According to a lot of different sources, last week was an amazing week for young people in the U.S. Wiretap and the League of Young Voters both reported that according to CIRCLE, 13 percent of eligible Iowans under the age of 30 participated in the Iowa caucuses. Researchers report that the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000, as about 65,000 Iowans under the age of 30 caucused.
These types of stories do a wonderful job of sensationalizing the present. Reporters and statistics downplay the significance of anything that’s ever happened before by hyping everything that is happening and now, because frankly, that’s news. But what does that do to the past?
A few weeks ago I sat down with Ben Quinto in Manhattan. Ben is the founder and E.D. of Global Youth Action Network, and his brain occupies some of the same spaces as mine, particularly around movement-building and strategic thinking. We had a great conversation about a lot of things, but maybe the most exciting was something he and I had no part of. Ben and I got talking about the past, as far back as 80 years ago, and had a great conversation about the history of “youth power,” for the lack of a better phrase.
We have both discovered some of what I think as hidden or silenced histories of young people. It turns out that none of the current momentum behind engaging youth is a new thing: Mother Jones led 10,000 children on a march against child labor in 1903. Oh yeah – they were mostly under the age of 10, and they were all child laborers in Pennsylvania’s coal mines. And in 1936 more than 1,000 youth rallied together to present the American Youth Bill of Rights in the U.S. Congress. So Ben and I talked about how this idea of engaging young people around the issues that matter most to young people is nothing new.
The differences between now and then are significant. Technology has drawn together so many different perspectives in so many different ways, especially in the form of connectivity: Never before has it been so easy for youth from across the country to rally together to stop a local curfew law from being enacted.
But never before have we had the chance to learn so much from history. I know that there have been several books published specifically about youth activism, dating from at least 1967. But books don’t cut it. We need trainings that are reaching deep into the youth activist community, workshops that are educating the ongoing leadership structures, and dialogues that cut across race and class in order to identify, share and build upon what and who has come before.
As Ben and I talked about, that’s the only way to successfully grow this thing forward into the future – by acknowledging what’s come before and what we should not repeat again, as well as what we should. We’re getting together again this week to continue our conversation – look for more later!