Young people have always been at the forefront of social change.
It’s not uncommon today to see examples of young adults joining together to take a stand for social causes, pleading with politicians and driving public policy. There are marches, protests, sit-ins and walkouts — chances are you have participated in or at least witnessed this.
The discussion at the February edition of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s InForum series at The Gathering Spot in West Atlanta focused on the power of youth organizing, and how it is being used across the country to create better outcomes for youth and their communities.
United Way’s Katrina Mitchell drove the conversation Wednesday morning highlighting examples of youth activism — the Selma march, Vietnam War protests and then modern movements like Black Lives Matters and marches organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.
Many great social movements have been powered by youth activism, she says.“How would this country be different without the power of young people?” Mitchell says. “How could it be different if young people had not pushed for change?”
Eric Braxton, of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, has played a part in creating new initiatives and new projects for youth to create meaningful social change. He also works to raise awareness about the power young people have.
Braxton said he had been working for FCYO for eight years in a role providing resources to young people to help promote social change.
He said youth have always been at “the forefront of mobilizing and sustaining” social movements.
“Youth organizing is not new,” he said. “Whether it was the civil rights movement or the labor movement, young people have always been at the forefront for struggles of social justice in this country.”
He said this was because young people had “an inherent sense of justice and willingness to stand up for what they believe in.”
In the 90s, there was a new wave of community organizing that spread across the country, he said. Young people had marched for social movements, education and justice reform to end institutional oppression.
This is work that continues today, says Manuela Arciniegas, interim director of the Andrus Family Fund.
“[The Andrus Family Fund is] committed to fostering justice and sustainable change in the United States,” Arciniegas said. “We have a specific focus on advancing outcomes of vulnerable youth and advancing social justice.”
The “vulnerable youth” they refer to are those age 16-24 who are products foster care or the juvenile justice system, according to Arciniegas.
Her organization has partnered with groups who have “successfully closed youth prisons” in multiple states. Through the Andrus Family Fund, Arciniegas identifies young people who have been compromised by systems that may not have always had their best interests at heart.
As a result, young people are thrown into a world without connections to positive supports or services. The Andrus Family Fund helps connect young people to “caring communities, proven services and vital skills that they so sorely missed earlier in their lives.”
“We provide multi-use support, and we leverage our grants by partnering with other foundations,” Arciniegas said.
By organizing young people, you can develop leaders while engaging with your community. This impacts the individual as well as the community and society as a whole, Braxton says.
“This prepares young people to be participants and leaders in a Democratic society,” he said.
Emery Wright, co-director of Project South, spoke about the history of youth activism in the South. He said Project South was founded in 1986 to be a leadership development organization.
“A lot of the work of Project South can really be summed up with a quote by Fannie Lou Hamer, a great civil rights activist who said, ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,’” Wright said. “That’s an easy statement to say, but hard to put into practice.”
Project South spreads this message locally, across the 13 Southern states of the U.S. and globally.
“About 20 years ago, we really started to engage this question of youth leadership development and youth organizing,” Wright said. “We started doing this work right around 1999-2000… and a lot of the [youth organization] was happening on the [East and West Coast], and in the South that energy wasn’t taking place.”
He said Project South has a goal to “build strong, powerful movements.”
“We saw that there was something to the power and potential of youth leadership,” he said. “We knew if we don’t have youth involved, then we’re going to have a big missing ingredient.”
Wright said the power of this youth perspective came to light about 50 years ago. He said this was when a “major turning point in youth culture happened here in the U.S. South,” referring to college students in North Carolina who held the first sit-in. He said this spread like wildfire and introduced people to a “whole new type of non-violent demonstration.”
He said that Southerners had a “proud legacy of youth leadership and youth development,” which has inspired the rest of the world.
Arciniegas agreed with Wright. She said people should continue to follow the examples of young people as they press for more change.
“Dream, Atlanta, dream,” Arciniegas says. “And follow the young people because they will take you there. Youth organizing is the strategy that allows things to happen.”