This page is part of Benton Foundation's online archive. We've kept some old stuff around for historical purposes.OneWorld US Special Report
Demographics and Values
The Impact of Seattle
The Fairness Revolution
Bringing Globalization Home
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption
Different Approaches to Global Education
Youth Activism and Global Engagement - Part VI
Scanning the Terrain
"We’re growing and developing so quickly we’re tripping over our feet," said Michael Prokosch. A veteran Boston-based organizer who helped found CISPES (Committee in Support of People in El Salvador, which spearheaded opposition to U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s), Prokosch is now staff to United For A Fair Economy, where he has established a new department on education and globalization that works closely with young people throughout New England. Deeply involved in the Seattle and Washington D.C. protests, he describes a fledgling national movement devoid of national leadership or infrastructure. Rooted in local initiative and local imagination, it is evolving and mutating at a pace that makes every snapshot obsolete.
Even activists grope for appropriate metaphors to capture the protean nature of forces being unleashed. Clark University professor Bob Ross, a co-founder of SDS, historian of social movements, and mentor to current anti-sweatshop activists, sees an ‘intertwining of tendrils." The Free Burma Coalition talks of a network of spiders that spin a web strong enough and flexible enough to tie down powerful but cumbersome corporations. A media activist in California envisages a spreading of spores. A Sierra Club national organizer sees a complex political ecosystem kept vigorous by an admixture of tactics--some aggressively confrontational, some more gently persuasive. Even the U.S. military has got into the naming game. According to a commissioned Pentagon study produced by RAND, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas represents a "war of the fleas," which the Internet and the global NGO network has turned into a "war of the swarm." RAND researchers note that the military challenge of a "war of the swarm" is that no central leadership or command structure exists; "it is multi-headed, impossible to decapitate." Naomi Klein, a 30-year-old Canadian journalist whose book, No Logo, has become a basic text for youth activists, believes that the technology revolution has not only made possible a new kind of organizing but has shaped the movement in its own image. The Web takes on a metaphorical truth. Local campaigns are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as "hotlinks" connect their websites on the Internet. The result is "coordinated decentralization."
The linguistic free-for-all reflects a youth activist landscape that continues to unfold and take shape. But a scan of the terrain reveals general features and developmental tendencies.Activist life forms are diverse, mutating, and in many cases, ephemeral
A Web search of "youth activism and global engagement" produces more than 700 references, a significant proportion of which are simply debris, the electronic husk left behind by organizational mayflies. Groups spring up, die off, return under a different name, merge. Such a pattern is particularly evident among autonomous organizations that are youth-initiated and youth-led, as distinct from the fewer number of adult-led, established organizations to which youth activists become affixed. Instability stems from a host of factors, including turnover among key leaders, lack of resources, the onset of adult roles and responsibilities, and a philosophical commitment to democratic experimentalism as opposed to institutional longevity.Activism remains radically decentralized
National campaigns are organized from the bottom up and depend upon a system of lateral communication and decisionmaking, often electronically mediated. This emphasis on devolution reflects both fiscal necessity (national offices tend to bare-bones: USAS has a field staff of three helping to support and coordinate activities carried out by 140 local affiliates) and political philosophy (direct democracy exercised within small units.) Youth activism is rooted in small, local place-based communities (college campus; neighborhood) or interest-based communities (hip-hop music; veganism). Though student organizations may have sign-up procedures, the real bonds are always less formal but more dense. Many reasons can be cited to explain why young people join together in some common cause of reform: loyalty to friends; the wish for a social life; a shared sense of moral grievance or outrage; the desire to test themselves, put principle into practice, and challenge the status quo. Groups are fluid rather than fixed, operating as volunteer collectives bound together through a web of loose-knit affinity. This web is constantly fraying and being rewoven in response to events, campaign opportunities, and the departure of key individuals. Turnover and attrition remain pervasive problems, depleting the capacity to distill lessons from experience, apply them towards more effective practice, and transfer them to new recruits.
Youth activist organizations, particularly those that are campus-based, have serious problems with institutional legacy. Leaders often shoulder so much of the burden within their groups that they burn out without nurturing and equipping their successors. Again, this problem helps focus attention on capacity-building and cross-generational learning. Contexts must be created so that older and younger leaders can share insights and experiences on issues of institutional developmental and sustainability.Hybrid agendas mix domestic and international causes and concerns
The Prison Moratorium Project (PMP) and Students For A Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have joined forces with human rights activists against Sodexho Marriott Services, which operates campus cafeterias while its parent company does business in Burma and provides the largest single source of investment in U.S. private prisons. Multiple constituencies become mobilized in response to punishment-oriented drug policies that that play out here at home as well as overseas. The military aid package to Colombia has become a high-profile target, and criticisms have been leveled against General Macaffrey’s efforts to establish a united front with China even after officials there executed 150 prisoners to coincide with the U.N. Anti-Drug Day.Travel abroad represents a context for transformation but one often reserved for the privileged
Many activists report being outside the United States as a critical catalyst to their own political and personal development. Working or studying abroad (rather than tourism) provided opportunities to establish friendships, know and value another culture, and gain a broader perspective on the global impact of American power. Race and class often limit access to these boundary-spanning experiences. Lisa Sullivan, the founder of Lisn, Inc, a program for low-income African American youth, believes this poses a significant barrier to the creation of a broad-based coalition on behalf of cooperative international engagement. "There is an elitism in how we approach talent-spotting and development. Poor kids don’t get a junior year abroad…the discourse on globalization risks becoming one for the privileged and college-educated." Sullivan, who received a Ford Foundation grant to bring African American teenagers from Washington, D.C. neighborhoods on a study tour of South Africa, says that lives were changed as the result. "In South Africa, we came face to face with people who had a dignity and an identity that did not depend upon wealth or upon consumption. Our kids come to activism angry as shit, and this is not a good place to work from. It made a huge difference to be sitting in a room with former ANC fighters and hear from them that anger is a crutch, that lasting social change comes from the power of faith and love and communal relationships."Entrepreneurial ingenuity dominates over ideological purism
Though tiny Marxist-Leninist groups still attempt to scavenge among today’s youth activists, the pickings they find are slim-to-none. Big faiths and grand, over-arching theoretical frameworks have given way to a "dirty pragmatism" exercised on behalf of more piecemeal and provisional strategies of change. A visceral skepticism of authority is accompanied by a recognition that power must be bargained with, not simply denounced, and that to do this, negotiating skills must be acquired and refined. Campaigns today draw their logic and language from environmentalism and human rights rather than from doctrinaire anti-imperialism. Orthodoxy of any stripe remains anathema and anarchist principles are invoked as a way to underscore a bedrock commitment to self-organization and participatory decision-making. The collapse of communism in 1989 encouraged young people to become adroit practitioners of "bricolage," where elements from various traditions are combined and hybridized.Technology levels the playing field
As economic power becomes more integrated, more mobile, and more boundary-spanning, holding it to account means building a base of opposition that is well informed, not just outraged. To do this, young people are re-appropriating the technologies of globalization in the time-tested method of using the master’s tools to challenge the master’s control. The Internet has been of fundamental importance in equipping activist groups to diffuse and de-centralize decisionmaking authority within and across organizations, conduct high-quality research and disseminate findings in a wide arc, sound alerts, and coordinate events. Low-cost communication networks have made it possible for diverse groups, from Burmese students and Zapatista rebels, to recruit and mobilize global alliances. According to the Canadian Security Services:
The development and implementation of new tactics are a direct result of the impact of technology and the ability of organizers to use it creatively…The Internet has had a profound impact by enabling organizers to quickly and easily arrange demonstrations…Individuals and groups are now able to establish dates, share experiences, accept responsibilities, arrange logistics, and initiate a myriad of other taskings that would have been impossible to manage readily or rapidly in the past. International protests and demonstrations can be organized for the same date and time, so that a series of protests take place in concert. The Internet has breathed new life into anarchist philosophy, permitting communication and coordination without the need for a central source of command, and facilitating actions with minimal resources…It has allowed groups and individuals to cement bonds, file e-mail reports of perceived success, and recruit members.
The Internet levels the playing field for people with a lot of energy and creativity, and very little money. McSpotlight, the made-for-nothing website created by activists in London during the libel suit brought against them by McDonalds, developed a far wider audience than the corporation’s own site. According to Fanny Armstrong, who produced the award-winning documentary "McLibel: Two Worlds Collide":
It becomes a matter of who’s funnier, who’s smarter, who can maneuver the fastest, who can keep ahead of the game. And of course it’s not the old dinosaurs like the corporations and the governments. It’s the little people on the street because they’re going to be a lot faster since they haven’t got the weight of the corporation on their back, so they can turn things around in an afternoon, When the McLibel verdict came out, the McSpotlight people had someone in the court room with a mobile phone. As soon as the judge read the verdict, the guy ran out of the courtroom, got on his mobile phone, and McSpotlight had the story within a couple of minutes, the first media in the world to get it, and there were more than 2 million hits that same day."Face-to-face community-building is still important
Twenty years ago, Harry Boyte argued in his book, Backyard Revolution (1983) that "the structure of support, the resources, and the experiences that in real life generate the capacity and inspiration for insurgency" lie embedded within local environments. Youth activism is rooted in its own micro-communities- neighborhood-based, campus-based, or interest-based networks of cultural and social affiliation. Technology is a far better tool for linking the converted than it is for reaching those outside the fold and bringing them in. Roni Krouzman, who led a campus-wide youth activist movement at BU from 1995 to 1999, said that during this period "the web played no part in campus organizing. E-mail, however was very important, both for individual communication and announcements through group lists. But by far the most important communication was face-to-face contact. The campus is a tight-knit community, so flyers, meetings on dorm floors, classes--all these things bring people together." At Boston University, "anti-sweat" activists positioned themselves as key coordinators of a week-long community service cycle required for all 500 in-coming first- year students. From this vantage point, the activists were able to talent spot and recruit newcomers to their cause, less through a process of political indoctrination than from the offer of friendship and the possibility of finding attachment to a social group.
For budding youth activists, many of whom may feel a sense of isolation and fatigue from going against the political and social grain, opportunities for communal support are terribly important. Their activist peer group often serves a base-camp, providing comfort, hope, and renewed purpose. But it can also become a refuge and retreat. There are real tendencies among some activist youth to self-marginalize, to create "liberated zones" that seek to banish competition and consumerism and enshrine co-operative values, but which wind up as sanctuaries and escape routes. "I’m not interested in money, " said a veteran campus activist and recent college graduate. "I want to live a life based on steady state economics, where I don’t take in any more than I put out." Though this sensibility is admirable, it can slip over into a solipsistic purism, a backpacker’s credo where the refinement of ecologically correct private behavior becomes a substitute for vigorous public engagement.Youth activists are creating their own cultural networks
Through music, web-sites, "zines," (a hybrid between a magazine and comic book), radio, and video, young people are weaving together an independent culture that bypasses media gatekeepers and mainstreams new, non-commercial norms, values and behaviors. "Young people are totally frustrated because when they create unique identities for themselves, large corporations quickly jump on them, mass produce them, and make major dollars," a reporter wrote in "Young People’s Press Online." In response, youth are becoming producers of media rather than simply consumers. Hip-hop, which has just surpassed country and western music as the largest-selling music form in the nation, is increasingly being used as a vehicle to raise social awareness and encourage political participation among low-income youth--those most effected by draconian drug laws, exploding rates of incarceration, and the decline in funding for public education. In the Bay Area, The Third Eye, a hip-hop organization, helped rally thousands of high school students to work against Proposition 21, a California state ballot initiative that prescribes more stringent sentencing for juvenile offenders. Web-based magazines like "WireTap: youth in pursuit of the dirty truth" provide excellent, high-quality youth reporting on a range of domestic and global social justice concerns and campaigns. Global Kids is a non-profit group carrying out education and training in New York City on human rights, mediation, and youth leadership. Teenagers there produced and distributed a "zine" on homelessness that looked at conditions not just in the USA but in the Sudan, Brazil, and India. The Educational Video Center (EVC) is one of dozens of programs across the country where young people have opportunities to develop and practice media skills on behalf of social investigation and social change. The Open Society Institute and the MacArthur Foundation have been in the forefront of building such networks. The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival has provided a venue for youth-produced documentaries on subjects ranging from the International Criminal Court to anti-sweatshop organizing.Gender and youth issues create bonds of transnational solidarity
"Like the Kentucky coal miner’s caged canaries, whose song or silence indicated the safety or danger of new mines, the healthy shouts or muted, sickly cries of children are often the best indicators of the consequences of major political and economic transitions," observes anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. (Small Wars, 1998) "Wherever and whenever basic resources are scarce, the principle of ‘last call’ comes into play: women and children last." Youth activists hear these cries. Many of the campaigns they join are driven by representations of victimized women and children. This imagery goes beyond sentimental pandering; its power lies in its capacity to evoke a personal identification. The Brandeis undergraduate working on a project to support schools for Afghan girls deprived of education by the Taliban; the anti-sweatshop college student who sees herself in the face of the teenage Nicaraguan girl sewing garments 50 hours a week for survival wages; the grade school class that corresponds by e-mail with Bosnian refugees and raises money to clear villages of landmines so that these children can be safe when they return home: all these represent examples of gender and generation-based solidarity.Activism pursues the politics of accountability: Documentation and research are essential tools
When the head of the World Bank issues jeremiads against gaping disparities between rich and poor, and when the United Nation’s Report on "Globalization and Governance" declares that "the very notion of centralizing hierarchies is itself an anachronism in our fluid, highly dynamic and extensively networked world--an outmoded remnant of nineteenth century mindsets," it becomes apparent that the rhetoric of elite discourse, if not the substance of actual policy, has begun to shift. But in the politics of accountability, rhetoric is fraught rather than empty. "The history of reform," Emerson wrote, "is always identical; it is the comparison of the idea with the fact." Paying even lip service to "the idea" (of fairness and justice, for example) represents a kind of implicit pledge that decisionmakers can be hounded to uphold. Failure to match words to deeds becomes evidence of incompetence or hypocrisy.
"In our peace or justice activism, we are often accused of naivete or idealism," the Center for Campus Organizing tells students in one of its publications. "Progressive people are dismissed as ‘emotional’ and ‘uninformed.’ Meanwhile, the powers that be are often portrayed as objective purveyors or truth and fact. By doing research, we can expose what’s going on behind closed doors. We can pressure those in power through such exposure."
A STARC activist tells the following story:
The good news is the executive committee of the Columbia Trustees voted to set up a permanent advisory committee on Socially Responsible Investment (SRI), with four students, four faculty, and four alumni, and release at the end of every fiscal year the amount of shares that Columbia has in publicly held companies. The committee has access to all information on Columbia's $3.3 billion endowment. We got strong support from student government and from the student caucus of the university senate and about 25 groups signed onto our petition. A lot of what we got just came from having a great relationship with the vice president for finance, who turns out to have been a slow, but now committed, convert to SRI, just incredibly cautious and dry, which made us suspicious at first. Now I'm thinking of buying him a plant. We found out from an initial meeting with him (which he granted us in response to a letter that had lots of co-sponsors and asked about the school's investment) that the school always votes with the management of the 800-1,000 corporations in which it holds stock. The turning point was when the business professor on the task force told the vice president for finance that even insurance companies disclose their holdings, and if trustees didn't want to disclose them he wanted to be taken to those trustees so they could tell them what normal functioning in a democracy entailed. (The provost actually picked him for the task force, so once again, proof that not all administrators are evil.)
We went nuts with this simple piece of information. We paired it with our research into the school's history as an active shareholder during apartheid, and various statements that the school has made from then onwards as it founded various programs with environmental and social justice focuses. We made literature pointing out the accusations of hypocrisy to which the school opened itself up to by voting in favor of the management on various specific shareholder resolutions that we found out about through the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. We circulated our pamphlets to all the students and teachers and trustees we could. We pointed out how smart Columbia was supposed to be and how stupid it is to let management run companies unchecked by shareholders. We collected 1,000 signatures on a petition, mostly by passing it around in classes. We went to the president's office hours so many times he started to hate us.
The president and vice president talked the trustees into setting up a task force to develop a proposal for a permanent committee on socially responsible investing. The task force has been meeting weekly or every other week since the beginning of December (1999), laying out the composition, nomination process, scope, schedule, interaction with trustees, etc., of the permanent committee.Organized labor is a key ally
Speaking about the WTO protest in Seattle, an organizer from the Steel Worker’s Union commented:
The labor movement basically piggy-backed on the courage of the young environmentalists and anti-sweatshop and church activists. Without them, the labor march would have received a 90-second clip on the nightly news, with some voiceover like, ‘A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately, the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of road kill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer.’ Then again, without the tens of thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protestors as flakes, people who aren’t worried about basic issues like having to earn a living. I guess the ideal mix was summed up in the now-famous sign carried by one kid: ‘Teamsters and turtles, together at last.’
The AFL-CIO, committed to "build and change the American labor movement…through recruiting and training the next generation of organizers," set up Union Summer in 1996 as an internship for student activists. Union Summer graduates have gone on to play a lead role in anti-sweatshop campaigns.