Activism is not a new concept in the U.S. In fact, it’s been around for about as long as the country has. America is always changing, and there are always people opposing the new changes or pushing for more. Recently, though, a new wave of youth activism has emerged. In February of 2018, students from Parkland, Florida demanded justice and rallied thousands of young people to fight gun violence, galvanizing them behind the message, “The young people will win.” Emboldened by the growing youth movement, many young people have followed suite creating their own movements—Sunrise, PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement, and the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, to name a few. But alongside these monumental strides for change, a problem has arisen: activism has become a buzzword. So, what is activism, really? What does it mean to our generation? Here’s a summary of what 30 young people from various backgrounds and communities have to say.
Passionate and selfless work
Of the activists interviewed, every single one acknowledged passion as a defining characteristic of an activist.
“An activist is someone who advocates passionately for their beliefs through action and words,” Creative Director of the National Styrofoam Ban Movement, Margo Cohen, tells Adolescent. Cohen believes that anyone who takes tangible action in their community, regardless of the level—local, state, federal, global—is an activist in their own right. Activists come in many forms, from organizers and writers to artists and educators. They are not strictly leaders of global movements, award-winning speakers, or people spending eight hours a day fighting oppressive systems. They are also athletes that compete at fundraising events and students that canvas on the weekends. Cohen used to shy away from the title because she felt her own work and accomplishments paled in comparison to those of fellow organizers, but in realizing the place activism holds in her life, she has come to embrace the title. Anyone can be an activist.
That said, Cohen is concerned about the rise of people leveraging social media to amplify their values without taking offline action. She distinguishes those who only make an occasional social media post as allies, not activists. When allies start identifying themselves as activists for personal gain, they become what she and many other young people refer to as internet “slacktivists.” The main criticism surrounding slacktivists is that their intentions are self-serving, their activism shallow—limited to retweets and hashtags. Because of slacktivists, the term “activist” is being overused and exploited for personal gain, diminishing its originally positive connotation. “[Activism] has become a label associated with clout for one person to use in their Instagram bio or to ‘join a community’ instead of the actual organizers doing the work in the streets. Activism isn’t a fun extracurricular for privileged individuals to put on a college application,” shares Mobilizing Youth Project co-founder, Joyce Jiang.
Jiang isn’t alone in her vexation, as many other young people also share her frustration when seeing mainstream activism overshadow the hard work of grassroots organizers that have had to endure real struggles. It cannot be said enough that activism is not about recognition or credit, even if that is a result.
Fight oppressive systems
Today, young activists’ work is largely inspired by experiences that they have gone through. This rings true for one young Muslim, Zaynab Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Elkolaly, as she explains that her religion commands her to uphold justice and fight oppressors and their oppressive systems. “The way I carry myself is to ensure that everything I do is from a place of decency and civic duty, not an honorable title.” Though she realizes many identify her as an activist, Elkolaly herself does not. “I just consider myself a passionate human being fighting for the people around her.”
The work of political organizer Malavika Kannan also stems from her personal experiences. Kannan saw a need for a space specifically for girls of color who are underrepresented in politics so, in June of 2018, she founded Homegirl Project—an international girl-led movement promoting inclusivity between womxn of color and empowering them through storytelling, mentorship, and political training. Kannan shares that “An activist is a person who rises up as a leader in their community against the oppressive systems they face. Being an activist isn't as simple as amplifying a cause, demonstrating reactive outrage, or discussing the issue: instead, an activist has to take conscious, proactive actions to dismantle these systems and empower others to do the same.”
Amplify affected voices
In order to dismantle oppressive systems, we must uplift underrepresented and directly affected voices. This, however, is no easy feat. “It’s always important to check ourselves and check our privilege,” Jamaican advocate, Alliyah Logan, tells Adolescent. “We need to understand that people are actually fighting for their lives to change their communities.”
Humility is key. In being an effective activist, it is equally important to acknowledge when to give someone else the spotlight as it is to take the lead. One way to practice this awareness is to consider how an issue is directly affecting you. Ask yourself the following: “What relevant experience do I have to contribute? Why am I the best person to speak on this issue? Is there another perspective I should listen to and consider?”
In June of 2019, America’s Promise Alliance in partnership with Facebook Education hosted State of Young People, a national two-day conference bringing together young people and adults to discuss authentic youth leadership. Young changemakers, the majority being youth of color, were given a platform to share their lived experiences speak with adults from various industries. Some Gen Zers expressed that they couldn’t speak out because, in their community, they would be killed for doing so. It is essential that we not only recognize, but amplify the work that marginalized activists do because they are often the ones risking the most.
With the surge of youth activism and the consequent media coverage, it can be easy to view youth activism as a combination of movements, marches, and social media posts. That’s why, whether you’re a kid entering adolescence, a fellow young changemaker, or an adult watching the youth take the world by storm, it’s essential to remember that youth activism is not about the methods used to be heard nor the praise and recognition of work. It’s about the values that ignite and fuel the work Gen Z does and the change that their work will bring.