It’s Your World – If You Don’t Like It, CHANGE IT:Activism for Teenagers
Halpin, Mikki (2004).
New York: Simon Pulse; $8.99. ISBN 0689874480.
Numerous recent articles and books extol youth civic engagement. While some highlight the positive impact of participation on emotional development or other tasks of maturation, others describe benefits to the larger community and to the state of democracy in general. Many of the “benefits” would be more accurately described as “goals,” as the authors’ findings are either speculative or insufficiently evidenced to support generalization. This tendency to overstate benefits, while diminishing the negative impacts, raises questions about the authors’ intentions. To which audience is this literature directed? Whom are they trying to persuade?
Mikki Halpin’s It’s Your World – If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers provides an exception to the rule of audience ambiguity. The book is clearly titled to address a teenage audience, and the contents and language support the same mission – that is, to encourage more youth to get involved in “activism.” Halpin is an insider to pop culture, music and technology. Her recent work, including VH1 Rants and Raves, the essay “A Girl's Guide to Geek Guys” (Halpin and Maat ND), and the “Geek Handbook” (Halpin 2000) that followed, describes a person well equipped to parler with her junior readers (Halpin 2006).
It’s Your World lays out nine easily navigable chapters outlining issues that youth might take on. These include: helping animals, fighting racism, saving the environment, ending war, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, stopping school violence and bullying, defending women’s rights, protecting civil rights and civil liberty, and promoting tolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Each chapter briefly explains the issue, describes a plan for tackling it in the reader’s own neighborhood, and ends with one or two portraits of related-youth activists – in their own words – each of whom is successfully fighting the good fight. The book ends with a guide to useful sources relating to the activism topics. It’s Your World provides enthusiasm to inspire young people to take on activist roles and simple steps for doing so.
This brings me to my foremost concern. Whose issues are these? Is it a coincidence that the author begins with a chapter describing the virtues of vegetarianism, climaxes with a vote to end war, and ends with alternative lifestyles? The author has framed youth activism as an opportunity to advance a series of traditionally liberal platforms with little change from those of 30 years ago. Does this book aim to objectively encourage youth to take an active role in improving their homes, neighborhoods and communities, or does it aim to clone the liberal activists of the late 60’s? I find the dogmatism of this approach limited and polarizing, treating youth as pawns in the United States partisan political battle. Ironically, the back cover of It’s Your World claims the opposite: “These are the issues you care about – and now you can do something about them. It’s Your World will show you how to act on your beliefs, no matter what they are, and make a difference” (emphasis added).
In the oft-cited “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Sherry R. Arnstein (1969, 216) cautions readers regarding the political nature of participation:
The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy – a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite hand-claps, however, when this principle is advocated by the have-not blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, and whites. And when the have-nots define participation as redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition.
In contrast to Arnstein’s leafy-green metaphor, Halpin speaks directly to her young audience in a language they are likely to swallow and able to digest. However, by presenting activism to youth with such an obviously liberal bias, she appears to be simply recruiting youth to a specific political team. I applaud her desire to speak directly to youth about their involvement in community activism, but my applause turns to a polite hand-clap as I look deeper into the politicized contents of the book.
It’s Your World sends a message that anyone at any age should internalize. That is – if you don’t like it, change it! The book has several easy-to-follow examples of activism that might help get the ball rolling, particularly in the U.S. context, but I hope that readers would consider what types of issues are important in their own neighborhood and take action in more personal ways. I believe that is what proponents of youth participation want to say as well, but most have yet to address their statement to young people in a language and format that young people can easily embrace. Let this book also be an example to adult readers, academic and professional, of the political influence of media and let us consider our ethical obligations as we aim to use it as a motivating tool with vulnerable populations.
Arnstein, S. R. (1969). "A Ladder of Citizen Participation." Journal of the American Institute of Planning 35(4): 216-224.
Halpin, M. (2000). The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life. New York: Pocket Books.
Halpin, M. (2006). Selected Mikki Halpin Archive. Rants and Raves, MTV Networks.
Halpin, M. and V. Maat (ND). “A Girl's Guide to Geek Guys.” Retrieved November 2006 from http://www.completeevil.com/geek.html.
University of Colorado
Kelly Draper Zuniga is a doctoral student in design and planning at the University of Colorado. She has a background in landscape architecture and community development. Her current research interests include participatory planning involving youth, social constructions of childhood and youth and their relationship to wider economic and political structures.