The Young Guerrilla Self by Steve Langley
Source: Howie, L., & Campbell, P. (2016). Guerrilla selfhood: Imagining young people’s entrepreneurial futures. Journal of Youth Studies,19(7), 906–920.
Young people need to be able to cope, to thrive in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties. Earthquakes, the Mosque attacks, Covid19, the imminent economic downturn, looming climate change and the ‘manufactured uncertainties’of contemporary society all fuel concerns about how we support young people.
Many of the writers of “Been There – Young People’s Stories of Struggle and Hope”  reported, as a result of writing their experience, an increase in confidence, self-esteem, hope – all characteristics associated with resilience. Interestingly many of them report seeing themselves as part of a group with “my fellow young writers”, and this feeling of connection is another characteristic of resilience.
I read with interest Sulekha Korgaonkar’s blog “Using Art to Define Resilience” on this site (7 May) about the research paper “Resilience Beyond Risk: Youth Re-defining Resilience Through Collective Art-Making”. This instantly appealed to me: using the art of writing, of poetry, songs or stories together encourages the student voice. This is why a creative space will be central in the planned Christchurch Youth Hub. The freedom to be creative – in any art form – gives young people agency and allows them to truly be the new generation: the generators of the new ideas we need.
When young people have the resilience to cope with the mainly manufactured uncertainties we all face, what could be the next step in their development? Howie and Campbell answer this with their concept of the ‘guerrilla self’ – young people who “exhibited an incredible amount of what psychologists and social scientists would call resilience”. The authors suggest an alternative identity that acknowledges “the capacities, creativity and innovation of youth within the oppressive neo-liberal regime: the guerrilla self. This is the self that is resistant to the system, and finds within it flaws, abandoned sites and opportunities to thrive. The guerrilla self is active, has agency, and has a resistance that is admirable and strength focused, and alters the definition of success and resilience.”
I know some of these guerrillas. They don’t accept the system, they try to change it. I worked with those brooding boys, bored at school, who went into their garage and wrote songs about how the system sucks; boys like Roger Waters writing:
“Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”
And the girls I admired at Kingslea Residential School, like the one who had forced her admission by storming out of home, smashing the jeweller’s window then waiting for the Police, in her anger at having the repeated sexual abuse she suffered ignored by the system. I admire too the young organisers of the “School Strikes for the Climate” – a growing network of ‘guerrilla selves’ who are beacons of resilience and hope – and the thousands who challenge institutional racism in the “Black Lives Matter” protests.
This concept of developing the guerrilla self is what Neil Postman was interested in exploring in his presentation “The End of Education”. He looks at how schools operate within a dominant set of beliefs, what he calls a narrative. The early religious narrative then became the democracy narrative and now it is the neo-liberal capitalist narrative, which we can see falling apart. He suggests possible newer narratives, for example the earth as a spaceship we are all in together. His central point is that schools should encourage young people to question the dominant narrative, not as a complaint, but as a genuine attempt to discover the aim of that narrative, to understand it, support it or try to modify it.
“We ask that the schools be 'subversive', that they serve as a kind of anti-bureaucracy bureaucracy, providing the young with a 'What is it good for?' perspective on its own society. Certainly, it is unrealistic to expect those who control the media to perform that function. Nor the generals and the politicians. Nor is it reasonable to expect the 'intellectuals' to do it, for they do not have access to the majority of youth. But schoolteachers do, and so the primary responsibility rests with them.”
My teaching handbook was Postman’s earlier book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”  urging teachers to not tell, but to ask students “What is this book really about?” so they learned to ask the same questions of systems and organisations – subversive questions, because organisations, by definition, tend to be resistant to change. Thus young people develop their guerrilla selves.
Rather than lamenting the difficulties they face, I want to focus on and support these new young generators, building their guerrilla selves, as they challenge institutional racism, systemic poverty, and commercial exploitation of the environment. I want to help them build their resilience and hope, to not just give them a voice, but to encourage that voice, to not just listen to their concerns, but to support their plans for positive action.
1 Beck, U. (2009). World Risk and Manufactured Uncertainties. Iris. 1. 291-299. “Manufactured uncertainties are distinguished by the fact that they are dependent on human decisions, created by society itself, immanent to society and thus non-externalizable, collectively imposed and thus individually unavoidable.”
2 Langley, S. (Ed). (2019). Been There – Young People’s Stories of Struggle and Hope. The Collaborative Trust.
4 Postman, N. & Weintgartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Delacorte Press.