Our Opinion: A generation for this moment
Around this time every year, we take a moment to salute our graduating seniors — from high school and from college — and wish them all the best in whatever comes next.
Well, this year, they're going to need it.
We're living through one of the most tumultuous times in modern history. A pandemic has us in a vise-grip. As businesses are shuttered or scaled down due to the virus, the shock to the system has pushed the global economy into a sharp recession.
Meanwhile, street protests have roiled cities and towns across the country and around the world in the wake of the caught-on-video killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. As people protest police brutality, in many cases, the police have added fuel to the fire themselves with harsh tactics and hostile behavior toward members of the public, legal observers and journalists. In some cities and states, like Minneapolis and Colorado, officials say they are now willing to embrace radical police reforms.
The political landscape has been growing more jagged and inhospitable by the year. That's nothing new — the United States has been increasingly polarized along partisan lines since the end of the Cold War — but as the gulf widens, it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge.
That's a big problem, because beyond the coronavirus, beyond the persistent issues of discrimination and abuse of power, and beyond the next election, Generation Z is staring down the barrel of potentially catastrophic climate change, caused by more than a century of growing greenhouse gas emissions.
We got an unnerving reminder of the challenge before us this past weekend, when daytime highs hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Siberia. These were temperatures previously unheard of in the chilly reaches of Russia north of the Arctic Circle. As permafrost thaws in these areas that are not supposed to ever get that hot, more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. And as gleaming white sea ice melts, fewer of the Sun's rays are reflected back from the Earth's surface. All of that means more warming, accelerating a cycle that is running away from our ability to contain it.
So, things are a bit of a mess right now.
The good news is that if there ever were a generation that is up to the challenge, it's the one matriculating right now.
Gen Z has jumped feet-first into a leadership role in demonstrations and advocacy. And while it seems that our political reality is changing rapidly — as the "Black Lives Matter" movement experiences a surge in popular support, and ideas like diverting money from police forces to social services go mainstream — this is nothing new under the sun for Zoomers.
Earlier this month, our cover story featured demonstrations across Washington County against police violence and racism, including a march in Tualatin that drew more than 1,000. That march was led by Markayla Ballard.
A Tualatin High School alumna, Ballard had been in the local newspaper before. We wrote about her in 2016, when as a high school junior, she organized a screening of a documentary titled "Black Girl in Suburbia," calling attention to racism in Portland's suburbs and the experience of growing up Black in a mostly white community.
In this week's issue, you can read about the reaction of Christian Calzada and other local people to a Supreme Court ruling that preserves the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Calzada, who was brought to the United States from Mexico as an infant and grew up in Forest Grove, has also been featured in the paper before. As a Portland Community College student, he helped lead a rally at Tigard City Hall in 2017, calling on the City Council to declare Tigard a "sanctuary city."
Sarah Gentry, Tigard High School's outgoing student body president and a member of the Class of 2020, has become a familiar name in the paper this year. Months ago, her achievements as one of the best high school skiers in the state were highlighted in the sports section. After schools were shut down by the pandemic, she was profiled in a front-page story for her efforts to keep students connected even after the "Unity Day" she had spent weeks planning was canceled. And earlier this month, she was one of the student leaders of a march from Tualatin High School to Tigard High School in support of the Black community.
What about the graduates yet to come?
Last week, we published a commentary by Vicky Siah, a current student at Westview High School. She leads her school's Red Cross Club, which stepped up to organize a well-attended blood drive when the pandemic hit. In her commentary, she thoughtfully pointed out that the people who signed up to give blood were motivated by compassion, a desire to do right by others even if they are complete strangers — and that's the same compassion that is so desperately needed to end racism and violence against people of color.
We had written about Vicky Siah before, too, when she launched an effort to save the coral reefs as a first-grader. Read our story from May 20, 2010.
The world is in rough shape, but the kids are all right.
And we're sorry.
We're sorry that the Class of 2020 had to spend the last weeks of high school or college — what many of us grownups remember as some of the best years of our lives — sitting at home and trying to learn from online instructional materials, instead of making memories with friends, playing their last-ever competitive sports games and putting on their last-ever school plays.
We're sorry that the Class of 2020 is picking up diplomas and degrees just in time to enter a job market that's been turned on its ear, or an institute of higher learning that might or might not even welcome them onto campus this fall, or a vocational program for a line of work that might not even be recognizable by the time they're finished.
We're sorry that us Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and even millennials have wasted so many years not taking the climate crisis seriously, and not addressing the root causes of inequality, and caring more about our side "winning" than building a future for America's youth.
This isn't going to be easy. But there's still hope, and it's because of Gen Z. These young people — young adults, now — are tenacious and ambitious, with clear eyes and loud voices. Let's see where they lead us.
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