Long-ranging, deep, effective social change largely happens through communication, people talking with people. Education and entertainment are tools of manipulation as well as enlightenment, and they work to change society.
In mainstream social change, the 1960s and 70s hippies in the U.S. relied on educating their peers and young people in order to bring more people into the ranks. They held workshops and sit-ins, classes and rallies all focused on raising individual knowledge and awareness of the social change they wanted to see. In the 1990s and 2000s conservatives in the U.S. relied on manipulating people through the media in order to spread their message and bring “believers” on board. Perhaps the most sophisticated approach to large scale social change happened from the 1920s through the 1960s, when the African American Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. staged a two-pronged approach to transforming American society. Their usage of mainstream media pulled on heartstrings while their consciousness-raising education activities effectively reached every American, and caused transformations that still ripple through society today.
In the process of the last century, youth power emerged as a startlingly effective force for communicating social change. Starting with the 1936 Declaration of the Rights of American Youth written by the American Youth Congress, young peoples’ voices are being heard with ever-greater power and impact on society. This 1936 creed resulted in the creation of the National Youth Administration, which while it was short lived, showed the power of youth when it was destroyed by Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. The 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles showed the compelling power of Latino youth to control popular culture, and the effect when white American adults don’t like that. Their actions led to an increased awareness of the presence of Latinos throughout the U.S., and introduced the weapon of cultural awareness into the battle against discrimination. The emergence continued in the early 1960s with the formation of Students for a Democratic Society. Their Port Huron Statement effectively set the agenda for a generation of white, middle class young people who were determined to fight for democracy. In the 1970s, the Youth Liberation Press of Ann Arbor, Michigan, began printing and mailing thousands of copies of publications written by young people, for young people- and adults. And many read these pieces, too. There are so many other ways youth power became more real than ever before, but that’s the past.
In 2012, young people are educating and manipulating society as never before. Social media, which is the predominant tool for popular culture manipulation and education, is being used by children, youth, young adults, and their adults in order to create, grow, foster, sustain, and enhance social change. There has never been a force like it before, and young people have never experienced power like this before.
Youth power is by no means limited to the Internet or computers, either. I predict we will see a surge in the development of participatory technologies throughout society that allow, encourage, and build social action in all corners of our community and world over the next 20 years. We will see more effective democratic voting platforms, more engaging community group activism, more substantive usage of social media. All of these tools are being built to engage; more importantly, they are going to enhance and grow.
Communication is power, and that power belongs to young people today.