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What, me lead? Don’t you think I’m too young?

If I were told I was to be the voice of my generation, my gut reaction would be a mixture of inspiration and hope, followed by the subtle doubt if they had the right person.

For a generation that for the most part has had it pretty good, one criticism of many that rings out about my generation is our lack of leadership. While you cannot accept every criticism at face value, it gets me thinking and to look around and ask, “Who are our leaders?”

Hopefully we strive toward many positive goals in life, one of them being productive members of society. I know with my past work opportunities, I have done just that. I was a social service assistant, serving residents of Pierce County in need of resources to sustain self-sufficiency. I was a student and teacher for a summer math/science program that recruits underrepresented minorities on college campuses and promotes their higher education. I’ve also been an adult literacy tutor and ESL assistant for immigrants. The list goes on.

But when I look back at what I’ve contributed, see where I am today and envision the potential of tomorrow, I still have that insufficient, nagging feeling of, “What have I really done?”

This feeling stems from a legitimate concern. My generation has made great strides in many areas, an example being its continued fight for progressive social justice. Like every generation though, we are also a product of our time.

Our time came on the backs of the generations before us, who struggled for decades during the 20th century so we can have the rights and privileges that most of us take for granted. We walk down the street, go to school and hang out with our friends with very little thought paid to how different these scenes could have looked without the relentless grit of our parents and their parents before them.

A few weekends ago I was at a gathering attended by common community members and influential people in this area. As we were waiting for the meeting to start, I asked the man sitting to my right (who I found out was also quite influential) if he would be speaking at the event. He jokingly responded, “Speaking is a strong term. I would more say, I am mumbling some words.” He followed this up by commenting, “You seem too young to be here.”

Cliché responses of “I’m older than I look,” or “How old do you think I am?” went through my head before the person sitting next to me directed the conversation elsewhere.

Now that man’s comment, through no fault of his own, is symptomatic of what is seen of my generation and what is expected of us. Attending a community gathering – one that touches on topics of education, economics, infrastructure, etc. – is just not something expected from many 20-somethings and younger. It is as if we unilaterally agreed that the decisions and policy-making are best left to older folks.

Admittedly, I am not exempt from my own criticisms. I play video games and watch far too many sports when I should be picking up a newspaper or book and educating myself. I choose to hang out with friends and do nothing when we could be out there making a difference in the world.

And that is where the doubt comes in, the doubt of whether I am to be a voice for my generation. But this is also where the hope and inspiration are. The hope and inspiration that stem from the belief that my generation has a fresh way of looking at the world and the time it takes to change it. It is not time to look for leaders, but to accept ourselves as leaders and give back to a society that has given so much to us.

Ben Kastenbaum of Tacoma, a graduate of Stadium High School and the University of Puget Sound, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at benkastenbaum@gmail.com.

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