The Rise of a Broader Youth Justice Movement

For several years, I have studied when and how high school aged youth effect policy change. Though they may not have commanded as much attention as their college student activist counterparts, in recent years, high school students have brought about significant changes in policy and practice — at the school level certainly, but also at the local, district and state levels. And that is why we shouldn’t be surprised if the Parkland, Fla., youth prevail in their #NeverAgain campaign for gun control reform.

What’s more, it’s not just the youth claiming credit for these reforms. I have found that adult decision-makers will attribute changes directly to young people’s organizing efforts, acknowledging that kids can and have made a difference in setting the agenda, shifting the terms of the debate, holding policymakers accountable and affecting policy outcomes. For example, adult leaders have credited the Philadelphia Student Union with helping to block an attempt to privatize a majority of the district’s schools in 2002, with designing and instituting Student Success Centers in neighborhood schools to increase college access in 2008, and with developing the idea for a district-wide system for students to report abuse and harassment by school police officers in 2017. In New York, youth have successfully fought to challenge stop-and-frisk policies and broken windows policing practices. And on the other side of the country, in San Bernardino, Calif., youth have convinced policymakers to fund violence prevention and youth development programs, expand job training programs, create new summer opportunities for children and youth and develop 40 new internships for young people with a city agency.

Change has not been immediate, and youth have had to fight tenaciously to achieve these victories. My research has found that youth organizers who are successful at changing policy deploy several tactics, including balancing quiet, closed-door meetings with legislators with large-scale public demonstrations. They simultaneously devote time to building relationships of trust and care with one another inside the movement, while forming broad-based, intergenerational coalitions. And they know how to seize on small wins to sustain their momentum, while buckling down for the long haul and persevering. It is early in the movement, still, but the Parkland youth are already demonstrating an understanding of these strategies and a commitment to staying the course. Sarah Chadwick has tweeted, “I’m never going to stop talking about this,” and Melissa Camilo, a freshman, has vowed: “We will not stop fighting.”

The student activists I have interviewed are quick to point out that activism is hard work — it is emotional, risky, labor-intensive and exhausting. This is true for adult activists as well, of course, but youth activists face an additional burden: adult reactions. When youth demand policy change, they typically engender four sets of responses. Adults who disagree with their positions often seek to marginalize them as uniformed and naïve. This response is particularly common when young people raise their voices in raw emotion. On the other hand, when youth strike more measured and polished notes, they are dismissed by adults as the pawns or puppets of adults with an agenda. The Parkland youth have already stirred this reaction.

Expressing surprise at how articulate youth can be on an issue is another typical reaction, and it is one that may be well-intentioned but also serves to undermine young activists, conveying condescension and re-inscribing adult authority.

Finally, there are those adults who will embrace the young people and seek to elevate their voices in a celebratory, sometimes romanticized way. That reaction can be just as problematic as dismissing them out of hand, because it does not take them or their ideas seriously. Just as we would want their composition and rhetoric teacher or their AP government teacher to challenge them to sharpen their arguments and offer more supporting evidence, so too, adult audiences can grant youth respect by engaging critically with their ideas and pushing them to hone their claims.

It may be that when people think of student activists they imagine college students, but youth organizing groups that engage middle and high school students have been building power for the past two decades. National surveys show that college student activism is on the rise, and my data shows that some of this growth is fueled by high school student activism. In a recent survey with more than 330 self-identifying college student activists, we found that 42 percent became activists prior to entering college.

For years, scholars like me who study youth organizing have been wondering about whether all this energy we are seeing from young people will coalesce into a broader youth justice movement. We may have just witnessed its birth in Parkland. And if they stay the course, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and all those they are inspiring across the country to walk out, to march and to lie in may well end up in history textbooks, alongside the iconic student activists of earlier generations who have changed the narrative of our great nation with their courageous actions.

Jerusha Conner, Ph.D., is an associate professor of education at Villanova University and the author of “Contemporary Youth Activism: Advancing Social Justice in the United States.”

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