A Brief History of Youth Voice

This is the second of twelve posts today in honor of the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States of America.

One of the privileges of my work is that over the last 10 years I have been in this movement I have identified, studied, witnessed and promoted a transformation in the international movement promoting Youth Voice. Almost 200 years of youth voice have permeated American history.

The Earliest Years

The first youth voice in the Americas existed among the historical nations already here before Europeans arrived. These American Indian nations were often directed by young people working with adults.

As a distinct phenomenon, I have identified Youth Voice first emerging as a distinct movement in the 1830s. During that decade, young women called the Lowell Mills Girls worked in textile factories. In 1834 and 1836, they led protests to get better wages, and identified the source of their problem as discrimination against the young.

This young person is protesting segregation in Texas in the 1950s.
This young person is protesting segregation in Texas in the 1950s.

During the Civil War, 12 and 13-year-old young men fought to preserve the American union on the lines against the rebellious South.

In the 1890s, newsboys across the Eastern U.S. went on strike against William Randolph Hearst, effectively defeating one of the largest economic titans of their day. At the turn of the century, young people left the mines, factories and plants they worked in to march against child labor. More than 10,000 joined Mother Jones in a march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.

After receding throughout the next 30 years, in the mid-1930s Youth Voice resurfaced in the form of the Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, which was delivered directly on the floor of the U.S. Congress by the American Youth Congress. The AYC was suppressed in the 1940s, and white youth apparently stopped protesting for almost 15 years afterwards.

However, youth voice wasn’t dead. In 1960, young Ruby Bridges showed up to integrate schools in her community, and in 1961, the Little Rock Nine were young people who fought against white supremacy and for the desegregation of public schools. African American youth were essential to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, too, with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. winding together youth activists throughout adult-led campaigns for justice.

These young people in Philadelphia are protesting schools in the 2010s.

It was in the 1961 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society that white youth came back en masse. This stepping out effectively led to the youth revolution of the 1960s and early 70s, birthing many, many radical attempts to thrust young people into the mainstream political of American society. The 1965 case of Tinker vs. Des Moines showed a pair of young people fighting against adultocracy and attempts to limit their voices. A lot of that energy came to fruition with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1971. And then the 1980s happened.

In the late 1970s Youth Voice moved began to go viral, seeping into the mainstream culture and “poisoning the Kool Aid” with its idealism, passion and enthusiasm. This became apparent in two once-dicotomous cultural backgrounds: Hip hop, embracing rap, DJing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing and infusing them with vigor and fervor; and so-called “Yuppies“, defined as “young upwardly-mobile professionals” whose self-reliance and determination to be financially secure individualists secured their upper-middle class status to this day. I believe those two cultural backgrounds are still determining American social values today, as I have lived through their maturation into mainstream memes that defy the boundaries of race or class.

The determination of 1970s radical youth and 1980s self-serving youth was not lost into the air. In the 1990s their leadership led to the development of a variety of Youth Voice programs and initiatives across the U.S. and around the world. National nonprofits, foundations, and other organizations began beating the drums for youth involvement, and community-based organizations rose to the task and led the way, illustrating diverse, new ways to engage young people throughout society.

These youth activists are marching in 1970 to lower the voting age to 18.

In 2004, School Girls Unite led a campaign to start the International Day of the Girl. Working hand-in-hand with adults as allies, this organization achieved lasting recognition for youth voice.

With the emergence of new technologies that are quickly adopted by young people the new millineum has brought a celebration of Youth Voice that has never been seen. Organizations such as Freechild, YouthNoise and TakingITGlobal came out quickly as national and international networking hubs focused on connecting divergent young people and moving forward. This has led me to call for youth integration and intergenerational equity at every corner, as we must continue to live up to the challenge of Youth Voice.

In that way we can live up to the hope, the expectation and the courage young people embody. Let’s build society we want our young people to grow up in.

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Published by Adam

Adam F. C. Fletcher helps organizations engage people more successfully. Contact him by calling (360) 489-9680 or emailing info@adamfletcher.net.

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