Alex Shantz is a former member of the St. Helena Unified School District Board of Trustees. He resigned on Nov. 16.
I’ve devoted most of my young adult life to challenging structures of oppression while defending those whom American culture has marginalized and abandoned. This political passion traces back to my own experiences in high school. I was a freshman during the first anniversary of 9/11. During this time, our nation’s leaders called for national unity in the wake of tragedy, and I witnessed, within my own high school microcosm, the worst of humanity.
I heard my peers calling for carpet-bombing Muslims in Middle Eastern countries. I saw students divide themselves along racial lines, whites against brown students, during Physical Education free play time. I felt physical objects and homophobic slurs hurled at me while changing in the boys locker room. Those who claimed to be the most enthusiastic lovers of America’s foundational freedoms were among the most vicious opponents to free speech.
Suicide is the third leading cause of youth death with over 14 percent of high school students considering it and 7 percent attempting it. Youth who’ve been bullied are between 2 and 9 times more likely to attempt suicide. Being the vocalist for a hardcore punk band and listening to music helped me survive.
Much of my civic engagement since then has been aimed at working with historically marginalized groups to dismantle structures of racism, xenophobia and oppression. The stories and experiences from people of color, queer youth, and women were excluded within dominate cultural spaces while I grew up. My work has been centered on cultivating and creating spaces within the dominate culture where the voices of those deemed “misfits” can find acceptance, understanding, and the power to persist.
Our community has made some progress.
Latinos and LGBTQ peoples have made good strides in our local communities. The women of my generation are discovering the courage to derive power from themselves and not just men. Below the surface, the differently abled and those who struggle with ableism (both physical and mental) are beginning to find their voices to advocate for themselves. These are encouraging developments.
The election of an ultra-nationalist president, however, has revived the spirit of cultural xenophobia that I and many of my peers experienced during high school and throughout American society. The youth behind me are inheriting a culture and country that is worse off than the one I inherited. The degree of bullying, intimidation, and fear vulnerable youth are about to experience on school campuses will greatly increase. I cannot deny this country is headed down a road toward severe cultural and state repression, like many nation-states throughout history and in our current times.
One reason we find ourselves in this current political situation is because many of our teachers and authority figures taught us to stop believing, to settle for less than what we need, to avoid skepticism, and to discard our idealism. The people who won the election are those who truly believe, with every fiber in their body, that they can build a wall and make others pay for it. They believe prior political experience is not necessary to hold the highest leadership position in our country. They believe that another world is possible.
In the meantime, our generation was taught not to believe. We were taught that success requires us to give up our passions and settle for dead-end careers. We were taught to not chase after pipe dreams and to be realistic. Where did political realism get us?
At this stage in my life, I’ve decided to step back from local politics to pursue my master’s degree in philosophy and make music. My immediate career goals are to become a philosophy professor and start a band. I believe our culture needs more philosophers and musicians to reclaim youthful pragmatic idealism, to develop new ways of thinking, and to nurture a spirit of resistance within the dark times that are about to come. Ideas and music can invoke within the youth a sense of deeper meaning, belonging, and the wherewithal to struggle onward to survive another day.
I believe the St. Helena school district is headed in the right direction with regards to cultural understanding and acceptance. In the coming days, months and years, it is imperative to listen to and hold space for the voices that have historically been excluded from dominate discourses. All student success means specifically listening to and nurturing power within those voices.