The Applied Research Center, publisher of Colorlines.com, just released a new study entitled “Millennials, Activism, and Race” as a response to a previous study called “Don’t Call Them ‘Post-Racial,’” which aimed to disprove the notion that, since Barack Obama was elected President, race is no longer a barrier to success.
This most recent report intended to give us more information about what drives 18-30 year olds toward work in progressive politics or social justice. The study was conducted through nine focus groups in five cities and is one of the earliest studies to include members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The goal of the study was to find out what makes young activists tick: “why they engage, what they see as barriers to an ideal society and opinions on whether an explicit racial justice lens is essential.” Colorlines reported some of the highlights of the study, and a fascinating disparity between Occupy protesters and other social justice workers:
Politically active, young progressives most often find themselves in the work as a result of family influences. They arenít having grand epiphanies at lectures by prominent people or even recruited heavily by their friends. Their understanding and commitments come from observing or experiencing daily struggle.
People active in Occupy and those active in community organizations are similarly disenchanted with the electoral system. Their frustration was less about the Obama administration than it was about the dysfunctionality of the electoral and legislative systems generally.
All our participants named a dominant doctrine of individualism as a critical barrier to progressive change, but people involved with Occupy had a more explicit critique of capitalism as a system than those involved in other organizations.
Most respondents felt the need to address the racial dimensions of inequality, but they both wanted to include other systems in that analysis, and had few tools with which to bring in race with any combination of other systems like class, gender and sexuality.
As a young activist on the tail-end of the age group studied, I find this report particularly interesting. I, myself, came to activism very slowly. I was always aware of inequalities in the way the world worked, mostly because my mom was very progressive and helped me to shape the way I saw the world, but it wasn’t until I connected with several activist writers online that I began to have any kind of language or tools to explore those inequalities.
Once I was equipped with the language, the lens through which I viewed these inequities — namely feminism — became much stronger. Now, I have to work at not being “that girl” who points out gender inequalities at every social occasion she attends. But, like the participants in this study, I did not have an epiphany that led me to activism; rather, I found I could make a difference within my writing and teaching and started trying to do so.
I was extremely happy to see that the participants of the study not only believed that discussions of race are “key to the success of social movements,” but also that they saw race in conjunction with other lenses such as gender, class, and sexuality. This sort of intersectionality is critical in social activism.
The feminist movement has long been seen as a movement solely for white, middle-class women, for example, so being able to discuss issues of oppression that intersect with feminism — such as race, class, or sexuality — brings more perspectives to the table and helps activists bridge the gap between themselves.
As a teacher, I also found the recommendations for activists who want to work with young people very interesting, mostly because I try to do many of these things in my class. They recommend that we allow young people, especially people of color, to tell their stories. They also want activists to give young people the tools and language they need to start their own activism, as well as encourage students to talk about the forms of oppression they experience.
Furthermore, they encourage introducing young activists to unlikely partners to build many different relationships. This is valuable advice for any activist working with the next generation. If we are to continue fighting the good fight, we’ll need help from those younger than us, and giving them the tools they need early on is essential.
Photo Credit: PaulSteinJC