On Youth Involvement in Social Justice Movements

In 2003 I was interviewed by a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League school for her dissertation on youth involvement in social justice movements. Following are some thoughts I shared with her worth sharing.

Question: So many of a person’s ideas and opinions about the world change- sometimes radically- over the course of childhood and adolescence. In your experience, how old does a person generally need to be before their understanding of issues is “sound”? Have you known children who were, say, younger than 8, who you felt had firmly-grounded and informed opinions of social justice issues?

Adam: I have learned that a person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age.  As a youth I had a lot of friends who had deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti.  Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed “youth advocates” pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk…  Ignorance knows no age, either. 

In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in.  This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life.  Paulo Freire, an acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors.  I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people.  The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak.  Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions.  Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.

Regarding your question about denoting an age of understanding, I think that there is a particular danger in saying, “[X] is the age.”  That would give many adults permission to continue bombarding young people with the purposeless and meaningless activities that fill so much of their time already.  I have seen extremely young people with extremely intelligent perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen many adults with extremely shallow understandings.  Age shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.

Question: It’s very common to see young children holding signs or shouting slogans at all sorts of social and political actions — from KKK rallies to pro-life demonstrations to anti-war marches. How would you distinguish between adults allowing and encouraging children to share their voice, and adults using children as propaganda for their own causes?

Adam: I think that by focusing on the whether young peoples’ involvement is authentic, a lot of adults are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give children and youth their own space to speak, or how to engage them in community space.  This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of involving young people.

The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voice of young people?” and “Are we really looking for young people who take risks and make decisions?” 

After all, getting our adult ideas out of young people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful involvement and young people’s autonomy.  As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to young people’s participation that the question of whether or not young people participate at all needs to be answered first. 

Another question that should be asked is why are we considering young peoples’ involvement in protests and rallies, and not their further infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole?  Where are young people in the planning and decision-making processes?  In the recruitment and training of organizers and participants?  My experience has shown me that it is vital to young peoples’ participation to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further involvement as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social justice. 

I have found that youth involvement in activism is regularly trivialized by well-meaning adults who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination through “ageism,” patently denying young people the opportunity to participate meaningfully simply because of their age.  The movement for peace and social justice must move from seeing children and youth as decorations and start seeing them as partners.

The Freechild Project’s webpage at http://freechild.org/SIYI is packed with useful tips on how to involve young people throughout organizations and activism.

 Question: When the U.S. underwent school desegregation, armed guards sometimes had to escort children into school lest they be attacked. During anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1970s, white anti-riot police were photographed beating child protesters with clubs. Even in non-violent demonstrations, people are often injured by objects thrown by counter-protesters, or merely because of crowding. So children involved in actions have, in some instances, faced real threats to their safety. Do you think that it’s appropriate for children’s safety to be put at risk by involving them in marches, picketing, and similar actions?

Adam: As a way of re-envisioning this question, let me ask: Is it appropriate that in the richest country in the world, every night tens of thousands of kids go to sleep without a roof over their head?  Is it appropriate that there are sweatshops across the U.S. that rely on child labor, 60 years after it was banned? Millions of young people across the country routinely attend schools that are falling apart, go to classes with teachers who are apathetic to their students and underpaid for their work, and rely on leadership from politicians who attend to their highest bidder instead of their constituencies.  Are any of those situations appropriate?  In many cases it has been up to young people to bring adults’ attention to issues of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.

Another poignant example from the civil rights movement:  In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explicitly allowed and encouraged young people to march along with him for the first time during protests in Birmingham, Alabama.  On May 2, 1963, over one thousand black children descended upon Birmingham. Close to nine hundred students were arrested, but a reserve army of close to twenty-five hundred demonstrated the following day. Bull Connor, who had up until this point “restrained” from violence against protesters, ordered firemen to use their hoses on the protesters and onlookers. As the youth fled from the power of the hoses, Connor directed officers and their dogs to pursue them.  Guard dogs were sent into the crowd.  Because people saw pictures on television and in newspapers, the whole world was horrified.  A month later President Kennedy said he was introducing a civil rights bill to Congress that promised freedom for all.  While no singular act moved Kennedy to take action, the images of children and youth being treated savagely pushed the majority of Americans over the edge.  For the first time the average white American saw that the ravages of racism reached beyond the grown African Americans of the South and into the youngest members of society.  Was putting those young peoples’ safety at risk worth it to the movement? 

And therein lies the crux of the issue – whether or not young people truly understand why they are protesting.  Similar to many adults, children and youth often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it, often without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions.  This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S.  Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work!  In many of these same organizations young people are used as “safe” volunteers, picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows.  Is this meaningful activism?  No.  Is it “safe”?  Yes.  Are young people told that it is valuable?  Sure!  And these things do have value – to the adults who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over children!  To the recipients of the service they exhibit young peoples’ “proper” places in society (seen and not heard, etc).  While this sounds sarcastic, I hope you understand the point I’m trying to make: young people need to be seen and heard.  A youth-led organization in the San Francisco Bay area has a t-shirt slogan I love, “Young people can be the leaders of tomorrow – if we procrastinate.”  And that’s the truth.

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker, writer, trainer, researcher and advocate who researches, writes and shares about education, youth, and history.

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