Too often, young people are considered suspicious for no reason other than their age. Instead of recognizing their creativity, excitement, energy, and skills, adults tend to underestimate children and teens. Young people have powerful voices, however, and throughout history have often taken the lead in making social change. Students have helped change school policies and legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. They have organized campaigns to call attention to important issues and to engage public support. They have joined and formed groups, led and followed.
In one type of youth activism, young people get involved in adult-led organizations or groups. This often occurs in issues related to educational reform and governmental reform, where young people can play an important role as supporters but cannot lead because of their age.
Some adult-led groups have youth branches, where teens or even children take the lead. For instance, the human rights monitor Amnesty International sponsors student groups for high school youth.
An increasingly common type of youth activism is entirely student created, organized, and led. These activities tend to occur at the local level.
The United States has a long history of youth activism, starting in the late 19th century when young people helped organize strikes to protest poor working conditions and low wages. In 1908, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones organized a march involving 100,000 child miners from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. In the 1920s and 1930s, the American Youth Congress was an active youth movement that submitted a “Bill of Youth Rights” to the U.S. Congress. It focused on economic exploitation of youth and on the draft. In the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, young people formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and many joined other civil rights movements to march, engage in sit-ins, and participate in other forms of nonviolent protest. In the 1960s and 1970s, students were at the forefront of the anti-war movement. In the later 1960s and 1970s, some young women joined the women’s liberation movement.
The Supreme Court has upheld youth activism as constitutional as long as it does not disrupt the educational climate. In its 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court held that students were using their constitutional right to free expression when they wore black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Today, young people are involved in many movements, including environmental, peace, animal rights, gay and lesbian rights, and more.
Many important educators have praised youth activism as an important part of learning. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, media critic Henry Giroux, historian Howard Zinn, and educators Alfie Kohn and Jonathan Kozol have all pointed out the value of allowing students a voice and a role in community and school affairs.
There are a number of activist-oriented organizations that young people can join; most have websites, so it is easy to find out how to get involved. The Freechild Project focuses on providing opportunities for youths and adults to collaborate. Based in Olympia, Washington, it serves as a clearinghouse for information, projects, training, funding, and more. The organization’s website (www.freechild.org) provides a wealth of information on creativity issues (i.e., censorship and music), economic issues, educational issues, identity issues, democracy issues, social issues, and rights issues. Under the “action” heading, it provides examples of various projects that have been launched. The “resources” heading provides links to many other articles, reports, and sites.
Do Something is another resource for young people who want to become involved in an ongoing community or school project or who want to start their own such project. On its website (www.dosomething.org), young people can learn more about issues ranging from animal welfare to war, peace, and politics. Children as young as seven can apply for small grants to start or expand community projects. The organization also encourages students to form “Do Something” clubs and provides tools for organizing. Youth Noise (www.youthnnoise.com) offers similar resources.
Even little children can get involved. Pennies for Peace is a campaign to help raise awareness and funds for schools across the world, in particular in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Children help by collecting pennies, and can host educational events to go with their fundraising efforts.
Another great website is www.whatkidscando.org. It features many resources as well as stories about youth activism that both inform and inspire.
- Do Something: www.dosomething.org
- Finley, L., & Stringer, E. (Eds.). (2010). Beyond “burning bras”: Feminist activism for everyone. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Free Child, www.freechild.org
- Halpin, M. (2004). It’s your world–if you don’t like it, change it: Activism for teenagers. New York: Simon Pulse.
- Jones, E., Haenfler, R., & Johnson, B. (2007). The better world handbook: Small changes that make a big difference. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
- Noguera, P., & Cammarota, J. (Eds.). (2006). Beyond resistance! Youth activism and community change. London: Routledge.
- Pennies for Peace, www.penniesforpeace.org
- What Kids Can Do, www.whatkidscando.org
- Youth Noise, www.youthnoise.com