The right to the city: a place for young people to be

Footloose the 2011 movie is about dancing and then more. It’s about a group of young people in a Southern county, Bronton, reclaiming their right to be. To dance.

Public dancing is ruled illegal in the county, so ordained after a group of local teenagers met an accident and died on their way home after a night of partying and dancing. There was also the curfew. But this did not deter young locals from dancing, on the sly with some help from sympathetic adults. The ordinance was finally challenged with the leadership of the new kid in town, Ren. Despite his brilliant moving speech before the local council, their petition was voted down by the majority. The adults of course. But with help from Ren’s employer, the young people were able to technically go around the ordinance. His employer offered them a dancing space on his factory site which was 300 miles outside Bronton. Some time before the seniors’ prom – illegal for the local school to host – Ren went to the local preacher (whose young daughter is among those who opposed the ordinance) to ask for his blessing that he bring his daughter to the dance and that “if she won’t go, I won’t too”. At that point, Ren had already earned some brownie points from the local preacher who had earlier thought him a bad influence to his daughter. In his sermon after their meeting, the preacher, who also sits in the local council and was one of those who pushed for the ordinance after losing his son in the accident, conceded that “the only way we could trust our children is for us to make them trustworthy and not to take that responsibility from them”. With that, he granted the young people their “right to dance”.

Apart from the story, what struck me were:

1. The local council is open to a public hearing of the petition against its ordinance; that despite of themselves, the council leaders listened and inwardly conceded to Ren’s defense. His defense touches on youth as that time of life when dancing and such are what child rearing and family responsibilities are to parents; that there is a time for everything; that in time they too will grow up and become parents and laden with adult responsibilities; but that time is in the future; that the young people’s time is now. In response to the local preacher’s argument that dancing and such pave the way for the “spiritual corruption” of young people, Ren (with help from the preacher’s daughter) quoted from the Bible, Psalm 14:9. The verse in short is about God as the Lord of the Dance; that King David danced praising God and God approved of it. I believe that the most critical point in gaining the support of public officials and the general public is when citizens are permitted to publicly defend their cases or propositions in council hearings; because this gives them the chance to move their leaders toward their cause; because there is no substitute for a face-to-face encounter. And this is what localities in this country lack: to go beyond rhetoric into actually providing local youth the space to participate in local public decisions; to be open to challenges posed by young citizens.

2. Activism of the young people, especially that this activism is played by the rules. Filing a formal petition, enlisting public support, and standing up in front of the county’s formidable local leaders in order to make a public defense of their petition. I believe that this is more difficult for citizens to do compared to the relative ease of taking to the streets, flagging placards (particularly to whom in the street, I’ve always wondered), and chanting or shouting which because of the other noises in the street usually come off as incomprehensible to people on the street and anyway the decision-makers are not on the streets and by the time the decision-makers are able to listen, media has already interpreted the message for them – usually, as just another nuisance – and so by a large chunk street protests miss out on delivering their message personally to persons who matter. Unless there’s another Hitler up there, taking to the streets is costly than effective.

3. One shot. That is what Ren said when his Aunt asked him why the petition is important to him. “Just one shot and then — nothing. I’ll disappear just like the others in here.” Many times the journey is more important than the winning.

What is it that young people want from their cities? They have to speak out and work for it. But first they must find their voice.

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