The Daily Grind Video

I believe in your leadership, in your genius, and in your capacity for greatness. Your number is massive; you experience the unimaginable every day; and receive more criticism than any previous generation.

Yet, I believe in you. As I listen to you, talk with you and work with you in New York City, my adopted hometown, and in cities large and small across our nation, I am in awe. Last week, I spent two days moderating discussions with diverse groups of high-school and grade-school students, after they watched Spike Lee’s landmark documentary film “4 Little Girls.”

In their 12-, 13-, 17-year-old faces, I saw you all…speaking dynamically about four young Black children murdered by racists in 1963, while they worshipped in church—a time that you could not have imagined it. But you did, and you linked that tragic episode to the killing of Trayvon Martin, to racial profiling and the New York Police Department’s infamous policy of “stop-and-frisk.” White students, Black students, Asian students, Latino students, sat next to each other, and openly discussed racism, hatred, violence, guns, love, peace, hate.

You offered solutions. Action steps. A new way forward. With great clarity I remember how you kept the discussion real, honest, raw, unfiltered, and uncensored—much to the surprise of your teachers and your mentors who brought you to the screenings. They told me how amazed they were to hear you speak with such passion and with such clarity on heavy topics.

This week, I traveled to Pace University in Pleasantville, New York, to participate in a class called “Men and Masculinity” taught by my friend John Agnelli. I dove right into a discussion with male and female students of diverse races and class backgrounds.

I pulled no punches, delving into domination, male violence against women and girls, and my own history of violence, anger and confusion regarding manhood. You listened intently and responded with measures of agreement, of consternation, and of discomfort. We discussed the manner in which you are influenced by music and music videos, reality tv shows, sports, video games, our celebrity-obsessed culture, social media, cellphones, and other forms of technology.

We talked about our lack of education, regardless of the schools that we attended while growing up. Those who do recognize the contributions of women and of girls to our nation and to our planet cannot be called educated, if you believe women to be invisible, caretakers, mother figures, objects for sexual favor who deserve to be violated, attacked, raped, killed, or discarded.

Some of the young men in the class got it, some did not. Most sat quietly. The women, on the other hand, said a lot. Women and girls are and have always been the equals to men and boys.

John Agnelli mentioned that 80% of the young women in this class admitted the previous week that they experienced sexual assault in their lives. How many girls and young women in America would say the same thing? What legacy do we leave to your generation if we allow our society to continue down the path of sexually-based exploitation, violence and assault? When we couple those with mass shootings and hatred based on differences, we begin to comprehend the depths of our depravity.

This is why I spend much time with young people. In response, we at BK Nation, our new national organization, are creating safe spaces like YOUTH TRUTH in which the members of your generation can speak, listen, share, cry, yell, and say whatever you please.

When I attended high school, we would be herded to the auditorium annually to hear a “motivational speaker” who would offer us the same cliché-ridden, uninspiring words about going to college and getting your education. I do not recall a single speaker by name. They could not relate to me nor could I relate to them. The speakers talked at us instead of with us. Some of us, stuck very deeply in our old ways of being parents or authority figures, still believe, ignorantly, that the way to reach young people is to make them listen and to be quiet.

Perhaps if we allow you to teach us and we listen to you, then maybe we can teach you and you will listen to us. We live in hard times and our future will be bleak unless we allow you to play a strong role in making it better.

If we do not address gun violence in our great urban centers and in our suburban communities, or the many failures of our public schools, we will never fulfill our nation’s promise. Because of you, I feel a sense of hope.

Spending hours with the students of Central State University in Ohio, or Stanford University in California, or Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, as students discuss everything from self-esteem to leadership, to diversity and freedom, I see hope in your faces. Rallying with thousands of you after the Trayvon Martin verdict in New York City when you turned a simple gathering in Manhattan’s Union Square Park into a massive march and takeover of Times Square, and of Harlem, I see hope in your faces. Asking you, students of all ages and of all backgrounds all over our country, to say “I am a genius,” I see hope in your faces as you repeat those simple words loudly and confidently.

You all are geniuses and we expect greatness from you. More importantly, you must expect and demand great things from yourselves. As my friend Antonio Tijerino says, “You are not tomorrow’s leaders or future leaders. You are a leader right now.” That means you need to know history, American history, world history, the history of who you are, where you come from, your culture, your traditions.

You must know what is happening in America beyond sports, video games, music, pop culture, or celebrities, and you do need to know something about those things, too. It means that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook cannot simply be places that you use as escapes but that your understanding of social media becomes the power of young people to speak your minds, to highlight an issue or cause, to organize, to activate, to come together, to find ways to change us, to change this world.

In order to fulfill your promise, you must reject the parts of our culture that only see youth and young people as a brand, as a group, as a demographic, as mindless consumers. Some of those who encourage you to purchase the latest sneakers, cellphones, clothes, music, and videogames don’t care about your inner souls. Some of them think about your money and not much else. As the students said boldly after the “4 Little Girls” screenings, “They are brainwashing us.” Tragically, some the “they” don’t know you because they do not even know their own children.

So we must love ourselves and each other. A student at Pace kept saying that we need a new Dr. King. We do not. First, he did not lead the Civil Rights Movement by himself. Second, there were many younger people involved, both female and male. They feared not. They had a vision. They pit forth the bold notion that they could change America and, indeed, change the world — and they did.

Across this century young people lead and it will be so now.

Folks like me are waiting for you—to lead us and to be with us—in a powerful multi-cultural and multi-generational army determined to see freedom, justice, and equality for all people everywhere. This has been my dream since I was an 18-year-old first-year college student at Rutgers University. Since I was a youth and young adult myself determined to make a difference. Over two decades later I am still here, still doing the work, and I feel your generation is my generation’s partner in this journey. If not us, then who?

That is why I am both supporting you and challenging you: How will you deal with racism, with sexism, with poverty and with economic inequality? What will you say to people who preach hate toward homosexuals, and toward religions different from their own? How will you handle environmental challenges and climate change? What will you say and do when more mass shootings occur, when we continue to debate issues like guns, mental health and mental illness? What kind of leaders will you be when you know so many people do not trust politicians, religious leaders, or the talking heads who we see on television every day? If you come from great wealth, or if you gain great wealth in your lifetime, will you be a leader who understands and who relates to people of lesser means? Where will you find the hope, the love, the compassion, to relate to people not just like you, but who are also very different from you, to be a voice for them when they feel their voices do not matter?

I challenge you to carry these kinds of question with you for the rest of your lives. It is your time. What will you say? What will you do? Every generation must leave its mark. Never make peace with being mediocre or average, never do only enough to get by. If you want to see a better America and a better world, be that better America and that better world through your words, your actions, and your unique ability to be fearless in everything that you do. Do it for yourself. Do it for your friends. Do it for your families and your communities. And do it for the generations that will follow yours. They will watch you, learn from you and follow you, just as I am doing—

Kevin Powell is an activist, writer, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books. He is also the president and cofounder of BK Nation, a new national organization. Follow him on twitter @kevin_powell