Egyptian, Kenyan youth provide model for challenging institutions

Guest column by Amy Schiller

The title for this week’s lecture theme, “The Next Greatest Generation,” suggests optimism and boundless potential, for my peers and me. What we really crave, however, is candor. Chautauqua is a place that thrives on messages of hopeful promise. But what made this week’s presentations from Chris Hayes and Paula Kahumbu so compelling was their honesty about the scope of the challenges that our generation faces, be it the specific case of Kenya, facing relentless greed of poachers and the markets they serve, or the broader decline of trust in major institutions within the United States. Hayes and Kahumbu both attempt to speak truth to a power structure that they realize is deeply entrenched, and it is this context that made their presentations so fully credible. Kahumbu’s exhaustive campaign to end elephant poaching — from cleverly redesigned currency to ubiquitous receipt stamps and billboards — was an object lesson in how fearless and ambitious young people must be if they want to mount a serious challenge to market-driven greed and the political passivity it engenders. Dalia Mogahed also provided some inspiration grounded in reality when she spoke of the courage of Muslim youth in demanding a voice in their societies’ governance — but against a backdrop of social neglect, born of greed and complacency from the oligarchies that ruled both their governments and their economies (which may sound familiar to those who heard Hayes as well.)

If Kahumbu is any example, we do need to express our will through institutions. Kahumbu sued the Kenyan government for its plans to build a highway through the national park, therefore violating environmental law. Her victory in that suit demonstrates how some issues can only be solved by direct challenge of authority, rather than clever workarounds.

Hayes presented a fascinating bookend to the week’s first lecture, by Megan Smith of Google. While both speakers see technology and network power as unique advantages for younger generations, particularly in terms of facilitating participation in public life (the simple ability to reach more people when trying to organize a rally, for example), their dispositions were very different. Smith has a sweeping vision whereby the process of developing technological fixes models how we might approach society at large: smart people collaborating in good faith to improve how the world functions and information is shared. Yet Google might consider from Hayes’ more pessimistic view of supposedly neutral categories of “intelligence” and “problem-solving.” Like the Hunter High School example that Hayes gave, the ways we arrive at determining who is intelligent, meritocratic, deserving, are themselves biased to favor the existing elites. Institutions who fail to self-scrutinize about how they disproportionately favor the elites will also fail to properly protect and steward the well-being of their populations. Sometimes what is needed is a no-holds-barred challenge to power, and for that to happen, perhaps we look to the youth of Kenya, Egypt and elsewhere for their courage in recognizing the scope of inequality and corruption in their societies and confronting it head-on.

Amy Schiller’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation and many other publications. She is a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center in political science, and the education chair of the NOW Generation at Chautauqua.