In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.
However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!
Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:
Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.
Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.
Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.
Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.
I have researched and written about dozens of other issues too, sharing examples and more, as well as actions taken and strategies employed to foster social change. THIS IS HAPPENING NOW.
Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.
Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.
Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.
However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.
3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World
- Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
- Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
- Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.
Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.
We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.
Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.
Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.
Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.
When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.
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