The Role of Intensity in Youth Activism

Empowering young people to create social change happens best in intensely personal, intensely local, intensely focused opportunities that engage children and youth in deliberate, meaningful action and learning. None of these things can happen independently of each other.


One of the best examples illustrating this is a recent entry on the Highlander Center blog that details what happened at their “Seeds of Fire Youth Leadership Camp” this July. This is how it fit the bill:

  • Intensely personal: There were 20 youth and 6 adult allies
  • Intensely local: Youth represented the immediate region around Highlander
  • Intensely focused: Participants studied Dr. King’s nonviolence program, learned about social justice movements worldwide, and focused in on issues from their region

I first uncovered this formula in 2005 when I began researching youth action programs for the Washington Youth Voice Handbook. In that study I sought to uncover the threads that bind together all the different types of youth engagement activities that happen in this state. I have only seen that pattern repeat itself since then, as studies from the Movement Strategy Center (pdf), Barry Checkoway and Shawn Ginwright, among others, continue to show.

The role of intensity goes beyond the frequent and adultist attribution of the emotional state of young people. In this sense intensity makes an appropriate approximation of the depth and value given to the words its attributed to: The personalization, location, and focus of youth activism must be intense in order to demonstrate to participants the value of their energy, to foster the direct outcomes required in order to sustain interest, and to identify that depth and value. All those reasons make the role of intensity in youth activism über-valuable.

Take a moment to acknowledge the role of intensity in your own life. Where do you feel intense? When do you feel intense? Why do you feel intense? When we begin to uncover the value of intensity in our own lives, our own work and our own motivations we can begin to understand the power of youth activism in our communities.


CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth Activism and much more. 
Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.





3 comments

  1. not clear on how ‘local’ is such a key component? i’ve been to countless ‘global’ gatherings that have been equally ‘intense’ as local gatherings.

  2. Hey Joshua, great to hear from you. I know you’ve had some great experiences with the international conversation. In my experience, the majority of young people can’t or don’t connect to these types of dialogs for a variety of reasons. The topics may seem too obtuse, too broad or too irrelevant to the daily pressures faced by the youth who are concerned about their local schools, their local police force, their local politicians, their local recycling program, or whatever it may be. In the 90s the environmental movement preached “Think Global – Act Local.” I think that same ethic needs to attach to youth activism. The immediacy of need, the relevancy of the outcomes and the presence of one’s immediate community enforces the urgency of local action. My observation about being intensely local is meant to echo that.

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