January 2006

Eryn Loeb

nonfiction

Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow

It all started in 1903, with Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Lately these heartfelt missives to the next generation have evolved into a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of phenomenon, exploding with books of Letters to Young Novelists, Catholics, Feminists, Therapists, Activists, Contrarians, Gymnasts, Chefs, Lawyers and Golfers (in separate volumes, of course). But what happens when the objects of these letters write back?

More a political platform than a means of dispensing advice, Letters from Young Activists is a compilation of ("young") activists' communiqués to themselves and each other, to their parents and mentors, and to the Movement as a whole. What, you didn't know there was a Movement with enough substance to merit a capital M? This book proves it, demonstrating that activism is alive, diverse and vibrant.

Nearly fifty activists of varying definition, and ranging in age from 10 to 31, write letters addressing strategy, tactics and vision. They grapple with their legacies. They confront generational struggles and urge reconciliations. They pen mission statements, ramble on too long and not long enough, ask hard questions and sketch out their lives. Their writing shows the range and depth of the work there is to do, as well as all that is underway. The writers in this book are at work around the world. They know about poverty and also about privilege. They are concerned with oppression of all kinds, with culture, with their own heritages, with their families. They recognize the importance of joy, music, spirituality and love, and they are up to the challenge of figuring out how to make all these things work together. There are enough of them in these pages to make this seem possible.

The anger running throughout is aimed not just at the situations that activism responds to, but at the state of activism itself. Self-criticism exists as a necessary piece of action rather than as detached theory. A set of letters addressing the continued presence of sexism, racism and sexual assault within the activist community may be one of the more truly revolutionary aspects of the book. The editors have managed to include an incredible range of letters without making the book feeling either overloaded or too calculated.

Everyone here has their own issues and priorities, and their individual motivations are nearly always central to the letters. Not all the writing is flawless or equally compelling, but that's not really the point: nearly every letter is notable for some reason. Included are letters written by Matan Kaminer and Stephen Funk to each other, reflecting on their experiences as Israeli and American soldiers and conscientious objectors to the wars of their respective countries. Andy Cornell contributes a letter to Punk Rock Activism, bluntly calling out the failings of a culture to which he also freely admits his debt. Nell Hirschmann-Levy writes to her lover, confiding that being in the closet about her sexual and gender identity on the job hurts not only her, but also the union members she organizes. The book is broken up into categories: "Letters on Leadership," "Letters on Culture" and "Letters to the Youth of Tomorrow," to name a few. But most letters blur the boundaries between sections, and some of the best pieces can't be contained by one subject.

Letters closes with a group of "Letters to Our Future Selves." With the belief that the future matters -- and that it is something their own efforts will help shape -- these last letters go much deeper than the first-day-of-school assignment they recall. To dismiss the book's necessary (but by no means blind) optimism would in itself be naïve. These writers' words are inspiring. Their hopes and desires are addictive.

Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow
Nation Books
ISBN: 1560257474
256 Pages