Last Wednesday through Saturday, I convened in Washington with students from across the nation as part of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Millennial Values Survey Release.
I met Tim from the University of Maine, Zeenia from Harvard University, Talene from Johns Hopkins University. Sixteen fellows — selected through a national competition — were asked to lead an elevated dialogue on the Millennial Generation, our values and the 2012 election.
The fellowship coincided with the release of a sprawling survey that measured the Millennial Generation (those between 18 and 24 years old) in terms of its political ideology and views on race, religion and economic inequality.
The Millennial Generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in American history. Some of the survey’s results were astounding and prompted ample debate. It showed, for example, that the belief system that has gained the most rapid increase in membership among young people is atheism.
Yet these increases in diversity and religious pluralism have aggravated racial and religious tensions. More millennials believe that discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks. Half of millennials viewed the tenets of Islam as incompatible with Western values. These are very controversial viewpoints that I don’t subscribe to. But half of us apparently do.
These contentious findings prompted frank conversations on the Millenial Generation through panels, conferences and symposiums organized by the Berkley Center.
Big questions were asked, with no easy answers. What should we make increased racial tensions? Have interracial bonds been damaged by race-based admissions policies in colleges? Has Islamophobia been inflamed by vicious political rhetoric, the media’s echo chamber or the War on Terror?
What has sown the seeds of discontent within our generation?
When comparing themselves to their parents, more millennials feel negatively about their generation. Forty percent of the survey’s respondents indicated negative sentiments, calling their peers “lazier” and “less moral,” while only 19 percent of respondents had positive things to say about their generation.
Still, the week in D.C. reinforced my long held view that the Millennial Generation — aided by technology — can be the greatest source of good in this country and the world. The 15 of us in D.C. represented diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. But our disagreements led an increased understanding of issues concerning our generation.
There was something refreshing about interacting face-to-face with these students during my time in Washington. Personal interactions break down dogma and doctrine. In our digital age, they are also infused with a kind of civility and respect that cannot exist in the blogosphere.
Young people are often lamented for their lack of organization and mobilization around youth causes. But I’m not sure if this will ever shift, because young people hold such varied political viewpoints.
The survey and fellowship sponsored by Berkley Center and the Ford Foundation has pursued a brave agenda in getting the conversation started. They’ve forced our generation to examine racial and religious biases manifested in the survey. The only way to solve issues is to confront them.
But solving a problem necessitates turning awareness into action. Our generation can protest and scream all we want, but if less than half of us vote in the 2012 election — as the survey projects — then it will be increasingly difficult to accomplish tangible results and mold the world to our vision.
At Penn, the observable increase in students’ apathy is especially troubling given the level of education present here. But it’s also understandable. The survey indicates the federal government is as popular as the Tea Party in the eyes of millennials. Part of the reason political indifference is on the rise is due to our lack of faith and trust in powerful American institutions.
The so-called “greatest generation” wrote their own history by preserving democracy in the face of fascism and totalitarianism in World War II.
We have yet to write our own history, but one day it will be there. Join the dialogue on the Berkley Center’s website and discuss what we, the Millennial Generation, must do going forward.
Our dialogue may only go so far, but history will never be penned by the silent.