Commentary: For young San Diegans, choosing freedom over fear is not about Republican or Democrat politics

Community members gather at Poway High School for a vigil following the shooting at Chabad of Poway on April 29, 2019 in Poway, California. Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune

The San Diego Union-Tribune published the following commentary by Mica Pollock, professor in the Department of Education Studies and director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at UC San Diego.

Youth are calling for the nation to be not only kind but safe.

MAY 9, 2019 1:25 PM

I spent the April 27 weekend reeling from the reality that the shooter who killed a Jewish woman at a nearby San Diego synagogue was a 19-year-old who had attended a local high school.

I also spent it starting to review over 300 entries for our spring #USvsHate contest.

#USvsHate is an anti-hate messaging project led by educators and youth, designed to counter bigotry in schools and create safe and welcoming classrooms. We seek to unite school communities against the recent hate surge, by catalyzing ongoing learning and action. We designed it here, in San Diego, with the hope of spreading to the nation.

In it, teachers teach inclusion lessons gathered from nearly 20 national organizations. Then they invite students to create public messages refusing hate.

As I opened contest entries from San Diego young people — gorgeous art, striking insights, videos, op-eds, poems — I heard powerful voices lifted against the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and hate overall that have spiked nationally in adults’ discourse. I saw messages insisting on schools and communities where everyone belongs. I read messages insisting that people can feel pride in themselves without putting other people down.

These youth voices against hate — from across the city, near the border, near the desert, near the sea — made me cry, smile, shake my head in wonder and feel hope. Their messages were the products of dialogue and thinking and discussing and debating, exactly what school is for. They were demands to treat all humans as valuable. Many of the messages were explicit rejections of violence.

And several of the messages I read were also explicit cries for gun control. One dark red painting simply said “stop gun violence,” under an image of a gun. In one podcast, two 10th-graders walked methodically through their argument for banning civilian access to “military-grade weapons” nationally.

At first, I reacted to these last entries as not obviously related to an “anti-hate” message contest.

Then I kept listening. The podcast students walked listeners all the way to the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand — just days before a Christchurch-inspired murder happened in their own backyard.

And I realized that youth are starting to connect the dots.

The San Diego young people leading the messaging of #USvsHate can see that we have a country inflamed by hate. Some are also pointing out that Americans have easy access to weapons to use when they get upset, or when they read misinformation on the internet saying some “types of people” are inferior to them. Our hate + guns situation is like giving an opioid addict a blank prescription for meds. Kids feel threatened, even in schools.

The youth majority know the kind of nation we need instead.

San Diego’s #USvsHate youth are tackling the hate part comprehensively. They’re done with folks pumping hate speech into our public discourse as if some humans are “inferior.” They insist instead on proactive anti-hate action: Their public messages reject adults’ false ideas about “inferior” and “superior” people, and misinformation about other people’s lives. Their posters and essays call for inclusion and opportunity for all “types of people” across our society.

Their PSAs and poems insist that all people should be respected, fairly treated and supported, in schools and on streets. In crayon and Sharpie and digitally, they call for respecting everyone, building bridges, reaching out to others. They refuse bullying and taunts. From all backgrounds, they show the capacity to recognize common humanity and treasure diversity.

They demand schools and a society free from violence, cruelty and threats.

They are schooling the rest of us. Youth today seem done with the argument that folks have the unfettered right to hate — and shoot — as if that is their “freedom” as Americans.

They want to reclaim the very notion of American freedom.

Youth are calling for the nation to be not only kind but safe. Actual freedom requires some protections so our families and communities can live safely free. It requires adults in schools and communities ensuring that people of all ages have the freedom to exist free from harassment and intimidation, and to share ideas and cultures without threat of violent retribution. Actual freedom also requires that adults create solid protections mitigating the ability to commit violence.

That way, we all have the freedom to live.

The entries in our anti-hate contest are drowning out adults’ hate talk and publicly insisting that we work to live together free from hate and violence. Students aren’t speaking as Democrats or Republicans. They’re speaking as America’s children. It’s not partisan to speak up for community safety.

And we adults should listen. Youth want us to create safe communities and schools with our rules and laws and actions and words. They want us to choose freedom over fear.

Pollock is professor of education studies at UC San Diego and the director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence (CREATE). She designed #USvsHate with educators throughout San Diego.

For more information about #USvsHate, visit the website or contact Mica Pollock (