Uprising, Activism, Fictional Deaf Kids and a Need for Real-World Service

The Switched at Birth all-ASL-episode, Uprising, is rightly getting a lot of kudos. As a fan of the show, I found it brilliant. It showed the various characters being exactly who they are in a crisis – Melody trying to temper her own idealism with pragmatism, but immensely proud of the kids, John whose first concern is simply his “girls,” Regina guarding her own secret. And those are just the adults. You have Bay being Bay, a young woman with great heart, and Daphne using those strategic skills she’s honed playing sports, asserting leadership, finding her voice as well as her identity.

If you are not familiar with the show, you can watch it or read reviews elsewhere. Like some of the reviewers, I was struck by how political the episode was, but I wasn’t surprised. The program has done a remarkable job of introducing deaf culture to its audience. While I haven’t heard (or read in subtitles) the word “audism,” it’s implicitly in the working vocabulary, and on the fingertips of many of the deaf characters.

The writers are to be lauded for the way in which they used not only the Gallaudet-Deaf President Now, 1988 uprising, but also showed kids who were aware of the Occupy movement. These are kids had likely recently studied current or near current events, including youth led “revolutionary” movements like the one that ousted Mubarek in Egypt by inviting the whole world to watch, in real time. Unlike students activists in earlier days, Carlton kids grew up using social media. For them it’s a natural means of communication.

Switched at Birth unlike some other shows with a high school setting, features actors who look and act like high school students. The episode reminds us how much high school-aged adolescents really want to be involved in their communities, and how often they have the courage and idealism of people who haven’t been defeated yet, who haven’t yet figured out what might not be possible, and are instead working from the premise that everything is, if they work for it.

Over the past years, I’ve worked with a small public high school started in collaboration with a local community-based organization and healthcare institutions, and watched how its students – regular neighborhood kids – have a genuine desire to be of use in their communities, to serve. It’s not just about padding college resumes. It’s a need. The kids were always a step or two ahead of the school in developing opportunities to help.

Last October, I ran away from home, and volunteered to canvas for the Obama campaign in Reading PA, where volunteers were young, old and in-between, but mostly young. People talk about “the 60s” and usually mean “the 70s” as a time of youth protest and activism, but the truth is young people have always been activists, and now that everyone can so easily connect with everyone else in the world, they’ve become more effective at it.

As I watched Uprising, and thought about it later, I remembered something the President may have talked about once upon his time, as politicians often do – national service. Yes, we already have programs like Americorp, but they are hardly publicized, and certainly not the norm. Poor kids who are already eligible for Pell grants and work-study might do better to simply get on with their education. Middle-class kids might do something between college and graduate school, especially in a bad economy, and while they can also use educational benefits, generally these benefits are small, and they could probably do better working and saving for a year or two – if they can find a job.

But we still haven’t developed a national service program for post-high school (or deferred till after college) that gets young people, especially all those energetic but potentially “displaced” young people, out into their communities doing good while developing the soft skills employers are always going on about. What about a program that offers them a stipend to either help with the rent at home, or some kind of low-cost but modest housing when staying home isn’t an option? Or better, what about a program that brings kids from different backgrounds together on an equal footing – and isn’t the military? What about money after a year for educational expenses like tuition, or a living allowance if tuition is covered by other loans or programs, or funds that can be banked with interest and paid out after education is completed? Maybe even an option for a two-year stint that could cover most of the expenses in getting an associate’s degree?

There’s so much talk about high school and what to do with the senior year. For many kids who’ve completed, or almost completed, their high school course work, a service year could start in the twelfth grade. Knowing that some kind of “job” exists after high school, which doesn’t involve serving fries, might help to motivate kids in more economically depressed neighborhoods to complete their coursework, lowering the drop-out rate. For families in a better economic position, tax credits could substitute for stipends, and the program could offer another year of growth before college for kids who might not be ready emotionally for freshman year. The same soft skills employers require — the ability to show up on time, interact appropriately with peers and adults, communication, etc — are also needed for success in college, and a necessity for living away from parental control.

Watching the fictional Carlton students organize themselves, seeing their energy and idealism, reminds one of what has happened and is happening in the real world, how young people are helping to create the future. Why not utilize their energy and create a program that would serve us all?