The influence of the youth in activist movements is not a novel phenomenon. Movements in the United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, and many other countries have seen youth at the forefront of their individual struggles for democracy. What is new about this phenomenon is the global perspective of the youth of today, paired with their abilities to spread information rapidly and prolifically. As written in the study Digital Activism Decoded by Mary C. Joyce, “Digital communication tools provide us with a wealth of new opportunities for mobilizing our resources and turning them into power” Young people today are more united than previous generations and are beginning to recognize that cyclical patterns of inequality must be combatted at home, and also abroad. Young people are no longer defined by borders, and neither are their calls for change.
On October 6th-7th the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins hosted a “Cultivating Youth Activism” conference. The conference was centered around international collaboration and expanding conversations to fit into a broader more interconnected view of the world. I was able to ask the panelists on the panel “The Imperative for Racial and Economic Justice” the following question, “Would you be able to speak about the connections between racism and discrimination and overall quality of democracy?” This question and its centrality to the phenomenon of democratic erosion is indisputable. Professor Alcinda Honwana (Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, Mozambique) responded by highlighting the effect that a globalized new generation is having and she asserted that there has been a mushrooming of sorts of the number of youth movements in the world over the last 2 decades. Additionally, she suggested that an important idea to consider is, “Democracy as a system is meant to listen to people, but who are we listening to?” Youth across the world have ideas to be heard if only we make space to hear them.
The perceived apathy of youth globally was also addressed by many in the conference with the following themes being discussed. One of the main observations was that youth movements tend to organize horizontally around a central goal instead of around a leader. This wave of horizontalism works for youths who can have agency within a movement, but also makes these movements hard to measure, or even hard to recognize, because there are often many sub-groups within an overarching movement. This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated within the Thailand youth protests where the movement is typically described as leaderless in nature. Dr. Aim Sinpeng from the University of Sydney said that the protests in Thailand have learned from the protests in Hong Kong “where these groups represent free individuals that come together rather than being anchored down by particular organizations or political parties.” This decentralized structure in youth movements can be an asset but also can create issues when trying to clarify a single message or goal. Disparate tendencies within a wide movement is also an issue observed within the Black Lives Matter movement. There was a division between strictly nonviolent groups and groups more willing to use whatever means they deemed appropriate. This created an avenue for critics of the movement to question its effectiveness as a whole.
Contemporary youth movements are even more interconnected than those of the past through the usage of online platforms. For instance, on June 4th, 2020 six young women ages 14-16 were able to found a movement titled Teens for Equality under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter, and in just five days they “were leading a march of protesters some 10,000 strong, according to police estimates.” What is important to examine from a political science perspective is how there is a rich history of youth activism to be drawn upon, and while youth activism may be horizontally oriented, it has also often been highly effective in creating change. This change would not have been possible however without the widespread network available for youth activists to access online.
Most relevant to the Democratic Erosion Consortium was the panel titled “Is Democracy at Risk?” with experts including Janjira Sombatspoonsiri (Thammasat University, Thailand), Mohamed Abubakr (African Middle Eastern Project, Sudan), Yascha Mounk (SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins, USA) and Larry Diamond (Stanford University, USA). Considering the horizontal structure of youth movements, political scientists and scholars can “ illuminate the politics of youth activism by exploring how youth have been politically active historically while also wrestling with possibilities and challenges for working on the side of justice”(Conra D. Gist). Essentially, there needs to be a policy focused arm of any political movement and horizontal structure still requires centralized action. It is vital for any social movement to reach out to individuals involved in public policy who can provide support and define policy goals out of rallying cries in a more concrete way. When movements do not define policy, sometimes their own ideas can be used against them, which occurred with the BLM slogan “Defund the police” when the slogan represents so much more than just funding reallocations. Historically, defining policy can signal a tipping point of sorts where a movement either comes together or falls apart due to varying ideas and potential directions. While social connectivity enables a rapid response, it is important for youth activists to define more than demands for change, but take their ideas to create a plan for policy.
The driving force between youth movements is a shared concern for the future. For instance, Micaela Iron Shell-Dominguez referenced this with respect to the Standing Rock Protests: “Youth are tired of thinking that they don’t have a future… It’s one thing that you take away our land—now you’re going to come on our land, build a pipeline, and destroy our water.” Questions such as, “who are we listening to? Who has the power? Who speaks for whom? And most importantly, How are we going to get there?” point to the crux of the problem this conference tackled. If the youth, by definition, are the ones with the most at stake in the future of the world, why are they consistently the ones fighting for their right to a voice? To these questions, there is no one solution, but that is precisely why the conference was so important. It in and of itself was a global network of youth and professionals sharing their experiences and adapting to crisis while facing political and social barriers that appear seemingly unconquerable. The very organization of a remote conference such as this underscores the ways in which this generation is able to come together in the face of challenges and are more capable than ever of sharing their stories and learning from others on a global scale. As we begin to think of the future, these evolving communications signal the possibility that perhaps some of the world’s most daunting issues can be tackled, not only by individuals, but by interconnected youth globally.
Conra D. Gist. (2016). Afterword: Reimagining the Racial Project of Black Youth Activism. Black History Bulletin, 79(1), 33-34. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/blachistbull.79.1.0033
Joyce, M. (2010). Digital activism decoded. [electronic resource] : the new mechanics of change. International Debate Education Association.
Renkl, M. (2020, June 15). These Kids Are Done Waiting for Change. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/opinion/nashville-teens-protests.html?action=click
Sitrin, M. (2019, October 10). Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/horizontalism-and-the-occupy-movements
Yang, P. (2018, March 23). Youth in Revolt: Five Powerful Movements Fueled by Young Activists. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/youth-activism-young-protesters-historic-movements/
Zaveri, M. (2020, June 23). ‘I Need People to Hear My Voice’: Teens Protest Racism. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/us/teens-protest-black-lives-matter.html