Young People and Activism
Young people in movement circles are often met with a great deal of admiration and little to no respect. Impressed as they are by kids very presence at activist events and meetings, given the preoccupations and pressures of modern youth; adults rarely acknowledge the contribution of young activists beyond the sense of "diversity" the latter bring to the circle. But its critical that adult activists recognize more than just the age of kids becoming involved with social movements (or developing their own for youth liberation). Adults must also acknowledge the significant, relatively unique impediments to becoming activists/organizers faced by young people, found both within the movement and without. Further, adults must take active care to ensure the process of fully participating in movement activity becomes as accessible as possible to people of all ages, especially kids.
Now, I realize there is an apparent dichotomy -- between adult and child -- in the way I am presenting my concerns. However, the fact is we know how we as individuals identify, how we identify others, and to what degree we look upon ourselves and those around us as "adults" vs. "children." And while there may be no one in movement circles who can be said to be purely "child" by social definitions (as opposed to bio-chronological definitions), it is true that most younger activists, at least those in their teens, live under different conditions than older activists.
Lets briefly review some of these circumstances. First and foremost, people deemed "minors" in our society are bound as property to their parents or legal guardians by laws reminiscent of those which used to govern slaves and women as property of their masters and husbands. That means what mom and dad say goes; and mom and dad typically insist on more typical forms of extracurricular activity than progressive, not to mention radical, activism.
And speaking of curriculum, were all aware of the critique of the modern school and how it goes about "educating" North American youth; but what about the complusory nature of education itself? Kids are forced to attend school and complete ridiculous assignments, often rendering them no more available for organizing than people with full time jobs. Add family and other personal obligations to daily life as a young person, and the inhibitions are obvious.
Despite all of this, many more young people are becoming involved in activism, driven by a repulsion toward the society they see around them; a disgust which overpowers the factors that might otherwise prevent them from interest in movement activity.
Its sad that we have to credit the repugnant ills of society, rather than the remarkable accessibility of the Left (ahem), with turning kids on to social activism. But let us face it: the Left is decidedly inaccessible, not only to people from various class and racial backgrounds, but to people of the younger generation. Our tactics have become bland and stale, our propaganda old and tired, our energy stagnant, dwindling. How many Left publications cater explicitly to both young people and adults in a serious manner? Can you name any? How many activist meetings (and this is especially true of Canada for some reason) wind up yielding a trip to the local pub for further socializing over "a few beers" (not to mention meetings which actually take place in bars!)? Why is it that fund-raising events held in bars are widely accepted when other exclusive venues such as country clubs would be rejected without discussion?
Nearly all of the young people I've worked with in activist settings, when asked, have reported being condescended to, spoken over and ignored by adults at meetings. And it's common for them to point out that the very adults who believe young people have much to learn from their elders' experience shrug kids off, waiting for the latter to prove themselves or discover wisdom "the hard way" -- a mixed message to say the least.
Beyond this, most kids dont even get so so much as a taste of the Left and decide for themselves the value of getting involved. While colleges are still fertile ground for leftist agitation, high schools have been isolated and discounted by most progressive organizers.
So too have youth activist organizations been largely alienated by adult organizers. I can no longer count how many complaints Ive heard from older activists about how "kids are only involved in animal rights," incidentally the only social movement not totally dominated (rather decried or ignored!) by adult activists. Chastizing animal rights has ensured alienation between the broad Left and the movement with perhaps the highest influx of young activists. Far from immune to traditional intergenerational misunderstanding, the Left has fallen into the role of disrespecting youth, in large part by ignoring young peoples oppressions or subordinating their concerns to those of other oppressed groups like women, people of color, queers and so forth.
Ageism does exist. It is a real oppression, whether the Left admits so or not, but the speed with which it is still regularly dismissed by adult activists is to be expected. Indeed, there was a time when the bulk of the Left looked at sexism as a trifle not to be concerned with, at least until "after the revolution." The rationalizations were many, as are those of ageism. "Ageism isnt a real oppression, theyll grow out of it." Ive heard that dozens of times from otherwise respectable leaders. The notion that one can "grow out of" an oppression is remarkably irrational -- it implies that ageing equals liberation. Does that mean womens liberation is a process of time instead of personal change and collective agitation?
Just as women throughout this century have not allowed patriarchal critics to discourage them from seeking forms of authentic freedom, young people have formed a movement for youth liberation, resisting some of the most tyranical anti-youth laws and policies (remember, children are the only class in society against which it is everywhere legal -- indeed, hardly even controversial -- to discriminate against).
Further, kids are organizing autonomously for empowerment, feeling turned away or squashed by existing "multigenerational" groups and causes. I've actually found it stunning that among those who consider themselves "youth liberation activists," there are very few who only focus on age oppressions, nearly all opting for a more holistic approach to struggle. No other movement can claim such diversity of objectives.
So what should adult activists do to incorporate young people's interests and needs into organizing? The most important factor will be letting kids set a significant portion of the agenda, giving them creative control, not stifling their energy. All too often the spontaneous commitments of young activists are thwarted by older folks stuck in customary ways. Demonstrations and even direct actions have suffered from adult dominance; it's not surprising that the most innovative and exciting actions these days are those orchestrated and carried out by young people.
It remains true, as ever, that adults have plenty of experience to offer their younger activist counterparts. It's all the more unfortunate, then, that what is usually offered is dogma, traditional methodology, unilateral conversation, tokenizing, and worse. When we think of social change, we should reflect on the subjective meaning of that term -- that is, we should acknowledge that we and our organizations and movements must themslves change, not just the world around us. Change requires new influences on a regular basis, and that requires young people. Kids aren't going to get involved in activism with adults on any wide scale until those adults make some radical changes in how they treat young people.
Brian Dominick, a community organizer and freelance journalist living in Syracuse, NY, has been involved in the youth liberation movement for 5 years. His homepage is at http://www.rootmedia.org/~bad