Over the past few months, this country has witnessed a powerful movement of young organizers. Many were impelled by the murder of George Floyd and impelled to take their fight for racial justice to the streets. Others have been working on these types of issues for years through Youth Organizing (YO) programs that engage young people in developing campaigns, taking action, engaging in politics, and advocating for change. Such groups continuously build a robust and vibrant base of young people who work on local community issues as well as tackling larger social and political structures that perpetuate inequity. And when injustice occurs, they are often the first responders.
Young people have long been impressive catalysts for change. They led during the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, the Arab Spring, and have taken numerous other actions for social justice. Young organizers have always pushed society’s boundaries, helping us all stretch and grow–promoting social, culture, and political development. But what is the impact on young people themselves? If you have spent any time with a young organizer, it is hard to ignore the profound changes and growth that they experience as they become critically conscious and evolve into influential leaders and agents of change.
Findings from Transforming Positive Youth Development: A Case for Youth Organizing, a new study conducted by Hello Insight and the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing, show that young people who are engaged in organizing grow both socially and emotionally. In particular, they develop a deep sense of contribution and a desire to give back to their communities and society. Indeed, this sensibility is cultivated significantly more within youth organizing groups than any other type of out-of-school time program. In addition, young organizers develop greater critical consciousness–the ability to analyze social conditions and act to create change.
What is so unique about youth organizing programs, and why do they make such an impact on young people? This study shows that young organizers experience far more high-quality positive youth development (PYD) experiences than their peers in more traditional programs. It turns out that YO groups intuitively use a PYD approach. They also go a step further to assure that young people’s stories, identities, and experiences remain centered in their program activities. Specifically, our analysis shows that young organizers experience:
- Strong relationships with adults who place their interests and experiences at the center of the work, paying specific attention to culture, race, gender, age, and class, as well as the broader community and political context
- Adult allies that address power differentials and ageism directly, assuring that young people have opportunities to authentically amplify their voices
- Opportunities to learn about and work alongside peers and adults from different backgrounds with a wide variety of perspectives
- Working on real-world campaigns and actions that matter to them and make a difference in their lives
As we all move forward during this racial reckoning, it seems there is much to learn from youth organizing programs. Examples from this report shed light on how to have more courageous conversations that engage directly with young people about their experiences at this moment. We hope it encourages our members to work alongside young people to address the larger sociopolitical context that they live in, one that is fraught with injustice and inequity that affects their lives.