Generation Z gets time in spotlight at Eagle Conversation Series event

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PITTSFIELD — They're the generation that grew up with smartphones, immersed in social media. And like many generations before them, the night's moderator noted, they mystify their parents.

But there's also an underbelly to what this generation of teenagers says it is facing — racial tension and gun violence among them. They're scared, they're stressed and they want people to pay attention to what they're saying.

"I feel like we're being listened to, but we're not necessarily heard," said Lucy Doren, of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The onstage conversation centered on local high schoolers was an installment in The Berkshire Eagle's Conversation Series. The event was hosted at Taconic High School's newly minted auditorium — a point that might make Pittsfield High School students jealous, noted the night's moderator, Kevin Moran, executive editor of The Eagle.

"We have Wi-Fi!" one Pittsfield High student called out from a neighboring high-top table, referencing a lack of digital connectivity in the new Taconic building.

That was the first in a night full of Berkshire teens surprising older people with their opinions.

Pittsfield High students Marie Butler and Jordan Bradford asked The Eagle to host the event after they attended the first installment in the conversation series, which, they noticed, lacked diversity.

Racial diversity and inclusion were important points during the night, as the teens took time to point out racism they are encountering in local schools.

"The racism in our school doesn't get a lot of attention," said Warren Dews III, who said that maybe students should learn about the history of racial slurs so they're less likely to use them.

Instead, though, he said "everyone tries to ignore it."

Dylan Redd, a Wahconah Regional High School student, said the lack of racial diversity at her school can lead to insensitive comments that she can tell the person had no intention of making.

"There's clearly not enough talk about racial diversity," she said.

They're also the generation that inherited a new wave of school shootings, and a climate that they fear is spiraling out of control.

Redd said there was a scare last year at Wahconah with a student that people were worried about.

"I get scared, now," she said. "Going to school, getting up in the morning."

Redd and other students said they often fear that, when they say goodbye to their families in the mornings, they're saying it for the last time.

Emanuel Brown, of Pittsfield High, said the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was tragic, but it thrust his generation into the political sphere in a way that is productive.

Adam Cohen, of Mount Greylock Regional High School, said politicians have yet to respond appropriately to gun violence.

"They're not addressing the concerns that we have made very clear," he said.

Redd said there's no need for anyone not in the military to have an automatic weapon, "a weapon of war."

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For that reason, they said, they intend to vote — often.

"We're very hungry to vote," Doren said. "We're eager to change what's going on."

While the adults scramble trying to fix what's broken, Alexis Byrd, of Pittsfield High, said teens have been sitting on their hands, thinking and waiting for the chance to act.

"We actually have the time to really think about what we want to do," she said.

Stress and social media

The digital age isn't all bad, they noted. It helps them stay connected with important topics, and to share funny videos with family.

"We have been called the sub-millennial generation," said Marie Butler, of Pittsfield High. "I think that stands well for us. We're kind of using what they've tested out."

Though older generations often say this generation is synonymous with cellphone use, one teen bucked that notion.

"I feel like it's not our defining feature," Redd said.

"Not all of us are so into our phones," Byrd agreed.

They're also stressed about signing up for next year's classes, and about applying for college. Though they wish there wasn't so much pressure to ace those SAT's and get into the best colleges, they acknowledged that stress is also a good thing. It means they care.

"We are so passionate about so many things," said Elizabeth Sprague, of Pittsfield High. "Finding that balance between passion and pragmatism is something I think a lot of us struggle with."

Hannah Perault, of Wahconah High, said she gets stressed because "I want to put my best into everything I do."

Being passionate can make life harder, Brown agreed, because passion can consume a person.

"Everything you do is just preparing to pursue that, one day," he said, noting that he wants to write books.

Samantha Scoco, also of Pittsfield High, said it can feel difficult to find a free minute between maintaining grades and extracurriculars.

"I like that we're having this conversation," she said. "I want adults to acknowledge that we, too, have stress."

Sometimes it feels like they don't get a chance to be kids when there's so much pressure to cultivate "this perfect resume" for college.

"You just kind of blink and you miss it," Cohen said. "I'm kind of resentful, myself. I wish there wasn't so much pressure about college."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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