Scarleteen Confidential: Supporting, and Understanding, Youth Activism
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To say we're living in tumultuous times is putting it mildly. If you live in the U.S., waking up in the morning brings the question of what new, disastrous, and cruel actions your government will attempt today. Globally, countries are seeing an increase in conservative extremism that's concerning to anyone with a good grasp of history and a desire to see their fellow humans treated with dignity and compassion.
There are, however, innumerable bright spots slicing through the bleakness. Protests and activism of all kinds are sprouting up to face what's happening and what's coming. Some, such as Black Lives Matter, are continuing a fight for justice that began years ago. And as we saw in last fall's elections in which multiple trans individuals and people of color won political positions (often by beating out vocally bigoted opponents), activism can have concrete consequences.
Young people are a core part of this resistance and often the driving force behind it. They're organizing, marching, protesting, petitioning, and writing to fight for what they believe in. Their bodies and faces are present at capital buildings, campuses, airports, and in the streets, raising their voices to reject fascism and fear and call instead for justice and love.
As these examples from throughout history demonstrate, adults have always had opinions about what young people are doing. Lots of opinions. For the sake of this article, we'll divide those opinions into three categories.
- First are the adults who are active activists themselves and are darn proud to see young people carrying on the tradition of resistance.
- Next are the adults who want to support the activism of the young people in their lives, but aren't sure how to do so and/or have some concerns about the well-being and safety of those young people. These adults may not quite grasp where the drive towards activism is coming from, but are willing to learn.
- Finally, there are adults who think young people might be complaining a bit too much and that the current political and social situations are "just the way things are."
I want to address the "young people are overreacting" group first. I understand it may feel as though young people are constantly protesting one thing or another. That much, if not all, of what they're protesting seems silly, overstated, or made-up to you. Maybe you can't figure out why they care about trans people being able to use a certain bathroom. Or why they're angry about how there are so few people of color represented in the media. Or why they're demanding that people resign over sexual harassment that seems mild to you.
Here's the truth: the reason young people appear to be protesting everything is there is a lot of messed up stuff in the world. Climate change, LGBTQ victimization, an uptick in global fascism, and a host of other terrible, gut-wrenchingly awful events. Messed up situations are never changed by the oppressed waiting quietly for oppressors give them more freedom. There's a reason we remember the Freedom Riders, the Stonewall Riots, the Suffragettes. Why in twenty years we'll remember Black Lives Matter. They were, and are, movements of protest that sparked greater social change by demanding it, rather than waiting for it.
Most people's teenage and young adult years are when their social consciousness kicks into overdrive. They're maturing, becoming more independent, and starting to explore the world outside of their homes and schools. As that happens, they view or experience moments of discrimination or oppression and may feel as though they are finally old enough to do something about those moments. The injustices of the world start coming into focus for them, and their ability to articulate how messed up those injustices are is increasing. They're noticing all the ways that oppression and bias harm them and the people they care about. Speaking out against injustice gives young people the ability to make their voices heard on issues that affect them. That is something to be celebrated!
How to Move from Unsure to Supportive
What if you're just a little nervous about youth protest, and you're worried about the safety of young people on the front lines? Take some time to reflect on where your feelings are coming from. Maybe you don't feel informed enough on an issue to know if you agree with those who are protesting. Maybe you don't believe a given form of protest is effective. If that's the case, read up on the issue in question and on the history of different activist movements. The suggestions in the sidebar are a great place to get started, and reading them can give you context for why young people are resisting and why they've chosen the methods that they have for that resistance. While you still may not agree with them, you'll at least be able to understand where they're coming from.
It may be that you're already supportive of the young activists in your life, but you've got no clue about how to express that support. Maybe a young person in your life wants to make the world a better place but is unsure where to start. Talk with them about the things that matter to them and why. What issues are they passionate about? What laws or policies affect them and those they love? What are their thoughts on different political events? Where do they see themselves as able to make a difference? Listen to them as they talk and give them space to share what's going on inside their minds and hearts.
Once they've come up with causes that matter to them, the old adage "think global, act local" comes into play. It's tempting to make a plan where you will single-handedly solve a national issue, but that often requires time and resources that few people have (at least at the beginning of their activism). The average person has more ability to change the institutions, laws, and climate of their local region. Look for local organizations in need of some help, or nearby chapters of larger organizations. Alternatively, they can look at laws or policies in their town to see if there is anything they think needs changing that they could organize a campaign around. Advocates for Youth created a guide to help young people (and supportive adults) through the process of deciding how to address a social issue that matters to them.
Practical Matters When Protesting
If a youth in your life is interested in or planning on protesting, it's beneficial to sit with them and discuss risks and benefits. Depending on the type of protest, there may be risks of arrest, physical harm, or social repercussions. Some or all of those outcomes could be more than they are prepared to deal with right now. Those outcomes have the potential to be more or less harmful depending on identity. People of color and the trans community may avoid protests in which police conflict is likely because of a very poor record when it comes to law enforcement interactions, for example. Other people may have health issues that would be exacerbated by an arrest or counter-protest measures like pepper spray, and thus opt out of attending protests where those methods might be used.
We include steps to protesting safely in our Rebel Well guide, and Colorlines has an excellent piece on what to do if you're arrested, but some questions for you and a young person to talk about include:
- If something bad happens, be that arrest or injury, who is their emergency contact?
- What is the demographic make-up of the groups protesting? Is the protest led by a group like Black Lives Matter, which tends to attract more police attention than a protest led by white people?
- If they were to be arrested, is there someone in a position to post their bail? Bail can run from a few hundred dollars to a thousand and some families or individuals simply do not have the resources needed to cover that cost.
- Do they know what to do if confronted by law enforcement?
- Do they have a safe method of getting to and from the protest?
- Who is going with them? It's advisable that you don't go to a protest alone, especially if you're a minor.
- If the situation at the protest escalates to a level they're uncomfortable with, do they know how to get to safety?
I'd like to say that, as long as you do not engage in anything violent or illegal, there's no risk of being arrested or facing police violence. However, we know that's not always true. Whether it's peaceful indigenous water protectors being hit with fire hoses and rubber bullets or, several years ago, students at my university being pepper-sprayed for sitting in a circle, "official" responses do not always match the actual threat level. Any time there are both protesters and police present, there is a risk.
I also have to mention that protest may be met with violence from those you're protesting against. While standing up to a gathering of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville in Summer 2017, protesters were attacked. One white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of them, killing one person and injuring others. If you're protesting a group with a history of violence, the horrible reality is that they can direct that violence towards you. Whether you choose to put yourself in the path of that violence is a decision we each have to make individually. The young person in your life may decide that they're willing to risk it. I don't want to downplay the fear and worry that can cause for all the adults who love that young person. But if a young adult has weighed the risks of protesting and is ready to face them, then you need to honor that choice. If they are minors, you can refuse to consent to them attending the event (at least in the U.S). However, even if you do that, there's a chance that will choose to go anyway. This means that it's better to have an open, honest conversation about safety and other important aspects of protesting so they feel like they have someone to come to for help, rather than like they need to go behind your back.
Marches and demonstrations aren't the only way to be politically active. There are dozens of other ways for youth to get involved in causes they believe in. You can encourage them to explore those options and, if they're open to it, even brainstorm different approaches with them. Some possibilities include:
- Creating Art: Stories, music, photography, and all sorts of creative endeavors are, and have been, tools of resistance. They also give young people a way to channel and transform whatever rough feelings they have about world events into something new and beautiful.
- Fundraising: From the classic bake sale to the athletic fun run, there are plenty of ways for young people to raise money. Fundraising can also double as community education, as it helps people in the community learn about a certain issue.
- Volunteering: Most organizations that work to mitigate or change the injustices of this world rely heavily on volunteers. Not only does volunteering give young people the chance to contribute, it also provides a space where they can learn skills like community organizing that will be useful to them throughout their life.
- Politics: If someone is a young adult, they can look for ways to get involved in local politics, including running for office. If they're too young to run, they can still research candidates to find ones that align with their beliefs and values and see if there are opportunities to help them campaign. They could also look into student government opportunities at their school for a chance to have a say in the climate of a place where they spend a lot of their time.
You can also support youth activism in subtler ways. Parents who have the means will sometimes donate to causes and organizations close to a young person's heart. Some make it a point to talk with the youth in their lives and ask their opinions about global events as a way of encouraging their civic engagement and critical thinking. Others find that allowing young people space to voice their concerns and resistance in everyday situations helps their social consciousness grow. For example, if a young person wants to advocate for a policy change at their school, ask if and how they want your support. This shows them that you believe they can, and should, try to make positive changes to the world around them.
If you're an adult with an activism history of your own, you can offer the young people in your life the chance to talk with you about your experiences. This is helpful in part because the tools and strategies of successful activism need to be passed down from generation to generation. It's also beneficial for young activists to see older folks who are still fighting for what they believe in. Young people encounter a strong narrative of "you'll get over this once you're older and start paying taxes/have kids/see how the world really is." Seeing adults who've continued to believe in the power of everyday people to change the world, and who continue to fight against injustice, provides a welcome and inspiring counterpoint to that narrative.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is make a genuine, good faith effort to understand where the youth in your life are coming from. You may not always agree with each other, and you may not always fully understand their motives or feelings. But if you treat young people as if their feelings about world events are valid rather than dismiss them as foolish or ill-informed, you signal to them that you really are an ally in their fight to change the world.
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