This page is part of Benton Foundation's online archive. We've kept some old stuff around for historical purposes.OneWorld US Special Report
The Impact of Seattle
The Fairness Revolution
Bringing Globalization Home
Scanning the Terrain
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption
Different Approaches to Global Education
Youth Activism and Global Engagement-Part II
Demographics and Values of Youth Activists
Without the luxury of a Gallup Poll, and based in large part on reports from activists themselves, the following overview is beginning to emerge. The main organizing venue for youth activists is the college campus, where a few highly dedicated individuals play a catalytic role. They tend to be well educated and high achieving; they come from affluent, politically progressive families; and they espouse a radical democratic populism that seeks to rein in corporate power both at home and abroad. Many of them display a precocious idealism, embracing social causes--especially environmentalism--while still in middle school or high school. Activist identities are forged in the context of social networks. Friendship matters; group experiences, such as the Sierra Student Coalition’s summer training programs for high school students, cement bonds of solidarity as they teach practical skills. The face of youth activism is predominately white and middle-class; issues of color and economic diversity need to be more systematically addressed. But emerging evidence indicates that immigration may be helping to trigger a gradual shift in the demographics of activism.
Fairness represents the connective tissue across the spectrum of causes and concerns giving rise to youth activism. In social and political terms, fairness is intertwined with equity and justice. For more and more young people whose consciousness has been shaped by environmentalism, fairness is also embedded in an ecological sensibility: reverence for life and respect for its delicate interdependence. Fairness is practiced through stewardship, which runs counter to the paradigm of lone-wolf individualism and progress through unrestrained growth. Stewardship implies place-based attachment: to soil, watershed, climate, plants, animals, and to a common terrain of loyalties, affections, and memories.Activist organizations depend upon a small, highly dedicated minority
Social movements gain traction through the extraordinary commitment of a few people. At the University of Texas’s main campus of 50,000 students, the Radical Action Network coordinates events and speakers focusing on issues that range from sanctions against Iraq to the death penalty, genetically altered food, and global trade. Five individuals keep the Network afloat. "We’re the people who go without sleep, the ones who stay up all night doing the planning and logistics because we somehow feel compelled," one of them explained. According to Roni Krouzman, head of the Boston Campus Action Network, the number of such catalysts nationally does not reach beyond "the high hundreds or at most the low thousands." But their influence is great. They help set the political tone at a campus. They rally the troops. Anti-sweatshop activists have run for class office at several universities (and won) to demonstrate to the administration the breadth of student support for social causes.Committed campus activists tend to be white and from affluent, politically liberal families
One example is provided by a 1999 survey of 100 members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), 73% of whom described themselves as "leaders" or "critical people, which revealed a fairly even split between males (53%) and females (47%), and a wide racial gap (84% white and 15% non-black minorities.) Thirty-six percent reported family incomes above $100,000—more than twice the average for all college students—and only 8% reported a family income of less than $40,000. Parents of activists are more progressive than most Americans; many define themselves as "activists."
This means that far from rebelling against their parents, activist students are "the product of a generational transmission of political attitudes." Eighty-four percent of USAS leaders have a history of social engagement. More than half were deeply involved in various campaigns during high school. Activism is fundamental to who they are, how they spend their time, and what they desire. Half spend 20 hours a week on the anti-sweatshop campaign. Asked about their happiness, the vast majority rated issues regarding the well-being of Third World workers and greater unionization in the United States above getting all A’s in their classes. Compared with average first year students, activists have a more open attitude towards sex, are less likely to believe that racial discrimination is a thing of the past, and are more in favor of increased taxes for the wealthy. At the same time, they are more tolerant of dissenting views—only 38% believe that colleges should ban racist or sexist speech, compared to 64% of all freshmen. Activists are more prepared to disobey laws when they violate their convictions, are more likely to feel that individuals can change society, and are less interested in making money. Though USAS is represented on campuses across the country, the most active chapters tend to crop up at colleges and universities with the deepest traditions of dissent and the most intellectually well-prepared students.Activist "careers" follow a similar trajectory
Many of the characteristic features from this collective USAS profile also describe youth activists taking lead roles in other environmental or justice-based campaigns. They report not only supportive parents and high academic accomplishment, but also a precocious development of social consciousness and the early on-set of an intense and dogged curiosity about how the world works.
There is a learning curve, and on that curve, you sometimes reach that "ah-hah" moment, when you stumble on something you didn’t expect, a problem or an issue, and you say to yourself, ‘it’s bigger than I first thought and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. My political ‘ah-hah’ moment came when I was fourteen and dropped out of Amnesty International. My mother was an ESL teacher with a lot of Cambodian students. Some of my own relatives were Holocaust survivors so I think the Khmer Rouge experience had a special meaning for me. I was already active in Amnesty when I began to do research on the US role in Cambodia and discovered that there was a lot to account for, from the secret bombing to our later support for Pol Pot. So I raised these issues, but Amnesty wanted to be nonpartisan and avoid criticizing government policy. Moral pressure was ok so long as focused on what people were doing abroad rather than here at home. So I defected. Amnesty has changed. They criticize the death penalty in the U.S. But then it was much more hands-off. The lesson I took away was that there are no ‘foreign affairs,’ that one way or another, the U.S. is involved, whether we like it or not, and that organizing has to help people understand those connections.
A youth organizer for American Friends Service Committee remembers as a child being taken by her mother to Hiroshima memorial days and later, as an adolescent, going to listen to accounts of civil disobedience by anti-nuclear protestors. In high school, she began volunteering in local soup kitchens. "I saw symptoms," she said, "and I needed to discover the causes. Why were people hungry? Why was there such inequality? What could be done to change the system?"
Deeply committed people of whatever age are always a small minority. But the climate of opinion influences the rate at which "positive deviants" are produced. One of the striking features of today’s activists is how many of them fit the image of the "all American kid" rather than social misfit. Again, this speaks to the absorption into the mainstream culture of ideas that once where on the margins. Young activists, particularly those marching under the banner of environmental justice, no longer need to be on the defensive. A 15-year old Sierra Student Coalition member says:
I’m a social butterfly, and I congregate with the majority of the high school body, from geeks to the elite football stars and cheerleaders to the intellects and the druggies, and of course to the activists. I’ve always been involved in green issues. When I was in third grade, I went to hear Jane Goodall When I was in sixth grade, I joined Greenpeace I have gotten superb training from the SSC and am glad they have taught me well enough to be able to pass on what I’ve learned to others in my local group that we’re all part of something bigger, that all of us have to put ourselves out there for the good of our natural future. That holds tremendous gravity with me.
Another Sierra Student Coalition activist explains herself this way:
I’m sixteen-years-old and a junior at Whitney Young Magnet School in Chicago. I have a 4.44 GPA, have played the violin for nine years, and am a photographer for yearbook committee I’ve always been interested in environmental causes. I remember the first thing I ever did. As a very young child five, I think a construction group was going to cut down a forest in Union Pier, Michigan. The plot of land was very important to me, so I wrote a letter to the City Council beseeching their help. The forest was preserved. I’d like to think that my letter helped saved it…The SSC summer camp taught me how to lobby, start a campaign, etc. I’ve just started an environmental club in my school…But the best thing I brought back with me from that week was the feeling that I completely belonged, that there are thousands of other people just like me. It motivated me to start an environmental club at my school. Before, I wanted to help, but didn’t know how I have many plans to continue my quest to ‘save the earth.’ In college, I want to graduate with a major in environmental politics or science. From there, I want to start lobbying. It’s my belief that once people understand, they care, especially once they see that it involves them.
Could the growing array of highly diverse and decentralized justice-based campaigns, many with transnational themes, represent a collective pathway back from alienation? Media spectaculars like the protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. have functioned as national forums for popular education and helped push issues and causes once esoteric and abstract into the mainstream. As the frame of political discourse shifts, young grassroots organizers have begun to feel as if they are moving with rather than against the tide. A sense of beleaguered isolation has given way to feelings of confidence and communal solidarity.Immigration internationalizes youth activism
More and more young people from recently arrived families are participating in campaigns for global justice. As part of an effort to build bridges back to their countries of origin, a group of Chicago teenagers whose families or grandparents emigrated from Mexico have spent summers in Chiapas, training and equipping villagers to use video cameras to document stories of resistance and communicate them back to the U.S. A 24-year old Ethiopian who arrived at a refugee camp in Arkansas 15 years ago is now a key staff member of the Bay-area youth organizing group, JustAct. At the 130 local affiliates of YouthBuild, a nationally recognized youth leadership and community development initiative, an increasing number of trainees (and staff) are "hyphenated Americans" with recent roots that trace back to Asia and Africa. The transnational identities and loyalties of YouthBuild’s own stakeholders are driving an interest in exporting the program abroad. At the University of California, Richard Flacks reports growing activism among Asian-American and Latino students, which he analogizes to first generation Jewish students during the 1930s at schools like the City College of New York. "On the one hand, then and now, there is a great hunger for self-improvement through education, and not just for reasons of upward mobility in an economic sense, but out of yearning for full development as an individual human being. This commitment, this yearning, broadens out to a sense of community responsibility that is often internationalist in its scope. Global issues strike home. They are not exotic and remote."
Activist organizing is rooted in democratic populism and a critique of concentrated corporate power
The most influential youth organizing is being carried out by groups bound together by opposition to concentrated corporate power, support for democratic accountability at home and abroad, and willingness to experiment with a range of tactics, including civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. This framework captures common features of leading groups including United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS); Movement for Democracy and Education (MDE/180); Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC); Center for Campus Organizing; United States Student Organization, Direct Action Network (DAN), the Ruckus Society, Sierra Student Coalition, Student Environmental Action Coalitions (SEAC), and JustAct. While not all student-led environmental or human rights groups fully endorse "a confrontational attitude towards undemocratic institutions, including governments and corporations in which capital is the real policymaker" (one of DAN’s principles of unity), differences in tactics and rhetoric have given way to fundamental agreement that unfettered corporate power represents a threat cutting across issue areas and geographic boundaries.
STARC was formed in 1999 at a Yale conference that drew 400 students. Its mission statement, quoted in part below, resonates with the values and political premises animating much of youth activism as a whole.
We are a network of people from various causes motivated and linked by a common concern: the lack of democratic accountability by corporations. Corporate influence within our government, our media, and our universities has shifted power away from the people. The relentless pursuit of profit without conscience or regard to consequences has inflicted countless wounds on our people and our environment. We must take action. The era in which corporate interests take precedence over justice will end.
The Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC) raises our collective voice for positive change and realizes our interconnection with other struggles. We will challenge corporate power and create structural change, thus creating space for new voices to be raised and transformation to occur. We are planners, visionaries, and leaders committed to unifying the pursuits of social and economic justice. The future is ours to create.
The STARC declaration is meant as a manifesto and rallying cry. Its heavy emphasis on rhetoric--and the absence of even the rough contours of a policy agenda--typify youth activist organizations. Noble principles are invoked, absent a strategic vision for translating them into practice--although youth organizations cannot be held to a higher standard than their adult counterparts.