Young People and Activism

Young people in movement circles are often met with a great deal of admiration and

little to no respect. Impressed as they are by kids’ very presence at activist events

and meetings, given the preoccupations and pressures of modern youth; adults rarely

acknowledge the contribution of young activists beyond the sense of "diversity"

the latter bring to the circle. But it’s critical that adult activists recognize more

than just the age of kids becoming involved with social movements (or developing their own

for youth liberation). Adults must also acknowledge the significant, relatively unique

impediments to becoming activists/organizers faced by young people, found both within the

movement and without. Further, adults must take active care to ensure the process of fully

participating in movement activity becomes as accessible as possible to people of all

ages, especially kids.

Now, I realize there is an apparent dichotomy — between adult and child — in the way

I am presenting my concerns. However, the fact is we know how we as individuals identify,

how we identify others, and to what degree we look upon ourselves and those around us as

"adults" vs. "children." And while there may be no one in movement

circles who can be said to be purely "child" by social definitions (as opposed

to bio-chronological definitions), it is true that most younger activists, at least those

in their teens, live under different conditions than older activists.

Let’s briefly review some of these circumstances. First and foremost, people

deemed "minors" in our society are bound as property to their parents or legal

guardians by laws reminiscent of those which used to govern slaves and women as property

of their masters and husbands. That means what mom and dad say goes; and mom and dad

typically insist on more typical forms of extracurricular activity than progressive, not

to mention radical, activism.

And speaking of curriculum, we’re all aware of the critique of the modern school

and how it goes about "educating" North American youth; but what about the

complusory nature of education itself? Kids are forced to attend school and complete

ridiculous assignments, often rendering them no more available for organizing than people

with full time jobs. Add family and other personal obligations to daily life as a young

person, and the inhibitions are obvious.

Despite all of this, many more young people are becoming involved in activism, driven

by a repulsion toward the society they see around them; a disgust which overpowers the

factors that might otherwise prevent them from interest in movement activity.

It’s sad that we have to credit the repugnant ills of society, rather than the

remarkable accessibility of the Left (ahem), with turning kids on to social activism. But

let us face it: the Left is decidedly inaccessible, not only to people from various class

and racial backgrounds, but to people of the younger generation. Our tactics have become

bland and stale, our propaganda old and tired, our energy stagnant, dwindling. How many

Left publications cater explicitly to both young people and adults in a serious manner?

Can you name any? How many activist meetings (and this is especially true of Canada for

some reason) wind up yielding a trip to the local pub for further socializing over "a

few beers" (not to mention meetings which actually take place in bars!)? Why is it

that fund-raising events held in bars are widely accepted when other exclusive venues such

as country clubs would be rejected without discussion?

Nearly all of the young people I’ve worked with in activist settings, when asked, have

reported being condescended to, spoken over and ignored by adults at meetings. And it’s

common for them to point out that the very adults who believe young people have much to

learn from their elders’ experience shrug kids off, waiting for the latter to prove

themselves or discover wisdom "the hard way" — a mixed message to say the


Beyond this, most kids don’t even get so so much as a taste of the Left and decide

for themselves the value of getting involved. While colleges are still fertile ground for

leftist agitation, high schools have been isolated and discounted by most progressive


So too have youth activist organizations been largely alienated by adult organizers. I

can no longer count how many complaints I’ve heard from older activists about how

"kids are only involved in animal rights," incidentally the only social movement

not totally dominated (rather decried or ignored!) by adult activists. Chastizing animal

rights has ensured alienation between the broad Left and the movement with perhaps the

highest influx of young activists. Far from immune to traditional intergenerational

misunderstanding, the Left has fallen into the role of disrespecting youth, in large part

by ignoring young people’s oppressions or subordinating their concerns to those of

other oppressed groups like women, people of color, queers and so forth.

Ageism does exist. It is a real oppression, whether the Left admits so or not, but the

speed with which it is still regularly dismissed by adult activists is to be expected.

Indeed, there was a time when the bulk of the Left looked at sexism as a trifle not to be

concerned with, at least until "after the revolution." The rationalizations were

many, as are those of ageism. "Ageism isn’t a real oppression, they’ll grow

out of it." I’ve heard that dozens of times from otherwise respectable leaders.

The notion that one can "grow out of" an oppression is remarkably irrational –

it implies that ageing equals liberation. Does that mean women’s liberation is a

process of time instead of personal change and collective agitation?

Just as women throughout this century have not allowed patriarchal critics to

discourage them from seeking forms of authentic freedom, young people have formed a

movement for youth liberation, resisting some of the most tyranical anti-youth laws and

policies (remember, children are the only class in society against which it is everywhere

legal — indeed, hardly even controversial — to discriminate against).

Further, kids are organizing autonomously for empowerment, feeling turned away or

squashed by existing "multigenerational" groups and causes. I’ve actually found

it stunning that among those who consider themselves "youth liberation

activists," there are very few who only focus on age oppressions, nearly all opting

for a more holistic approach to struggle. No other movement can claim such diversity of


So what should adult activists do to incorporate young people’s interests and needs

into organizing? The most important factor will be letting kids set a significant portion

of the agenda, giving them creative control, not stifling their energy. All too often the

spontaneous commitments of young activists are thwarted by older folks stuck in customary

ways. Demonstrations and even direct actions have suffered from adult dominance; it’s not

surprising that the most innovative and exciting actions these days are those orchestrated

and carried out by young people.

It remains true, as ever, that adults have plenty of experience to offer their younger

activist counterparts. It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that what is usually offered

is dogma, traditional methodology, unilateral conversation, tokenizing, and worse. When we

think of social change, we should reflect on the subjective meaning of that term — that

is, we should acknowledge that we and our organizations and movements must themslves

change, not just the world around us. Change requires new influences on a regular basis,

and that requires young people. Kids aren’t going to get involved in activism with adults

on any wide scale until those adults make some radical changes in how they treat young




Brian Dominick, a community organizer and freelance journalist living in Syracuse, NY,

has been involved in the youth liberation movement for 5 years. His homepage is at


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