It is hard to introduce Dave Eggers. The word "story" should probably be in the first line.
Eggers first made his name in 2001 telling the painful story of his own childhood in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." With his founding of the literary journal McSweeney's and contributions to the bi-weekly magazine "The Believer," he became an established publisher and writer of humor, interviews and fiction.
Even as he continues to write, he's become a professional activist and amplifier, drawing out and preserving the stories of young people and survivors of all kinds, both in his books and in a series of oral histories called "Voices of Witness." Those stories are seen in the nationwide network of 826 literacy centers, one of which is in Roxbury, he created.
Those projects overlap in publications, sometimes. "Like The Sun In Dark Spaces," the latest collection from 826 Boston, includes stories written by foreign-born teenagers — "newcomers" to the city. Now Eggers and Amanda Uhle, his partner-in-philanthropy, are planning what they call the first International Congress of Youth Voices.
Over three days this August, 100 students, including three from Boston, will convene in San Francisco. Among those set to attend are former refugees and students from Iraq, Burundi and Nepal.
As Uhle and Eggers planned the event, the Parkland, Florida school shooting took place. The explosion of youth outrage and activism that followed seem to prove his point: Young people in America and abroad have something to say. Eggers and I spoke last week.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What would you like to see come of this?
A bunch of things. There's going to be an electricity between these hundred young people that's going to be just palpable. I think their just meeting each other is so important. And then when they break off into groups — those that are really interested in environmental issues, or gun violence, for example — you're going to see connections made that will carry forth for many years, or forever. Ideally, this will happen every year in different parts of the world. And this will be one of the ways that young people will seize a certain amount of power, a seat at the table.
I think high schools across the country are feeling emboldened in a new way after Parkland and after the March For Our Lives. If we can do anything to carry that feeling forward and put more kindling on that fire, we will.
What is the plan for the conference?
It’s a three-day conference. For the first two days, we have speakers. A lot of them are the students themselves, talking about the work that they've done. But there are adults as well. But on the third day the adults leave, and the students will all meet at the War Memorial Opera House, where the early version of the United Nations met in the ’40s. That day is theirs.
We have plans to publish whatever they might write in The Guardian, whether it’s a universal declaration of youth rights, for example, or a document like the Port Huron Statement — something that will become a historical document, some kind of starting point. But it could also be an organizational body that they form: an AARP of young people or some sort of parallel government, whatever it is. The key thing is that there are real tangible results that come of it.
Why do you focus so much on students, especially teenagers, in your activism?
Well, I taught a high school class for 11 years called "The Best American Non-Required Reading." There's nothing better than teaching high school. Because kids that age know themselves to a great extent, but they're also very open to new ideas. College can really complicate our thinking, sometimes in a really good way. But in high school there's a clarity, still. Students know what's right and wrong. And they know what can be done. No one's told them that they can't. And I think high schools across the country are feeling emboldened in a new way after Parkland and after the March For Our Lives. If we can do anything to carry that feeling forward and put more kindling on that fire, we will.
We covered Boston’s March For Our Lives in March. I was impressed by the desire, on the part of the teenage organizers, to focus their activism: on all kinds of gun violence, especially as it goes on in urban neighborhoods.
Yeah. I heard Naomi Klein on the radio last night. She was talking about how activism has become so siloed — environmental issues, poverty issues, gun violence. But of course they intersect in so many ways. Young people can restore those connections, I think. So I love that they didn't stop with just school shootings — especially since that's not yet been, I guess, an issue here in Boston.
That’s what you learn when you open up the floor to students. You hear things that you might not otherwise. We don't know what they’ll say until they take the microphone. We've found it again and again doing 826. We've opened so many subjects up to them. We did a book that we're publishing over the summer about young people from around the country talking about their relationship with technology. It never hews to exactly what you think it's going to be. You think that they're all in love with all of their gadgets and social media, whatever. They’re just as conflicted, if not more so, than any adult you know. They're exceptionally aware of how they're being marketed to.
"You think that they're all in love with all of their gadgets and social media, whatever. They’re just as conflicted, if not more so, than any adult you know. They're exceptionally aware of how they're being marketed to."
I want to talk about that idea of being heard. It’s a powerful thing. But I wonder: is it enough just to tell people’s stories? When you talk about the Port Huron Statement, that was college students in the '60s saying, “We've had it. Young people deserve a better world than the one you're presenting. We're going to protest.” Doesn't that go a step further than storytelling?
I think it's really so related. This is what Dr. [Martin Luther] King did so well. He presented an alternative vision of the future. Not just, “I will not do this” or “let's boycott that,” but, “I have a dream,” right?
If young people want a certain future, so much of it does come down to language and storytelling and inspiring and moving people. That's where this intersection between writing and activism is so essential. So many of our very greatest activists were writers. King was of course the most beautiful writer — even though we think of him as an orator. But he wrote those words down. And then again: Obama — a writer first. And so and on and on. You really cannot inspire a movement unless you can articulate it well.
At the same time you have President Trump. There was this memorable moment at the Republican National Convention. He takes the stage and says to the forgotten men and women of America, “I am your voice.” In other words, no one's been listening to you, and now I'm listening to you. It felt, even then, like a win in storytelling.
You're right. That's exactly it. His language was more vivid. I went to a rally in Sacramento, and I saw Trump speak and I thought, “he is a monster.” But he speaks with very vivid language that you do not forget. He actually doesn't waste words. He had a knack for gripping and memorable phrases: “American carnage.” In sharp contrast to the Clinton campaign, which was the least distinct campaign that I can remember, in terms of never once a memorable phrase.
I think she would have made a very, very good president — just in case that wasn't clear, which side of things I'm on. But I kept being disheartened by how poor the speeches were; how bland they were; how platitudinous. There was nothing new. They remembered all the science of campaigning and forgot the art.
If young people want a certain future, so much of it does come down to language and storytelling and inspiring and moving people.
Garry Wills wrote this essay after the shooting at Sandy Hook called “Our Moloch.” His argument was that gun rights had become something like a god we sacrifice our children to. We don't ask why. So that was one story. Then the Parkland kids came forward and told a different story. The national media, even the president, listened to them. But what about all the people who campaign against violence in the inner city, or in other countries? People don’t always listen, and kids have so much to say, in my experience.
I'm always optimistic. I remember being a high school student, or a college student. You want all logical change, and you want it all now. And I remember the day I graduated, things had not changed. You can't believe the glacial pace of some of these changes — where it's so obvious what needs to be done.
I saw one of the leaders of the gay marriage movement speak in D.C., along with John Lewis and Brittany Packnett from Campaign Zero. He talked about the 20- or 30-year battle to allow gay couples to marry. How anyone could have spent that long on that! But he said, "Every little victory mattered. Defeats, you just had to sort of pocket and keep moving on."
He was trying to inspire this group of young people, all gathered on the White House lawn during the last days of the Obama administration, to be patient. You know: "Look at the long game," "eyes on the prize," and all that. But he put it in such practical terms. So much of it is just kind of tenacity, and strategy. In addition to the inspiring words and storytelling, you really do need to have incredible patience and tenacity.
That's a message for the kids that will come to the Congress, too. By the time they're 30, maybe they'll be the ones that finally get a seat at the table: a seat in the U.N., seats in Congress. Maybe it will be their successors. But they'll get it started, at least. And these things tend to accelerate.