked, and to contact an attorney or legal-aid organization if they face deportation. And González mentioned an increase in funding for city-led citizenship workshops.
Despite the offers of help, the tension in the room remained high. It’s tough enough being a young person — especially in an immigrant community — without sifting through today’s violent rhetoric and confusing predictions of new threats to you and your family.
Alexander Woldeab, an adult child of immigrants who volunteers to tutor elementary- and middle-school students through Horn of Africa Services, says the young people he works with are taking the election hard.
Woldeab believes this election cycle has simply exposed long-existing divisions in America, but the increasing normalization of racism, sexism and xenophobia shocks the kids he works with.
“For me this is just business as usual, but for them it’s really scary,” said Woldeab, who works in global health when not volunteering. “They were expecting better.”
And, despite the frightened mood, “better” is what Muna Hassan is still shooting for. When I asked her why she thought youth should get involved in political issues, she lit up.
“Because we can grow up smart, be smarter than the last group of people,” she said proudly, reminding me that in four years she’ll be able to vote. “We can teach our kids to be better and better and better until racism is gone.”
Words to live by in scary times.