By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
To the casual visitor, Dupont Circle on this lovely autumn afternoon is a friendly, inclusive space.
To Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association and voice in the wilderness, the Circle is a cold microcosm of a deeply divided world. And it's the perfect observation deck for pointing out the myriad ways American society devalues the lives of young people.
In untucked blue-striped shirt, khaki cargo shorts and sneakers, Koroknay-Palicz, 26, takes off his shades and points toward a:
- bank where you have to be 18 years old to open a checking account;
- sandwich shop that doesn't hire anyone under 18;
- drugstore where 17-year-olds can't buy certain cough medicines;
- movie theater where anyone under 17 who wants to see an R-rated movie must be accompanied by an adult.
He could, he says, go on and on. And for the next couple of hours, he does.
Seen through his eyes, the city is hostile to young people. And the United States is a repressive country that should lower voting and drinking ages and lift all curfews. In fact, Koroknay-Palicz (pronounced koh-ROCK-nay PAL-is) believes that all age-based restrictions -- on driver's licenses, tobacco purchases, car rentals -- should be challenged.
Just about any age restriction, he says, can be replaced with a competency test. If a young person wants to drink, for instance, he could be required to attend classes that teach responsibility and moderation. He would then receive a license to drink. Same with smoking, voting, driving and many other activities.
To him, the denial of youth rights is more than ageist effrontery, it's a civil rights issue.
It takes a certain kind of grown-up to champion such a cause -- someone who hasn't forgotten the indignities of youth. Someone who can live in Washington on an $8,000-a-year salary. And someone who can face the issue's greatest enemy: getting people to take it seriously.
* * *
For Koroknay-Palicz, the mission began at home. An only child, he grew up in a working-class family in Holland, Mich. His father mans the midnight shift at a power plant. His mother took classified ads for the Grand Rapids Press until a couple of years ago.
"There was always love in our family," Koroknay-Palicz says. "What I didn't have was respect. My parents didn't respect me."
He had a paper route when he was 9 years old and his own checking account when he was 10. He felt financially self-reliant and he wanted to spend his money as he saw fit, but, he says, his parents didn't let him. Like the time in middle school when he wanted to buy a mini-fridge to put in his basement room. They said no.
Koroknay-Palicz says he was annoyed by his parents' desire for control. At one point he even thought about filing for legal separation from his parents, known in youth-rights circles as emancipation.
His parents, however, don't have the same memories. "Alex sees that there was conflict in our family; we see it as parents setting down rules," his mother, Margo, 53, says in a phone interview.
"We raised Alex to be an independent person," father Robert, 61, says. He adds that it looks as though they have succeeded.
"Be careful what you wish for," Margo says.
She is proud of her son: "He does not drink. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't do drugs. He's a good person." He doesn't want anything controlling his life, she says, alcohol or chemicals or other people, including his parents.
"I remember him wanting to be emancipated," she says. "But I don't remember the mini-fridge incident."
As a senior in high school, Koroknay-Palicz and his friend, Buddy Halbert Jr., noticed that a few small convenience stores had put signs on their doors forbidding entry to more than two students at one time. "They were akin to the Jim Crow laws that I had studied in school," Koroknay-Palicz says.
Eventually, Koroknay-Palicz appeared before the city council. The city's human relations committee got involved and the signs were removed. That was the genesis of Koroknay-Palicz's youth rights advocacy campaign.
"Alex was very committed to youth rights even back in high school," says Halbert, 27, who lives in Fenton, Mich., and is head cook at a Ruby Tuesday. "Young people need a voice."
The next summer, Koroknay-Palicz discovered the National Youth Rights Association, which at the time was just a Web site run by a handful of young people. In 1999 he moved to Washington to attend American University, and in 2000 he became executive director of NYRA. He left college after three years.
Since 2001, Koroknay-Palicz has lived in a group home in Rockville, just off Veirs Mill Road. He has a small room in the back of the house with a bed, a desk and a computer. On the walls, posters -- Spider-Man, scantily clad supermodel Ashley Richardson -- and photos of family and friends. His rent is $345 a month.
He drives a 1989 Grand Marquis. "It's the only car I have ever had, since I was 16," he says.
* * *
Next year NYRA will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Today there are in various cities some 10 active chapters, "which come and go, depending on who graduates," Koroknay-Palicz says. He is excited about a new group at the University of Maryland, College Park.
He is the only full-time paid employee. The board is composed of nine young people, including several high school students.
The nonprofit organization, Koroknay-Palicz adds, had two main goals for this year: Find an office and somehow develop "more of a real-world presence."
Well, at least he found an office -- $500-a-month digs he rents from Common Cause. It's a tiny room, really, smaller than his Rockville bedroom, packed with two desks, three donated desktop computers and three chairs on the ninth floor of a 19th Street NW office building. There are no windows. Koroknay-Palicz shares the space with a parade of interns.
Posters on the wall include one for the National Youth Agency -- a lower-the-voting-age coalition in Great Britain, where the threshold is also 18. Koroknay-Palicz points out that several countries in the world, including Brazil and Nicaragua, allow citizens to vote at 16. Austria lowered its voting age to 16 this year.
On the bookshelves: "How Children Fail" by John Holt, "Birthrights" by Richard Evans Farson and "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation" by Mike A. Males. These are bibles in the youth rights movement.
Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, is given to observations such as this, from an e-mail to The Washington Post: "When a broad array of rights are denied to youths, important adult skills are not learned in adolescence. Adolescents must learn them on their own or arrive with little experience in adulthood, a period in which skills are harder to learn."
At the headquarters, a high school intern works on the computer that holds the membership list. There are 7,500 names in the association's database, but only 150 pay to belong. "Young people don't have much money," Koroknay-Palicz points out. Dues are $10 a month. Some students who can afford more send in larger donations.
NYRA's annual budget last year was about $16,000. Koroknay-Palicz has subsidized his salary of $8,000 by working at an auto parts store and tutoring. He eats a lot of ramen noodles.
* * *
Youth rights is not a front-burner issue. It's more like an all-day roux on the back of the stove, simmering, occasionally receiving a stir.
At a recent Democratic debate, for example, someone asked the candidates if they were in favor of removing the requirement that a state must have a legal drinking age of 21 to receive federal highway funds. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd all opposed lifting the requirement.
Only Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich were in favor of lowering the drinking age. Kucinich even said he wants to lower the voting age to 16.
"I thought that Kucinich's call for lowering the voting age . . . was bizarre," Chris Matthews said on MSNBC after the debate. Matthews was echoing the sentiments of many Americans. "I mean, do you get it with your bicycle?"
Jabs like that don't help the youth rights movement gain gravitas.
On the home page of the group's Web site, Youthrights.org, are these words: "The Last Civil Rights Movement." Jackie Woinsky, 26, one of Koroknay-Palicz's college friends, teaches first grade in Silver Spring. She admires him. "A lot of ideas can seem crazy and off-the-wall at first," she says. "Other similar civil rights movements have gone through similar paths." But Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a veteran of the civil rights movement, says he is not sure that the youth rights push qualifies. "Kids obviously do have human rights," he says, "but society has decided, and properly, I think, that they are not mature enough to have certain rights: the right to drive, to go to an X-rated movie, the right to buy cigarettes. I think society has made wise decisions, the right decisions, about the rights given to young people."
* * *
Not far from Dupont Circle, Koroknay-Palicz strolls past a convenience store that -- like the mini-marts that ticked him off in the first place -- restricts the number of students allowed inside at one time. Nearby is a YMCA that you can't join unless you are 18 and the U-topia Bar & Grill, where you must be 21 or older to stay past 11 p.m.
True utopia, Koroknay-Palicz says, will be a place where "society will look at people as they are, not judge them by their birth dates." People who are mature, he says, should be allowed to make decisions for themselves.
If there were competency tests for each individual issue -- drinking, driving, voting -- "industries would arise," he says, "that would teach young people how to be an adult."
It's true, he says, that American society coddles young people, caters to them, builds commercial empires around their comfort and consumption. It's also true, he says, that "adults do everything in their power to shield and protect youth from the outside world."
But such an argument reminds him of arguments he has heard before. "A lot of societies will tell you they care very much about women -- respect them, hold them in high esteem. But they don't listen to them," he says. "They don't ask women what they want."
Youth rights initiatives can't get traction, he says, because baby boomers grew up and stopped caring about youth. "The rights they fought for are no longer important to them," he says.
And so Koroknay-Palicz labors on -- against inertia and inattention. He says he is locked in a long-running David vs. Goliath fight and he lets it sink in that David was, after all, just a kid.
In July, the group staged its annual meeting. The board president, a high school student from North Carolina, was planning to fly to Washington and preside. At the last minute, he had to cancel: His mother wouldn't let him come.
Occasionally, Koroknay-Palicz goes home to Michigan for rest and relaxation. This year he will see his parents for Christmas. They say they understand their son's commitment and respect him.
"We want him to be successful," his father says. "We want him to get a good job that pays well, with benefits. Right now he is doing his pro-bono work."
"Young people," says his mother, "aren't given their due when it comes to their worth in the world. He's doing a great job of bringing that to life."