It’s not uncommon for even the most politically active adults to feel powerless about global events. Given this, how can we expect youth to deal with this same emotion when faced with difficult circumstances in places both near and far? Perhaps the most immediate thing we can do is educate them about opportunities available to take action. Two new books have this goal in mind. Speak a Word for Freedom profiles women fighting against slavery from the 18th century to the present day. The Art of the Possible explains what “politics” actually means, and what power is available for those who would take it.
Janet Willen and Marjorie Gann are the authors of a previous book, Five Thousand Years of Slavery, which takes a larger look at the history of this violation of human rights. In Speak a Word for Freedom, their focus narrows to profile 14 women who decided to join the fight to bring down the institution. Their contributions range from political activism to non-governmental work, and several are former slaves. While some are already famous, others will be unknown to most readers, which serves to highlight just how many women have decided to stand up for this cause.
Speak a Word for Freedom is a dense book that uses sophisticated language, and the authors do not shy away from hard truths. Violence is not sugarcoated, and the horrors can be hard to digest. However, the book does contain hope; the women profiled defied extraordinary odds but did not back down, and each fought (or continues to fight) to end this form of horrific abuse once and for all.
The Art of the Possible offers hope and empowerment in a different sphere: democratic politics. Toronto-based author and journalist Edward Keenan wrote the book to “explain how politics works, the role you play, and how you can play that role really well.” He achieves these goals beautifully.
To start, Keenan emphasizes the importance of public opinion, and makes it clear that even those who are too young to vote can have an impact on politics simply by having likes and dislikes. Step by step, Keenan describes the fundamentals of how society works, and how a person can choose to contribute in different ways and on different levels.
The most unique chapters are about conflict. In “How to Make a Strong Argument” and “Conflict is Good,” Keenan reminds us that discord helps us analyze and refine our opinions through logical arguments. This non-confrontational view will appeal to anyone tired of a win/lose approach to politics.
Despite some similarities, the two books should be approached very differently. Speak a Word for Freedom is overwhelming if read cover-to-cover because of the difficult subject matter. Its overall message is one of strength, but that can get lost in the sheer magnitude of human suffering described. Unfortunately, Willen and Gann do not capitalize on the many opportunities to link different kinds of slavery, so reading only one profile does not make apparent the commonalities between, for example, the experiences of a black slave in 18th-century America and a modern-day child labourer in the Indian rug industry.
By contrast, The Art of the Possible should be read as a whole. The concluding chapter, “Knowledge is Power,” is best understood after following the path Keenan has carefully laid from the beginning. Both books offer concrete suggestions for youth empowerment, but those contained in The Art of the Possible seem more immediately achievable. Keenan reminds readers that “knowledge gives you options,” and that politics is “something that gives you power to shape the society you live in.” This message is easy to take to heart, and has the potential to change the way young people see their world.