Organizer Illai Kenney on the Generational Divide Among Civil Rights Activists

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During the weeklong events commemorating the March on Washington, Moyers & Company associate producer Reniqua Allen noticed that a lot of black youth were upset that their voices weren’t being heard, not only by mainstream media, but also by some of their own leaders in the civil rights community.

To get a deeper perspective on the intergenerational divide, she spoke with Illai Kenney, a 24-year-old college student and activist with Black Youth Vote! who has been organizing and fighting for change in her community since she was nine. They talked about the burdens and benefits of being young and black in America, the role of hip hop in activism; and what black youth need to do in order to get their voices heard. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Reniqua Allen: What’s been the role of young people during the weeklong events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?

Illai KenneyIllai Kenney: I think the role of youth in this week of events is a very delicate thing. A lot of the leadership putting the events together isn’t necessarily youth, the way it was with the first march. No one really was over 50 and giving a speech; whereas now you’ll see the Jesse Jackson’s, the Al Sharpton’s, who are really spearheading and organizing here.

Allen: Why isn’t there as much youth participation as there was in the sixties?

Kenney: We’re not taking as much of a leadership role as young people did in the past. I don’t think it’s because there’s anger or because there’s any ill feeling from young people as far as wanting to lead — it’s because we have crutches.

When you have leaders still around who were there for the original march who can tell you how it was done the first time and are willing to step up and do it, there’s no real motivation for young people to have that inspiration to make it happen themselves. The first time, there was no one else to do it. There were no 60-year-old people who had done a major March on Washington. It was either you did it or it didn’t happen.

Allen: What do you think are issues that young black people should be fighting for?

Kenney: Sustainability for me is a big deal obviously because I’ve spent a lot of time working on it. I think without sustainability, you don’t have anything. You don’t have air to breathe, you don’t have water, you don’t have food. You have absolutely nothing without it. It’s the bare essentials of being able to exist and live. But in addition to that, young people have to focus on being able to prosper. The media and politicians have done a very good job of selling this idea of opportunity to Americans and to young black Americans. They say, “If you go to school, if you get a degree, if you do X, if you do Y,” and all these conditionals for what success and opportunity are. [But] that dream doesn’t exist anymore. If you look at where these entry-level jobs are, they’re not in our communities.

Allen: But there has been progress right? I don’t see dogs attacking folks at marches, I don’t see “White only” and “Colored” signs. We have a black president.

Kenney: Some people say America doesn’t look like what it did in the sixties. That there’s not segregation. There’s not Jim Crow. But when I need an ID to go vote in a state where voter fraud is less than 1 percent probable, that’s the same thing that happened in the sixties. To say that there’s no segregation — when I walk into a space, the looks I get are very clearly saying to me, “You don’t belong here. You shouldn’t be here. Why are you here?” When people ask you questions like, “Do you really need to see that?” Or [a clerk] follows you around a store and asks repeatedly, “Can I help you?” even after I’ve told you, “No, you can’t help me.” That still exists. That’s still very real. The sign doesn’t necessarily need to be there for someone to send you a message.

Allen: What’s it like being young and black in America today?

Kenney: Being young and black is the coolest thing you can ever be. It sounds so arrogant, but it’s probably the dopest experience you’ll ever have. And the fact that there’s a portion of the population that won’t know what I mean when I say “dopest experience” is just so indicative of how amazing that experience is — how it’s this club that I’m a part of that’s just really fun to be in. But it comes with a price, a heavy price. It comes with a burden that you have expectations around yourself and around your community that are completely unrealistic. You have burdens as far as just being able to exist. Like, being able to breathe air and exist in a space is a fight. You have to fight for your right to even live. And that’s a burden that no human being should have. I think that for a lot of young people, no matter where they are in America, not having that space to be themselves is just the most stifling and oppressive thing that can exist.

But it’s still fun. It sounds completely oxymoronic when you juxtapose it with the cases of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis. There’re so many issues that come with being young and being black, but it’s still a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And it’s not just being young and being black in this moment. I can look through history books, especially being here at Howard [University]. You can walk around campus and see what being young and black was 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 60 years ago.

I come from a legacy of dopeness. How can you not respect it? How can you not revel in it? How can you not enjoy it?

Allen: Is there still a connection between hip hop, youth and activism, or is that something in the past?

Kenney: Yes and no. You have your KRS-One, Tribe Called Quest — classic old school hip hop. But those activists and young people today are not the same. They’re two very different groups of people who came up at two very different times. They’re not all the same thing. You can’t just throw up and say, “Oh, it’s hip hop and it’s young people,” and expect that the audience that you’re going to get is exactly what you’re looking for. Because if you say, “Hip hop activism,” I guarantee you the people in the room aren’t necessarily going to look like me. Hip hop then and hip hop now, young people then and young people now aren’t the same thing. And it’s completely unfair and just a waste of time to try to just lump it all together because — Jay-Z’s over 40, you know?

Allen: You’re involved with Black Youth Vote!, a group that works on registering young people to vote. Tell me about that.

Kenney: I’ve worked with Black Youth Vote! since I was nine, organizing and training young people. We bring them in from across the nation to train them to register young people to vote [and] to get young people to be civically engaged and active. For me, being young — under 18 — I couldn’t even vote for most of the time that I was working with Black Youth Vote! But the reality was that I had a voice. And I had a vision. And I had an idea. And I had feelings. And that was enough for me.

Allen: What are you hoping to take away from the events this week?

Kenney: The biggest thing is being able to take this as a moment and take this as a spark and really run with it. I’d like to see young people active, engaged and just really hungry and aggressive, especially young black people because there are no people that are greater at risk in this country than we are. We are always under attack. So it’s about making ourselves something greater than we even imagine.

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