One night after the State of the Union address, youth took the stage at the Newseum, in Washington D.C., to offer their take on the “State of the Youth.”
Similar to President Trump’s Tuesday night address, the speakers—who spanned ages 13 to 22—also spoke about employment, healthcare and activism on the football field. Yet many of their views and concerns drastically differed from the President’s—shining a spotlight on issues impeding the success of many youth in America.
One issue was dispelling stereotypes about student-athletes and sports. “For me, football is not just a way I express my athleticism or an after-school activity,” said Jeremiah McCowan, a student from Hart Middle School. “No, for me it’s life or death. In my community almost every boy plays football because he hopes its a way out of southeast [D.C.]” Reading from a piece of paper, McCowan appeared composed as he spoke to the small Newseum audience about negative stereotypes black athletes endure.
“It’s a common belief that football players only care about sports, especially if you’re black,” McCowan continued. Often, he added, there’s the perception that “you, as a black athlete, can’t possibly have aspirations past running, jumping or dunking for a professional team.”
The young middle-schooler also had a response for the President in his speech, noting that the ability to freely stand or kneel was important to him.
“Sports are important, especially for those of us in communities where there are not very many ways out. But your perception of us must change,” McCowan said, referring to Trump. “We are not just jesters in your court entertaining you to your will. We are men who aspire to live a life that is full.”
Speaking to EdSurge after the event, McCowan described his dreams to go to Virginia Tech and later become a mechanical engineer. Going to college was not just his dream, he noted, but that of many of his peers as well.
“They used football and didn’t let it use them,” said McCowan, speaking of other players he admired.
Other students talked about issues largely absent from the president’s speech Tuesday night, such as sexual violence, domestic abuse and housing affordability.
Velonte Chambers, a 19-year-old student at Luke C. Moore High School, described his fears of having to find a new home while working two jobs and trying to finish high school. His family of six, including his four younger siblings, his mother, and himself, live in government-assisted housing that is set to be demolished in less than a year.
“The thought of having my home ripped from underneath me is terrifying. What will happen to my family?” says Chambers, reading off a tiny cell phone to the crowd. He hesitated and apologized to the audience as he choked back tears.
His community, which he notes has gone from 700 tenants to 200 in under two months, is also located in D.C. He chose to share his story with the audience in hopes that his experience could shine a light on the many gentrifying neighborhoods in the city.
“When I leave here today I am not sure if the next moving truck I see on my street will not be for my family,” says Chambers. Neither “my mother nor myself have the funds to afford market rent, so where does that leave me? Stuck.”
At the end of the event, Chambers thanked his peers for sharing their personal problems on stage. Other students said they felt their generation was more ready and willing to talk about the difficult issues raised throughout the evening.
“I think our generation is ready to have conversations about privilege in ways that others generations were not,” said Liliana Asensio, a 22-year old senior at American University.
That sentiment aligns with findings from the Public Religion Research Institute. In a recent survey of 2,023 young people age 15-24, the organization found that 55 percent of young people had more conversations about discrimination and bias within the last 12 months than they did the year before.