Guest columnist Inanna Balkin: Welcoming diversity, but forming tribes

Amherst Town Hall

Amherst Town Hall STAFF FILE PHOTO

By INANNA BALKIN

Published: 05-21-2024 5:57 PM

Modified: 05-29-2024 8:08 AM


 

Young activists are often praised for our involvement in politics as if we’re rare commodities. We’re asked how to mobilize our peers as if every young person will answer the same call to action. We’re asked to participate in intergenerational partnerships and to hold our own in meetings full of “professionals.” When asked why our peers don’t jump at the chance to be involved in politics and advocacy, we smile and say they’re probably busy with sports and school.

Honestly, many of them likely do not want to deal with being the token young person.

In my three years as a serious activist, I’ve been asked to join organizations so they can check off the young person box a handful of times. When I’ve tried to share my opinion, it’s been squashed and adults roll their eyes and sigh; how could a mere 14-year-old have something valuable to contribute?

If we dare to be more involved, adults that we’ve never met tell us we’re not capable — that we should focus on our education. If we never engage, we’re judged because “you are the future!” and “it’s time to step up!”

Amherst, which has a large population of young activists, is often faced with this problem. As a town, we strive to prioritize empathy and inclusivity, which are not always reflected in our dialogues.

For example, a few months ago, I ran to be chair of the Superintendent Search Committee, thinking a high school perspective would be important. Soon after the Search Committee elected me, the Amherst Indy posted an article and several comments suggesting that I focus on my education, not on being a community leader.

I learned there would be a reelection, which I attended. Several public comments made it clear that some in town did not want a young person in that position. Some people stressed the importance of having a BIPOC community member in this position. Less helpful were the comments implying that I could not be a strong representative because of my age, even though I’d been fairly elected. I understand the importance of BIPOC representation. I just wonder if there is also an opportunity for commenters and witnesses to consider how we can make a more welcoming space for young people in local government.

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This is just one example of how when it’s time to display the qualities our town claims to hold dear, we obfuscate issues, personal motives come to the forefront, and we show, yet again, why many don’t want to get involved in local politics.

We ensure that all the boxes are ticked — that backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and age groups are represented (although some are often overlooked, including the large South Asian community). We try to welcome everyone with open arms, something I love about Amherst, yet for over a decade now, the trend seems to be to attack: the elementary school project, town councilors, the town manager, library trustees, school committee members … everything and everyone is fair game.

As a town, we’re divided, constantly pouncing on others. Candidates from opposite “sides” attack each other, often making our elected officials look more like young children at recess. There’s no space to hold complexity; if you want to be involved, you need to join a pack. This does nothing but create a toxic environment.

In general, I love living in Amherst, where folks try to be kind and welcoming, and people are passionate about politics. I’m thankful for my fellow youth activists and community members who constantly push us to improve. But I believe the path to creating a stronger community is to listen and collaborate, instead of constantly critiquing and roadblocking people, policies, and projects.

We could accomplish so much if we learned to work together to create a better town for future generations.

Inanna Balkin is a freshman at Amherst Regional High School.