Kids lead the way

Jeff vonKaenel

The kids are all right. It’s the grown-ups I’m worried about. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I sat with 45 high-school kids as they earnestly discussed how they could be of greater service to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Sacramento movement. We had listened to environmentally conscious hip-hop music, and watched a slide show about greenhouse gases. But the kids were anxious to get to work.

Getting to work like the students at Mira Loma High School, who are recycling, planting trees and setting up e-waste collection days. They are enthusiastically looking forward to the million-kid iMatter March, an event inspired by Alec Loorz, a young Californian who began organizing against global warming when he was 12 years old. The goal is for 1 million young people to march in their home cities on Mother’s Day 2011. Kevin Johnson hopes that 10,000 will march in Sacramento.

The kids were very inspiring. But the slide show on the destruction of our planet was hard to view. This destruction has come on my watch. I did not have an answer to the young people’s question: “How can you sit by while the planet is being destroyed?”

It was then that I thought of my mother. In May 1963, I was a 12-year-old boy living in a small segregated town in Ohio. One night, my mom and I were watching the news on TV. We watched together as firemen in Birmingham, Ala., used high-pressure fire hoses to blow junior-high and high-school children down the street. We saw policemen sic attack dogs on these same kids. I was so upset I began to cry. I asked, “Why are they doing this?” My mother explained that the kids were demonstrating so that their parents could have the right to vote.

Why was I so upset? I couldn’t understand how, in this country that I loved so much, people didn’t care that certain citizens could not vote. I couldn’t understand how the authorities, who should have been arresting those who denied people the right to vote, were instead attacking children protesting this injustice. When I looked at my mother’s face that day, she had a look of shame. On Saturday afternoon, I knew how she felt. I felt shame watching these kids discussing the environmental mess that they will inherit.

The Birmingham demonstration came at a critical time. Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement was struggling to get adult volunteers. These young people saved the day. After seeing the young people stand up for their rights in a nonviolent protest, the adults of Birmingham started coming out to march. Inspired by their children’s bravery, they joined their children and changed history.

It is time we joined our children. Mark your calendar: May 8, 2011.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.