Poet Maya Angelou has died. Much has and will be said about this courageous writer whose wisdom, honesty and humor have inspired readers the world over.
Angelou’s groundbreaking memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” shared brutal truths about her rape at age 7 by her mother’s boyfriend. After she spoke out about it, the perpetrator received vigilante justice from a mob. Angelou said that at the time, she thought she had killed him with her voice. So, she stopped speaking for nearly six years. And it was during this self-imposed retreat to silence that she discovered the healing power of poetry.
In 1969, when “Caged Bird” was published, child rape and teen pregnancy weren’t exactly part of the American literary canon, even though they were part of the unspoken reality for too many poor girls in America. And while Angelou broke her own silence and gave voice to these experiences, there are parents today in the U.S. who try to get her book banned from school libraries.
But, still, it rises….
Maya Angelou was more than artist and author. She was a journalist and an activist who was deeply committed to lifting up children and youth. Of the many obituaries I’ve read so far, I was particularly moved by a post on Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
“One of our teaching and learning specialists told a story about Angelou’s visit to a Washington, D.C., juvenile detention center, where Angelou spoke to the boys who were incarcerated there. She listened to their poetry, gave them advice and told them that, if they ever wanted to attend one of her speaking engagements, just to tell security they were her nephews. ‘You increase me,’ she told her audience, reminding them that love and justice grows us all as people.”
While much deserved attention will be paid to the full life and death of this great woman, I am compelled to call attention to a lesser-known giant who passed away on May 25: Richard Jaeggi, who started The Gandhi Brigade, a youth media nonprofit in my town - Silver Spring, Md.
Jaeggi wrote, “We took up Gandhi’s challenge to form a “peace brigade” that trained for justice the way an army trains for war. We taught ourselves how to use video and other digital media as a tool to engage young people in the life of their community and to use the power of communication to transform the world.”
Jaeggi transmitted the basics of good journalism and good citizenship, responsibility for self and others.
“I am immensely fortunate to have the privilege of earning my living by doing the thing I love the most: doing my part in preparing today’s youth to become wise, compassionate, and courageous,” he reflected.
Blogger Dan Reed wrote of Jaeggi, “He was an adult with a strong voice in our community, but he gave it to young people who otherwise may not get heard.”
This is what youth media is all about. The Journalism Center on Children and Families recognizes youth media not only as a potential training ground for future journalists but an important source of journalism in its own right. These programs are incubators of rising talent and authentic youth perspectives.
As disenfranchised youth are empowered to find their voice, the first stories they want to cover are often about themselves and other youth, stories that take a strong position on an issue that hits close to home. Some adults consider this bias. Youth see it as their expertise.
The adults who help sustain these youth media projects recognize the spark of potential in every young person and the importance of nurturing relationships that can keep young people on the right path.
On the sad occasion of Richard Jaeggi’s death, I’ll invoke another follower of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?”
I ask all who read this: What are you doing to support youth media in your community? Does your newsroom collaborate with youth media makers? Have you ever volunteered to help young people improve their storytelling/journalism skills? There are countless high school newspapers, afterschool video and photography clubs, local public radio projects, public access TV shows awaiting the gifts of your time and attention. Go ahead and tell them Maya Angelou sent you.