Youth activism is having a moment.
In March 2018, more than a million people joined the student-led March For Our Lives to support stronger gun control legislation. A year later, millions of students once again walked out of schools all over the world to participate in the Global Climate Strike for the Future.
Richard West, lead instructor at the Pre-College Politics, Activism and Leadership Institute at Emerson College, calls the current generation of young people “a generation of engagement; a generation of activism.”
And West should know. Students from across the country are flocking to his two-week summer course, which teaches teens about grassroots organizing, public speaking, leadership ethics and more.
“The amount of inquiries I’ve had about this program has been the most I’ve ever seen in five years,” West said in 2018.
This is no surprise to Dr. Ken Sider, whose third-graders made headlines recently when their letter and petition convinced a textbook publisher to correct its reference to Columbus landing in America in 1492. But the longtime educator, who teaches at Valleyview Elementary in Oneonta, N.Y., is quick to point out that it is the students leading him, not the other way around.
For Dr. Sider, the drive to right wrongs is innate within children — but without guidance and support from adults, children may abandon that drive, he warned.
“I think there comes an age for young children when they realize that adults around them are going to discount their concerns and disregard their feelings about conflicts that they’re having,” Dr. Sider said, adding, “We squander children’s capacity for being engaged, for being citizens.”
Risks and rewards
Giving a voice to children may seem scary to some adults — including parents. A child who stands up for something is also standing out — something that can be uncomfortable for the parent as well as for the child.
“You’re vulnerable — you might get pushback,” Dr. Sider said.
But, Richard West noted, parents are often pleasantly surprised to see what their children are capable of.
“When the parents come to see students give their presentations, they’re looking at each other like, ‘This is my son?’ ‘This is my daughter?’,” West recalled, adding, “They never thought that their child’s passion could turn into something like this.”
And Dr. Sider finds supporting his students to be extremely rewarding.
“I revel in this,” Dr. Sider said. “It’s a wonderful experience to be part of.”
But supporting a cause can happen quietly too. Kelly Weatherbee and Thea MacFawn of the Teen Summer Symposium on Human Rights pointed out that there are plenty of ways for students to get involved without becoming a lightning rod for criticism — like letter-writing campaigns.
Weatherbee told the story of a student at Shaker High School who started a collection to give away books to students and their families.
“It started out very small,” Weatherbee recalled. “She asked people to bring in books, she reached out to the superintendent so he could help spread the world, she asked her mom to help her.”
But by the time the student graduated, Weatherbee said, that “small” effort had grown to about 6,000 books.
Guidance from grown-ups
Before his students begin any sort of campaign, the first thing Dr. Sider’s students do is research.
“I require that the students become experts in the field, and they take that seriously,” Dr. Sider said.
And while research can teach young people the facts, Richard West noted that they can also use help from adults to frame arguments in a thoughtful, politically savvy way.
“They are the social media generation — they’re used to expressing themselves,” West noted. “But a lot of people look at a teenager as having no credibility.”
Parents and other adults, West said, can help teenagers organize their passion, hone in on their approach, and see things from someone else’s point of view.
With that type of guidance, children are capable of doing much more than most adults might realize.
Activism as skill-building
Whether their effort is large or small, young change-makers have one thing in common: They are gaining valuable experiences that will serve them for a lifetime.
“They realize they can make a difference, and they’re also developing soft skills — how to have conversations with adults, how to present themselves, how to use their social media presence to make a difference,” Thea MacFawn explained.
Some of the other “soft skills” student activists can develop include team-building, active listening, collaboration, logic and debate.
And, Dr. Sider said, “Without knowing it, they lean on all the academic skills we work to provide them with in their early childhood education” — and gain confidence along the way.
When asked about project his class undertook to change their textbook, Dr. Sider’s student Ian MacLeod told his local newspaper, “I always knew that kids could do big things, but now I know that it’s officially true.”
That same confidence is something that Weatherbee and MacFawn see among the students who attend the multi-day Summer Symposium, held each year in the Capital Region.
“They understand that they can make a difference, and they feel empowered,” Weatherbee said.
And the skills students develop through activism and civic engagement don’t just benefit themselves — they can benefit society as a whole.
“We’re showing students how to have a civil conversation, how to understand where someone else is coming from and not just shut down because someone’s perspective is different than your own,” MacFawn said, adding, “Our democracy needs these skills, and I’m happy we can be a part of helping young people develop them.”
Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.