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OneWorld US Special Report

Back to OneWorld US

Part I

Part II
Demographics and Values

Part III
The Impact of Seattle

Part IV
The Fairness Revolution

Part VI
Scanning the Terrain

Part VII
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption

Global Education

Part IX
Different Approaches to Global Education

Part X

OneWorld US Special Report

Youth Activism and Global Engagement-Part V

Bringing Globalization Home: Pathways of Local Allegiance

Small-scale, "backyard" attachments often comprise the sinews and armature for global citizenship. The caretaker experience--tending a community garden, fighting to preserve public spaces for skateboarders, pressuring a college administration to pay campus workers a living wage--not only teaches the efficacy of collective action, but also creates common ground with far-off strangers waging grassroots campaigns grounded in similar principles of democratic control. Interdependence is neither a humanistic bromide nor a ritual invocation. It takes on meaning through the practice of solidarity that weaves together a sense of cooperative enterprise undertaken by equals. Interdependence is brought home when people participate together to accomplish shared goals or to protect joint interests. In the age of NAFTA and the WTO, Michael Sandel writes: "The politics of neighborhood matter more than less. The basis of a democratic politics that reaches across nations is a revitalized civic life nourished in the particular settings we inhabit."

More and more young activists are learning to negotiate their way among overlapping identities and allegiances and to think and act as multiply situated selves. Far from being isolationist and protectionist, they embrace contact and juxtaposition between cultures. It is precisely this respect for heterogeneity that fuels resistance to corporate globalization and its efforts to create a "brand new world." The meaning of "interdependence" has become contested terrain. Marketers argue that shared consumption patterns break down national barriers, and that countries with McDonald franchises do not go to war (a proposition that will have to be revised after Yugoslavia). But for those whose vision is of symbiotic planet rather than a vast, globally integrated shopping mall, the predatory spread of monocultures¾ economic, aesthetic, biological¾ smothers healthy ecosystems and therefore threatens a sustainable future.

However, if young activists have an increasingly global vision of the problems they seek to rectify, their international picture is not always clear or thought-through. The Internet allows youth worldwide to communicate with each other, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. While most young activists understand that solutions to global problems must be brought about through collaboration with their international peers, few have opportunities for first-hand contact with youth activists from other countries, or the countries themselves. Such opportunities must be created in order for a truly global youth activist network to flourish.

As corporations colonize territory defaulted by the state, their power becomes overexposed, triggering the backlash that young people have helped to lead. When private capital takes on public responsibility (when, for example, a beer company’s logo brands the U.S. Presidential debate) private capital assumes a public function¾ but without the capacity to command democratic allegiance. Wal-Mart’s annual sales of $137.6 billion may be larger than the GDP of 155 out of 192 countries in the world, but no amount of advertising genius can convert customers into citizens. In his 1941 essay, "The American Century," Henry Luce held out the promise of "the abundant life" to "all mankind" after it woke up to "America’s vision." He argued that "once we cease to distract ourselves with lifeless arguments about isolationism, we shall be amazed to discover that there is already an immense American internationalism. American movies, American slang, American machines and products are in fact the only things that every community, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common." But this paradise of consumption has not only become off-limits to the world’s poor but without allure to a sizable number of the affluent, for whom the logic of the "ever better" is trumped by the logic of the simple good. A culture saturated with corporate efforts to endow products with totemic value has begun to breed its own anti-bodies. As the most lucrative and relentlessly targeted "demographic," young people have honed the capacity to deconstruct the marketing of meaning.

Toward a Movement with ‘Bones’ and ‘Heart’

A Salvadoran labor organizer told a group of American youth activists that their budding movement was like a body with a huge heart but no bones to move it forward. Through their infrastructure, experience and resources, adult-led organizations can help build these bones. Young people, in return, can give some of their moral passion and their creative intelligence. The issue is how to forge a cross-generational strategic collaboration that expands the scope, reach and sustainability of a social movement for global fairness.

Such collaboration has produced some well-known success stories. The Sierra Student Coalition (SSC) operates summer camps and year-round training programs to build the skill base of high school- and college-age environmental activists around the country. Adam Werbach founded the Sierra Student Coalition while still in high school, shepherded it as a Brown undergraduate, and went on to be elected president of the Sierra Club itself, whose membership was collectively aging every year. "No organization--business, social, or otherwise--can survive without a constant infusion of new blood," Werbach said. "In two years, we brought the average age of a member down by a full decade." Speaking of the student wing, Werbach said:

They’re not lap dogs, they’re not deferential, their materials don’t look like Sierra Club materials, but they’re real partners nonetheless. They’ve inspired us, they’ve developed models and approaches which we then incorporate. They’ve been ahead of the curve, especially on issues like global trade. The Eco-Student conference in Philadelphia, where SSC, Green Corps, the US Student Association, and the US PIRGs all came together, had 3000 students show up. It was an unbelievable gathering. In the movement to hold corporations accountable, students have been in the forefront. They’ve brought along a lot of adults. SSC is not on the left flank of the student movement or even the environmental movement, but we’re part of the mix and we’re there at the table and we contribute to making this a broad mix, an ecosystem that benefits the whole field.

Richard Flacks, a founder of SDS and among the most astute and sensitive observers of American radicalism, sees much less of a generational divide among today’s activists than was true during the 1960s and ‘70s. The New Left, imbued with a sense of moral calling, took to task the Old Left for its loss of nerve, the academy for its celebration of consensus, and organized labor for its betrayal of class solidarity at home and abroad. Vietnam deepened this estrangement. "The war was incredibly polarizing. It was us against them," Flacks said.

The lines of battle are now far less stark and extreme. There is no galvanizing crisis, and the economic prosperity in which today’s youth have come of age gives a sense of comfort from which to criticize the existing order. Most young people today are not faced with the intense fears of joblessness and poverty that earlier generations confronted. They are instead able to focus their fears and concerns on global corporate responsibility, the wellbeing of the environment, and economic and social justice for the excluded, whether faraway or close to home.

The unbroken phalanx of institutional authority that young dissidents once confronted has given way to a diffusion of expert opinion, some of which spills over into support for fundamental critiques of the status quo. Various discourses--from civil rights, feminism, identity politics, solidarity work around South Africa and Latin America, and especially from the environmental movement--have co-mingled, diminishing sectarianism and broadening the potential for people to get involved in multifaceted reform campaigns.

The rapid increase in the number and type of organizations devoted to strengthening civil society and advancing global justice; the spread of human rights discourse into law, medicine, and other academic and professional disciplines; the rejuvenation of the trade union movement; and increased philanthropic investment in support of civic entrepreneurship are among the key factors helping to create new career pathways that allow student activists to move from campus organizing to full-time jobs in social change. These jobs, unfortunately, are still few and far between. Too many bright lights within the youth activist community resign themselves to days "temping" and nights pursuing their heart’s work.

"We’re still groping, we’re still in our adolescence," commented an anti-sweatshop organizer during an interview. Now is the time to mine the lessons accumulated from historical experience, he suggested. "Standoffishness" towards older individuals and more seasoned organizations is arrogant and counter-productive. "Frankly, most of those who run around calling ourselves ‘leftists’ didn’t see Seattle coming and had very little to do with its eruption, got run over by the movement in its course and then spent several months trying to figure out just what happened, and afterwards tried to slap old labels on something that many still do not understand. The question still remains: Is this movement self-sufficient in terms of leadership, organization, skills, and funding base?"

The answer, of course, is no. Nor should young people be expected to go it alone. Their capabilities are embryonic, their horizons limited by experience. Young activists need opportunities to participate in a more critically minded discourse than they are often able to frame on their own, and to draw on a deeper knowledge base than exists within their particular communities of concern. This imposes a responsibility on adults to explore ways to nurture their successors and collaborators. The most productive support goes beyond simply lending encouragement to youth activists. It means challenging them to think hard and think ahead; it means exposing them to contexts where they can meet and argue with well-informed people who see global problem-solving from different perspectives. If some youth activists view such an approach as a wolf in sheep’s clothing¾ a strategy of cooptation disguised as ecumenicalism¾ most are more likely to welcome the chance to listen, learn, talk back, and reconsider.

During the heyday of SDS at Harvard, a professor whose elegant, old-fashioned formality seemed at odds with their own militant anti-authoritarianism mentored leaders. When others on the faculty tried to ingratiate themselves with the young, Barrington Moore was austere and demanding. He took radical students as seriously as the project of transformation on which they believed they were embarked. He held them to high standards, and his political theory course became a kind of intellectual initiation. Students fell into line, grateful for the rigor, and dignified by the respect that it reflected. What is needed today is a similar pedagogy, one that is stringent as well as nurturing, one that equips young people with the competence and confidence to cut against the grain and go out into the world and change it.

Cross-generational dialogue must be constantly renegotiated. This requires a considerable investment of time, effort, and patience. According to Roni Krouzman, founder of the Boston Campus Action Network, most adult-led organizations

...ignore young people, except perhaps to fill an internship position (a.k.a. free labor.) Those who do work with young people generally recruit young activists to work on their struggles--signing petitions to help the U’wa or educating their peers about a clean water campaign. This is not the way to work with young people. It co-opts their energy, and it reinforces the belief that only structured, far-reaching campaigns are important, and that radical, independent campus organizing is child’s play. It siphons energy from those movements and it does not allow youth to fully develop the type of creative, grassroots organizers they should become. What young people need from adult-led organizations is what they need from parents, unbridled support and very subtle guidance. Unfortunately, most structured organizations are very bad parents-if they give their children attention at all, they demand control of their children’s activities, and even that their children serve their parents’ needs first.

Youth activism comes in many different stripes, encompasses a broad continuum, and presents diversified opportunities for cooperative engagement.

Next: Scanning the Terrain