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
Scanning the Terrain
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption
Different Approaches to Global Education
Youth Activism and Global Engagement: Part I
This OneWorld US Special Report focuses on the intersection of activism among young people on college campuses and global issues. It represents excerpts from a longer report prepared for the Global Interdependence Initiative by Paul G. Aaron, with the purpose of identifying areas in which young activists and adults engaged in work on global issues might work together. The report will be published here in ten segments.
Though anecdotal and fragmentary, evidence suggests an increasing interface between American youth activism and global engagement. Young people are playing important roles in a number of campaigns where international and domestic problems (and their solutions) overlap. Such campaigns include efforts to:
Reform and democratize institutions of global capital
Stop sweatshops and press for labor rights
Mobilize against draconian drug laws and the onslaught of the "prison-industrial complex" (and to link these domestic phenomena to worldwide patterns of social and racial exclusion)
Safeguard indigenous cultures and natural environments
Regulate the tobacco industry and impede international trafficking
Resist the growing corporate control of university life.
The interface expands even further if the concept of activism goes beyond political dissent and advocacy-oriented campaigning to include school-based global education that seeks to equip students with the knowledge and experiential opportunities to close the affective and cognitive gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Forum for Global Education, iEARN, and Choices for the 21st Century are among the groups providing extensive, high quality resources that help classroom teachers and districts construct a base of international awareness and understanding for young people from the elementary grades through high school.
Diverse efforts are underway to illuminate and act upon the interconnections between circumstances at home and abroad. What these efforts amount to and auger still remains very much an open question. While supportive adults are quick to bestow their blessings ("It’s like the South in the 60s. You see 1.2 billion people today in the world making less than a buck a day," commented Tom Hayden. "That’s intolerable. In the ‘60s, young people filled the jails because they refused to enter a corrupt system. It’s what we are seeing today."), such enthusiasm is no substitute for analysis of actual events on the ground. Those who see portents in the shape of things to come—of an unfolding shift in generational consciousness, a gathering global rights movement, the flowering of flexible, Internet-based activist network—may in the end prove to be prescient. But we do not yet know enough to tell, and we will not, as long as we lack a dispassionate exploration of what young activists are doing to address transnational problems, and why.
It is such an exploration that this reconnaissance seeks to launch. The aims are to: (1) take stock of the diverse array of internationalized social causes around which American youth are becoming mobilized; (2) describe young people’s value set and trajectory of affiliation; (3) review and distill the experiences of various campaigns, with particular focus on organizing efforts against sweatshop labor; (4) sketch out emerging opportunities for dialogue and joint ventures between youth activists and adult-led organizations.
This last point needs to be underscored. Cross-generational collaboration is easier to invoke than put into practice, especially given the anti-corporate populism and fervent commitment to decentralized governance that define a large segment of the youth activist environment. As the Manchester Guardian suggested, "Seattle was a wake-up call to government—and established NGOs. The threat facing the old players is that they could be pushed out of the debate over the future of globalization by newcomers prepared to be more radical." (May 20, 2000) For the head of policy for Oxfam, UK, "Seattle created the space for political change. We’ve got to be clever in using that momentum. We need to appeal more to young people as a campaigning organization and we have to be better at communicating to a wider audience how to change the status quo."
This report is intended to stimulate thinking about ways such appeals might be framed. It seeks both to honor what young activists "bring to the table"—agility, inventiveness, passionate idealism—and at the same time to acknowledge that additional ingredients need to be added to the mix. Such a delicate balance between appreciation and critical scrutiny is difficult to strike. The first may be seen as pandering, the second as hostility. Relations between younger and older change agents are likely to be complicated and sometimes adversarial. Commitment to shared values and ultimate aims does not bestow immunity on generational conflict. But this report finds that the most serious and committed youth activists are the first to recognize the importance of listening to and learning from those who have come before, of forging alliances rooted in mutual respect and a synthesis of different experiences and points of view.
What follows represents a first-stage effort to provide a wide-angle, "top of the trees" overview and lay the groundwork for more fine-grained and systematic appraisal and reflection. It is based on research carried out over the summer and early fall of 2000, and draws from existing academic research, youth activist materials published on-line and in print, and a series of phone, e-mail, and face-to-face interviews. The 28 interviews were conducted with a mix of informants, including self-identified youth activists, adult mentors, and social movement historians. Hopefully the effort suggests how strategic coalitions might be forged between "insider," adult-led organizations struggling on behalf of cooperative international engagement and loosely knit "outsider," youth-led groupings committed to a similar, though not necessarily identical, vision and mission.
A final note of reassurance on editorial voice. This report attempts to document, rather than champion, globally minded youth activism. But any effort that involves giving shape and meaning to complex, unfolding, and value-laden events necessarily requires interpretive judgment. While this report makes no claim to clinically detached impartiality, care has been taken to make explicit the perspective of the author, as opposed to the point of view expressed by his young informants.
Putting a Face on Youth
Not so long ago young people in their teens and twenties were labeled as apathetic and cynically detached. In the wake of Seattle, slack-jawed narcissism has gone out of fashion. The face of youth is now one of social activism characterized by "articulate aplomb" and a sense of "planetary citizenship." (New York Times, Sept 24, 2000).
This profile is far less of a caricature than what it replaced. But it is nonetheless pieced together from very preliminary and incomplete findings. As Everett Carl Ladd observes: "Social analysis and commentary has many shortcomings, but few of its chapters are as persistently wrong-headed as those on the generations and generational change. The literature abounds with hyperbole and unsubstantiated leaps from available data." (Atlantic, August 99)
Extrapolation easily runs amok, as witnessed in a 1996 story from the Los Angeles Times headlined "Freshmen Get High Marks: In Apathy." The story summarized a U.C.L.A.-sponsored national survey of first-year college students that found diminished interest in electoral politics. But a few weeks before the story ran, students at Occidental College, located just three miles from the Times building, had led a successful campaign to persuade John Slaughter, college president and Atlantic Richfield board member, to criticize the oil company's support for the military dictatorship in Burma. This was far from an isolated episode. Other Occidental students were involved in efforts to organize teach-ins about Chiapas, ensure that the campus adopted a comprehensive recycling program, fight California's anti-affirmative action policy, build an Amnesty International chapter and raise awareness of human rights, and create a Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) to operate as a conduit between students and unions. Beyond this, half of the entire student body of 1,600 students was involved in some type of social volunteerism in adjoining local communities. (Drier, LA Times, Nov 15, 1998)
With this welter of activity, which was mirrored at campuses across the country, how did the profile of young people as apathetic and self-indulgent gain such prominence? To a large degree the image reflects a perceived conflation between voting and social responsibility. Youth are far less likely to go to the polls than their parents; if measured by this yardstick alone, they do indeed appear as civic misfits. "If American democracy is in decline, as many commentators have suggested, then one need look no further than among our youngest citizens to understand the problem," begins a 1999 report from the New Millennium Project. Commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State, the report used extensive focus groups and polling among 15-to-24-year olds to produce one of the largest studies of youth attitudes taken during the last decade. The report found that:
By a margin of 64% to 35%, respondents believe that "government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, not for the benefit of all."
Only 26% agree that voting is "extremely important," and only 16% report volunteering in a political campaign.
In 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds had a chance to vote, turnout was nearly 50% for the 18-24 age group. In the 1998 mid-term election, the rate was one in five.
But at the same time the report indicates a turning away from electoral politics, it also suggests that youth are gravitating towards more intimate, communal realms of engagement. Ninety-four percent of all respondents agreed that "the most important thing I can do as a citizen is to help others," and this personalized vision includes "volunteering" and "raising children well."
John Della Volpe, senior advisor at Harvard's Institute of Politics has also tracked plummeting rates of electoral and political party participation among 18-24 year olds (Boston Globe, June 5, 2000). His survey data suggest that as young people have beat a retreat from one front, they have marshaled their forces on another. Sixty percent reported being "very active" in local community-improvement efforts, from tutoring to working in homeless shelters to building houses through Habitat for Humanity. At Harvard's Phillips Brooks House, which has been placing volunteers for the last 50 years, coordinators report that students express a distinct preference for hands-on "do-gooderism" that yields an immediate and practical value.
The Pew Foundation’s Michael X. Delli Carpini has insightfully explored this bifurcation between "high" politics and direct, face-to-face problem-solving. In a June 2000 working paper, he presents a synthesis of survey data that reads like an extended indictment. Compared to older Americans, youth are:
"Less trusting of both government and of fellow citizens: Young adults under 30 are significantly more likely than those over 30 to say that government is run by special interests, that public officials don't care about average citizens, and that people are more likely to look out for themselves than to help each other.
Less interested in politics or public affairs: Only 19% of those between 18 and 29 say they follow politics and government 'most of the time,' as opposed to 51% of those 50 or older.
Less likely to feel a sense of identity, pride or obligation associated with American citizenship. Fewer than 20% of 18-to-29 year olds say they are very proud of how democracy works in the U.S., compared with over 50% of those 50 or older.
Less knowledgeable about the substance of processes of politics. Only one-in-ten young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 can name their Senators, compared with one-in-five of those between the ages of 30 and 45 and one-in-three of those over the age of 45.
Less likely to read a newspaper or watch the news. Thirty six percent of young adults (18 to 29) say they follow the news every day, compared with 52% of those between 30 and 50 and 67% of those over 50.
Less likely to register to vote. Turnout in the 1996 presidential election among 18-24 year olds was 28%, compared to well over 60% for those 35 or older."
The litany goes on. A recent survey of high school students found that the majority could not name any government or non-government public leader who embodied qualities they admired, including caring about average people, consistency of beliefs, strong leadership skills and experience; and ethical values. (The person named most often was President Clinton, selected by 7% of those polled.) Sixty-one percent of young Americans between 18 and 24 believe that America's political leaders have failed them; and 70% of US teenagers said they had no interest in jobs related to government or politics.
But Delli Carpini cautions against assuming that such data necessarily indicate terminal civic disaffection. They may also constitute evidence of shrewd investment behavior, a pragmatic and considered assessment of where energies can be concentrated to produce the greatest return, measured in terms of both public impact and personal satisfaction. Youth, in other words, may not so much be passive and inert as voting with their feet.
Estrangement from mainstream politics, Delli Carpini suggests, has evolved in response to a range of factors that include the:
Systematic devaluing of the public sector over the past thirty years
Failure of formal institutions of government to address issues of pressing concern to youth
Rigid "governing structures" of traditional civic organizations and interest groups, which are "anathema to younger Americans raised in a faster-paced, entrepreneurial, mass-mediated global environment."
As indicated by rising levels of volunteerism, youth are prepared to make commitments—so long as they yield tangible results. Youth are not disengaged "because they are satisfied with the current state of affairs, because they are apathetic, or because they do not care about their fellow citizens. Rather they are disengaged because they are alienated from the institutions and processes of civic life and lack the motivation, opportunity and ability to overcome this alienation," Delli Carpini concludes.
Next: Demographics and Values