Youth and Positive Social Change
“That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives.”
From “Ella’s Song,” by Bernice Reagan Johnson (a tribute to Ella Baker)
Over seven years ago I decided that I needed to change my life and focus much more of my time and energies on the mega-issue of the climate crisis. At the time, there wasn’t much of a youth climate movement. My decision to change my life had nothing to do with a response to such a thing, because it didn’t yet exist.
But it turns out that growing numbers of young people were making the same decision I was around the same time. The Energy Action Coalition, which has organized three national “Power Shift” conferences since 2007 bringing together 6,000, 12,000 and 10,000 participants, formed in 2004, and the youth (and Bill McKibben)-led Step It Up/350.org network began to come together in 2006.
I can think of only one other current social movement in the USA that has had a significant youth involvement, the immigrant rights movement. I am not informed enough about it, however, to be able to say if young people are playing a significant leadership role.
Within the climate movement they are.
Much of the adult-led climate movement, particularly mainstream environmental groups that tend to work closely with the national Democratic Party, has been very much in a holding pattern, at best, for the past year. This reality began to emerge in July of 2010 when Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic leadership decided not to bring climate legislation to the floor of the Senate. The November election results significantly deepened this mood of pessimism and angst.
But the youth leadership of the Energy Action Coalition refused to go along. Despite the odds seemingly against them, they issued a public call in late January for a 10,000-person strong, third Power Shift national conference, and they pulled it off! They were not alone; there were “adult-led” climate and environmental groups who supported and worked with them, for sure, but without question the positive jolt to the climate movement provided by Power Shift 2011 was the responsibility of the young people part of EAC who made it happen.
And the repercussions from this willingness to take on a big challenge, to risk failure, are continuing to reverberate. I don’t think it’s an accident that Al Gore wrote his just-published, strong article in Rolling Stone magazine right after he spoke, and was clearly inspired, at Power Shift. Religious activists are currently engaged in serious discussion and planning for a major interfaith climate action this fall, and the first discussions about this idea began literally the day after Power Shift ended. There’s little question that the highly successful, youth-led and predominantly youth participated-in action, Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain, was strengthened and stimulated by Power Shift. And I wonder if the exciting, important, day-after-day-for-weeks, “no tar sands!’ civil disobedience actions in D.C. called for mid-August just this week by Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Naomi Klein, Danny Glover, James Hansen and others would be happening if not for the success of Power Shift 2011.
What is it that young people bring to a cause that can transform that cause into a mass movement?
One thing is energy. It is a fact of life that most people, as they grow older, as they develop family and job responsibilities and the aches and pains of aging, no longer have either the passion or the time to devote to causes they believe in that they did in their younger years.
Another is an unwillingness to compromise, or to do so readily. Moral outrage has not been worn down by a corrupt and unjust system, or by too much interaction with people in positions of power who are either ineffective or power-hungry in the way they go about their lives. There is more faith in the possibilities of human beings to do right and to be just and good people.
As Albert Einstein said in 1937, “I am firmly convinced that the passionate will for justice and truth has done more to improve (the human condition) than calculating political shrewdness which in the long run only breeds general mistrust.”
And young people who are activists generally build upon the experiences of their activist fathers and mothers, of the social movements which preceded them. For many activist youth of today, based upon what I have experienced, this means a much more collective and cooperative culture, fewer ego-driven leaders, less internal b.s. that drains energy and sets back organizing. This is a huge, immensely positive development.
Those of us who are no longer young, age-wise, will find our spirits revitalized if we learn how to work with young people in a respectful and non-patronizing way. We can share our experiences without trying to impose them or use them to try to assert a claim to leadership. We can learn from one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century, Ella Baker, whose work as a founder, mentor, friend and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee stands as example number one for effective intergenerational collaboration.
Let Ella Baker’s spirit and life lessons spread throughout our movements as we struggle for an urgently-needed new way of living, a new system, a new world.