Stopping the Cycle of Oppression: How Our Early Hurts Perpetuate Injustice

Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus in Jim Crow Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks did the same and became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Greta Thunberg initiated the School Strike for Climate, which eventually led to roughly 4 million protesters, mostly school-age young people, participating in the largest climate strikes in world history. Autumn Peltier is the Chief Water Protector and “Water Warrior” of the Anishnabek Nation and addressed the United Nations on World Water Day in 2018. What do all these leaders have in common? They were 15 or 16 years old when their leadership led to global, transformative social change. Young people are and have been at the vanguard of every social movement across the world. Why? Because young people recognize injustice, have the least investment in the current system, have been the least confused by the supposed “spoils” or “benefits” of the system, and are therefore willing to take bold, visible leadership for social justice. Young people don’t need to be taught this. Injustice is irrational. Young people see the irrationality of it. They know it. It’s clear. And they act. And all of us did, too, when we were young people.

We are all born with a sense of what is fair and just. We see injustice and irrationality and do the best we can to interrupt it. That is, until we don’t. We express it until we can’t tell that our one voice can make a difference. Until we start to feel too small and too powerless to make the change happen. Until we internalize the messages from society that condescend to us, lie to us about our significance, overwhelm us with hurt, diminish our capacity to heal, and distract us into our survival or seeking comfort and numbing.

So, what happens to us as we grow up? Why do we stop fighting for justice? Or believing in our significance?

Adultism: The Training Ground for Oppression

All of us share the experience of being targeted by adultism, the systemic and institutionalized mistreatment of young people and the training ground for all other oppressions. Adultism is that time you were next in line at the grocery and the clerk waited on the grown up behind you—and no one noticed. Or if they did, they didn’t think it was out of the ordinary and likely didn’t say a word. It’s the time you stood in a cross walk waiting to cross and traffic wouldn’t stop because they didn’t “see” you or think it was important to stop for a young person. It’s the time you went to the store with your friends and only one of you could go in while the rest had to stay outside, because the shopkeeper was suspicious of a group of children without adult supervision.

Adultism is being pushed aside, neglected, mistreated, hovered over, not believed, second-guessed, pressured to be perfect, made to feel stupid, humiliated, ashamed, disrespected, mocked for being hopeful, called “naïve,” given responsibilities too early, diminished, threatened and/or treated with physical violence, struck, grabbed, thrown, pinched, and/or made to feel anything less than the intelligent, good, curious, loving, zestful, and powerful way we came into the world.

“Less than completely human.” As harsh as those words may sound, this phrase describes how young people are viewed in a society where adultism exists. We tend to think of young people as not fully formed humans without full minds, their own thoughts, their own dreams, a sense of justice or that what they want is worthwhile. If being an adult defines what it means to be human, young people less are than that. 

Adultism is not an individual act toward another individual. It’s not an adult waking up and saying, “I’m going to make some young person’s life miserable today.” Like other forms of oppression, Adultism is a set of beliefs and attitudes about young people that are designed into the fabric of every institution in our society, communicated through values, policies, and physical structures and reinforced through violence or the threat of violence. It cannot be chalked up to “that is just childhood.” Childhood and adultism are not the same thing. Childhood is not inherently oppressive. For example, our educational system is riddled with adultism. The educators who support the youngest learners are also the least supported, compensated, trained, and valued. As you grow older and “advance” in the educational system, these educators receive more payment, job security, training, etc. By the time the learner reaches higher education, educators have the highest status, most pay, job security, benefits, and training of all educators. Nevertheless, those who are most valued in colleges and universities are the ones who have the least contact with students.

Adultism is not about blaming our parents as “bad parents” or defending them as “good parents.” Remember: adultism is institutional so it can’t be about any individual parent or parents. All parents did the best they could. Still, our parents were also hurt by adultism. They likely managed to pass on fewer hurts than their parents, but they weren’t able to eliminate adultism. We can continue to hold onto the gifts our parents gave us and the power of their love while at the same time acknowledging adultism and how it was passed on by them.

The Cycle of Oppression: How Good People Keep Oppression Going

When we acknowledge the impacts of adultism, we can understand how good people continue to perpetuate the cycle of oppression despite their best efforts, intentions, and what they want for themselves and the world. If not for adultism we would always elegantly and thoughtfully stand up against injustice coming at us or others. We have to be hurt into going quiet and staying small as young people. And we’ve been hurt badly, hurt systematically, hurt thoroughly enough that we struggle to hold onto a picture of our full, powerful selves. We’ve been hurt so much that we lose sight of our goodness, our inherent sense of justice, and our ability to stand up against the injustices of oppression.

When I hear “hurt” I often think of a physical hurt and those are included here. Hurts can be intentional or unintentional. For example, an unintentional one is falling down while learning to walk or to ride a bike. Falling and scraping my knee certainly are physical hurts. As young people, we would spontaneously heal when they happen to us. Hurts can occur in ways that are not only physical but verbal, emotional, or psychological. On the extreme end, there are young ones who have experienced quite significant emotional and psychological abuse. Hurts can take more subtle forms, ones we might be tempted to minimize. Anything that you heard or experienced that made you feel less than completely good would be considered a hurt in this model. And let’s be clear: oppression is a hurt. You can’t oppress people without feelings.

As young children, we naturally discharged the hurts we experienced by crying, shaking, yawning, talking, laughing, and sweating. If you’ve ever seen a young person tantrum, they do all of these things at once. On the other side of releasing the hurts through discharge, young ones are more present, connected, flexible, and light. Adults are under-tantrumed. We’ve built up an inflexible layer of protection that has kept us acting in patterned ways to avoid further hurt and kept us numb to the pain we are carrying around.

This healing process was disrupted by a society that suppresses emotions and adults around us, still carrying hurts from their own experiences with adultism, also suppressing expression of emotions. They discouraged us from holding on to these forms of discharge. Without a way to heal, we had to find other ways to cope with feeling defeated, discouraged, insignificant, and powerless, as a result of adultism. We took on patterns of behavior to numb or distract us to cope. The resulting patterns (of thinking, of behavior) protected us and probably helped us survive, but they didn’t end the oppression.

Some of the patterns we develop to avoid getting hurt show up in our social justice work as isolating, over-working to prove our worth or commitment, numbing our feelings through addictions, avoiding intimacy and connection, avoiding conflict, rescuing or becoming the “savior”, and trying to have the fight against adultism that we didn’t get to have as children. Everywhere. Even when it’s not necessary or even appropriate. We can’t not stand up. We even pick a fight when there’s nothing to fight about. Unfortunately, we aren’t doing it in a way that’s effective. It’s rigid and harsh and leaves a wake of defensive individuals feeling at least as rigid and harsh. Our patterns show up in what or how we lead or avoid leading, how we feel about and back or tear down other leaders, and how much or whether we allow others to think about and back our leadership. In fact, those unhealed hurts and the patterns—rigid and unthinking by definition—can be co-opted into the service of other oppressions and become oppression towards others where we as adults now have institutional power.

Healing for Justice: A Liberation Practice

We have legitimate reasons to be upset and even outraged about what happened to us as young people. When we don’t acknowledge those hurts or we minimize them or even see them as hurts, we don’t do our healing around them. But not acknowledging them or minimizing them doesn’t diminish the anger or hurt that was left behind. Instead, it leaks. That anger and hurt leak out in ways that we don’t intend and often don’t notice now because it’s just “who we are.” It’s not who we are, though. It’s how we got hurt. It’s how we haven’t yet healed. 

It is time to unnumb. It is time to reclaim our flexible, brilliant minds and give up the patterns that have kept us stuck, hopeless, helpless, waiting for someone else, and/or righteously acting out of our hurts. Doing this healing work by going back, remembering what happened to us in our childhoods, and healing from those experiences is the key to eliminating not only adultism but all oppressions. We call this Social Justice Healing. Adultism has had a profound impact on us. Social Justice Healing work is not therapy. This healing work does not require a trained professional and doesn’t happen within a “mental health” framework. This approach comes from an oppression and social justice framework and requires making a commitment to oneself, human connection, and liberation. The practice I offer for Social Justice Healing is called Constructivist Listening. Constructivist Listening supports our capacity to reclaim our ability to discharge hurts from oppression.

After nearly three decades as a social justice and equity practitioner, I have witnessed the profound effects of Constructivist Listening: in at least 100 different languages, on tens of thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations, and in every region of the U.S. and more than a dozen countries on five continents. I have been encouraged by the trust participants have placed in me as they take the next step in their journey to heal from the effects of oppression. I have experienced the forgiveness, compassion, and courage demonstrated by participants once they possess a language and understanding of institutional oppression.

I have been reminded, time and time again, that we are ready and willing to heal from the hurts of oppression (whether we would use that language or not) when given an opportunity to do so. When I started the Luna Jiménez Institute for Social Transformation (LJIST) at the age of 26, my one goal was to get the practice of Constructivist Listening into the hands of as many people and organizations as possible. I’m convinced that healing is the missing element for global movement to end racism. I’d humbly posit that this practice can support that healing and is our path to liberation.