I am the daughter of two proud hippies. My childhood was full of Simon and Garfunkel sing-alongs, food from the Moosewood Cookbook, and words like “patriarchy” and “proletariat” used in casual conversation. Like many children of hippies, I grew up listening to stories about the anti-war protests and civil rights marches of the 1960's, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to join such a movement.
My first real political act — not counting small acts of defiance like refusing to color a Christmas tree in preschool or calling my first grade teacher a sexist for telling me to “sit like a lady” — happened when I was sixteen. I was a junior in high school, and I got involved with my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which was being prevented from meeting on school grounds.
I helped my friends who had founded the GSA circulate petitions in class showing student support. When our petitions were confiscated and the school board issued a more final ban, a local news syndicate that had been covering the story suggested that we take legal action. They recommended the LGBT action group Lambda Legal, who agreed to take our case.
When we first met with the lawyers from Lambda Legal, they told us that the group’s two founders would lose standing to sue once they graduated. They needed juniors to serve as plaintiffs in the case against the school district. I volunteered.
Because I was a minor, I needed parental consent. My parents, who had come to the meeting with me, agreed without hesitation not only to allow me to be a plaintiff, but for my dad’s name to appear on the legal papers next to mine. And just like that, I became one of the two plaintiffs in the first federal lawsuit ever brought on behalf of a gay-straight alliance.
My parents’ permission seemed like such a small thing at the time, a mere formality. But in retrospect it was extraordinary. What stands out is not that my parents gave their permission for me to become a public face of a controversial lawsuit, but that it never occurred to me that they might refuse.
The lawsuit lasted a year, and my parents were among our greatest supporters. They attended every rally and marched in every protest. They hosted legal meetings and strategy sessions in their house. They gave interviews to newspapers and TV stations saying how proud they were and how much they supported what we were doing. And if in private they discussed the potential impact of my activism on their careers, their friendships, and maybe even all of our safety, they never once expressed a single hesitation to me.
(For the record, I experienced no negative repercussions. My fellow students and the broader community mostly supported us.)
That year, my parents and I fulfilled each other’s hopes. As veterans of the protest movements of the 1960's, they hoped they would raise a child who would share their excitement for activism and grow up to carry on their ideals. And as a teenager who had grown up listening to those stories, I had hoped that if (or when) I began engaging in political action, my parents would support and encourage me and my peers. I had every reason to expect that they would.
The tradition of political action goes back as far as anyone can remember in my family. My great-grandmother, born in 1902, was a flapper, the first girl on her block to bob her hair, and sent her two daughters to college in keeping with her family’s long history of valuing women’s education. My father’s father was born in Russia in 1914, and he taught me the protest songs of his youth when I was little. My mother’s father was the first archaeologist in the world to choose a woman as his field manager. My mother’s mother won a lifetime achievement award from the ACLU for her work which included testifying before the state legislature and running a weekly talk show on civil liberties, and Texas Governor Ann Richards said at her inauguration that she wouldn’t have gotten to where she was without my grandmother. When local high schools were rioting after being integrated under Brown v. Board of Education, there were no riots in my aunt’s middle school because she led her cheer-leading squad out to welcome the black students as they got off the buses. My mother expected her parents to be angry when she wore a black armband to high school to protest the Vietnam War, but instead they were proud of her and encouraged her to be politically active.
In my family, activist war stories are passed down through the generations along with recipes. Thanksgiving dinner conversation has always included heated debate about which causes deserve most support, and which protest tactics are most effective. In each generation, teenagers have looked back to their parents and grandparents and found allies.
Millennials are, in many ways, living up to the expectations of our hippie parents. When my dad visited me in New York during the height of Occupy Wall Street, he was struck by how similar it felt to the protest movements of the 1960’s. He meant it as the highest of compliments. That similarity has only increased over the past few years. It is impossible not to see echoes of the Civil Rights movement in Black Lives Matter, to look at Ferguson and not think of Selma.
I look at the protest movements sweeping across college campuses now — at Yale, Mizzou, and my own alma mater, Amherst College — and I see a generation that has carefully studied our parents’ tactics and adapted them to our own causes. These contemporary movements use a hybrid of old and new tactics, mixing sit-ins with flash mobs and megaphones with Twitter.
Many Boomers are throwing their weight behind their children’s activism, but many are not. I am disheartened by the proliferation of articles calling student protesters coddled, entitled whiners, unreasonably enforcing “PC sanctimony” in response to imagined slights. They are being told to grow up, be reasonable, stop making such a fuss. So much energy is being expended attacking the methods of the protesters, and almost none discussing their message.
The activists of the 1960’s faced similar scorn and criticism as they created a movement that is now recognized as undeniably right in its goals, admirable in its methods, and extremely successful in shaping policy. Of all people, our parents’ generation should understand that today’s student protesters are a force to be reckoned with.
We are standing on our parents’ shoulders. Whether they lift us up or try to shrug us off is up to them.
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