Why Can’t We Be Included?

Essay by Imokhai Okolo

The youth in the city of Akron have been vocal in demanding real change as a result of all the police violence, civil unrest, and the COVID-19 pandemic for the past several months. We have been organizing, studying, and strategizing ways in which we can be involved in bringing about much-needed change, not only in Akron but across the United States. We understand that the systems set up to bring us justice, organize our economy, and provide for the health of communities are not working for everyone. We are dissatisfied with the leadership we currently have, in all levels of government, who are tasked with remedying these ongoing issues.  

In response to this youth activism and demands to improve public safety, address racial equity, and to defund broken institutions while investing in communities, the City of Akron announced yet another task force geared towards racial equity and social justice. 

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After reading the announcement of the task force and seeing the voices who were brought to the table, I found myself frustrated, conflicted, discouraged, and confused. Although young people have been driving change and innovation in Akron, we were once again not invited to the table. Our voices were once again not respected. We were ignored.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a trend in Akron. Across the board, young people are not invited into the rooms in which decisions are being made that affect the everyday lives of young people in our communities. This problem has not just found a home in our city government — it’s a problem that has plagued the non-profit community, our public education institutions, and corporate boards. Despite having the credentials, passion, and experience, young people are often kept in low-level administrative positions, told to “wait your turn” or are required to prove themselves before being trusted with formal leadership. And far too often, the experience young people do bring to the table is often overlooked because it happened while obtaining a degree in higher education, was not in a “professional” setting, or is misunderstood due to generational differences. 

As it sunk in that the youth in our community were not invited to the table to help strategize and organize, I couldn’t help but wonder where the United States would be if young people in our communities were not included. There would be no American Revolution, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights Movement, or Black Power Movement. There would be no Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, or the countless other innovations that play an integral role in society. There would be no hip-hop, jazz, or, quite frankly, a music industry had young people not been given a seat at the table to use their voice to share their perspectives and life experiences. 

Our communities have only grown into what they are today because young people fought to be included. But if we know this, why does this problem seem to have such a stronghold in Akron?

Our current generation of young people have adopted and developed radical views on political and economic institutions largely due to the fact that we grew up in our own ecosystem of conversation that was partly influenced by our elders, but also influenced by readily accessible knowledge and larger communities created with the advancement of technology. This new generation of young people are inspired by cooperative economics, community-based public safety, health care systems void of profit motives, and renewable energy models that will preserve this earth for future generations to come. This generation of youth have a vision for the future that only works if we fix, reform, or even destroy the current systems that value private interest and stand in the way of a community we all can be proud of. 

Maybe this vision is too idealistic or unattainable — or maybe it’s profoundly genius. Regardless, the only way we move forward as a society is building power in our communities intergenerationally. That can’t happen if we let this trend of ignoring the voices of young Akronites continue. 

With young professional organizations spanning from the Akron Urban League Young Professionals, Torchbearers, Junior Leadership Akron, and the Young Professionals Network, there are plenty of dynamic youth ready and eager to pull up a chair, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on building a better Akron. And while these formal pipelines are easily accessible and visible, there is an overwhelming amount of knowledge, passion, and talent unaffiliated with these groups. They are the party promoters, marketing associates, small business entrepreneurs, mentors to Akron Public School kids, yoga instructors, DJs, fashion designers, political field organizers, and the list goes on. There is a great deal of untapped potential in this city, and if we want to Elevate Akron, that needs to change

Luckily, this is a struggle young people have been in for generations. Generation Z and Millennials were not the first generations to be ignored or excluded as young people. We can learn from our ancestors who paved the way and passed the torch to continue the fight. This roadblock didn’t stop Fred Hampton or Angela Davis in the 60s. It didn’t stop Muhammad Ali or Shirly Chisholm in the 70s. And it certainly has not stopped people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Noname from making their voices heard today. 

While young voices have not been included to the degree needed on this task force, this will not stop the passion and fire that young people have for our visions of a better Akron and a better country. If we don’t have a seat at that table, we will certainly build our own, and make things happen, one way or another.