The YouthBuild USA Rural Caucus brought together 20 youth from around the country to talk about their common experiences. Pictured, left to right, are Sharell Harmon, Kristan Smith, Dale Mackey, Tarma Nolan, and Shakari Smith. (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

If members of the YouthBuild Rural Youth Caucus are any indication, the nation’s young people define the American dream in economic terms first before moving on to more abstract concepts like freedom and opportunity.

And while economic stability is a big concern, the ideal of civic courage is very much alive, as well.

Twenty rural youth from around the country gathered in Arlington, Virginia, the weekend of March 17 for a three-day meeting preceding YouthBuild USA’s 30th annual Conference of Young Leaders.

Before joining the Conference of Young Leaders on Monday, the rural delegates spent time looking at their common experiences in YouthBuild, a non-profit organization that provides training and leadership opportunities for low-income young people across the United States.

For the culminating session of the Rural Youth Caucus, Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly, joined the group to talk about “civic courage.” Civic courage is the theme for this spring’s National Rural Assembly.

Coe guided the delegates through a discussion about the expectations and shortcomings of the American dream. To prime the conversation, she used Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” the 1935 poem that gives a sharp critique of the nation’s fairness while offering hope that the U.S. can live up to its ideals.

Students defined the American dream in ways most people might: freedom, opportunity, independence, and most importantly (if the number of times it was suggested in some iteration is an indicator), economic stability.

Most responses centered around money – economic stability, a living wage, disposable income. Democracy, free speech, and the pursuit of happiness were not mentioned.

Dayvon Johnson speaks up at the event, held in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

When Coe asked the group if they felt the American dream was possible, Jonny Landis, a delegate from Godfrey, Illinois, said: “We’ve got a long way to go.”

The delegates noted lines in the poem that said they are not living in the dream they’d described. Landis agreed with the line, “There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” He said that America “struggles a lot with equality in basically every sense.”

Another delegate, John Stubbs from Enid, Oklahoma, agreed, citing the line, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

“I think for a lot of people, they have this vivid dream of what America is, and it turns out to be nothing like it,” he said.  “They’re wanting it to be how everybody dreams it, but it can be filled with discrimination.”

Delegate Dayvon Johnson noted that while the poem criticizes the United States, it ends on a hopeful note:  “America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath— America will be!”

The session took a similarly optimistic turn when delegates discussed the concept of civic courage. Coe asked youth to craft their own definition of civic courage that she could share with the Rural Assembly, which will meet in Durham, North Carolina, on May 21-23, 2018.

Whitney Kimball Coe leads the group in a discussion on civic courage and the American dream. (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

Participants broke up into small groups to tell stories about a time they witnessed or experienced an act of courage. Responses included stories about chasing a nephew into the street to prevent an accident, speaking up at a local meeting, and making the decision to show up at the Rural Caucus in the first place.

The notion that courage can manifest in diverse ways echoed a discussion that had been ongoing throughout the weekend for the rural YouthBuild delegates.  At a conference designed to support and encourage leadership, it’s easy to imagine there is one ideal type of young leader – opinionated, extroverted, quick to speak up, and comfortable in the center of attention. Throughout the Rural Caucus, however, both the facilitators and delegates reminded each other that some leaders lead quietly, by action and example.  In thinking about civic courage, the group noted that a citizen doesn’t necessarily have to protest or run for local government to be civically courageous.

“There is sometimes a disconnect about what it means to be courageous and who is allowed to be courageous,” Coe said.

Each group wrote a short description of civic courage, and Coe combined those ideas to create a joint definition.

Here’s how the 2018 Rural Caucus defines civic courage:

Civic courage looks like persistent, dedicated, and determined people showing up and speaking up for themselves and for those in their communities who cannot speak. Courage looks like vulnerable acts, like overcoming anxiety to become connectors and bridge-builders. We all have it within us to be courageous for our communities.

Coe will carry the definition to the National Rural Assembly and present it to participants there.

The Rural Caucus preceded YouthBuild USA’s Conference of Young Leaders. The week-long conference had 200 delegates.

DISCLAIMER: The National Rural Assembly is a project of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.

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