Young people have played decisive roles in nearly every major social movement. Similar to previous generations, many teenage activists operate with autonomy. Their sense of urgency and distrust of being co-opted even by potential allies persists. This independence can build crucial solidarity that can exert unique power.
Clues of Change
While many youth stick to mobilizing exclusively with their peers, a significant segment of Gen Zers opt to collaborate with adults. Here are a few possible explanations for this new trend.
- Teens who have participated for several years with “entirely youth-led campaigns” decide to see if they can achieve more by teaming up with adult-run organizations and coalitions.
- Camaraderie can blossom naturally because frontline and mid-level staff, who also became civically active as teens, remember being ignored, tokenized or controlled by older folks and are ready to stop this cycle.
- Nonprofits and government agencies operate youth advisory councils, internships and one-off projects that introduce teens to these organizations, however, these engagement programs keep teens on the sidelines that contrast with the Youth Infusion process.
I have been immersed in youth-led activism for decades and surprised that the term “intergenerational” seems to be gaining traction. Will this approach replace “youth-driven adult-supported” programs or “youth-adult partnerships” which typically preserve traditional hierarchies? Will this paradigm shift become the new norm in another decade when Millennials and Gen Zers take over from the old guard?
Evidence of Change
Two important reports reveal this trend.
The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) published its 20-year national scan based on data provided by community-based organizations in every region of the country.
- “Intergenerational” is the description of a whopping 70 percent of organizations in this survey of over 300 groups.
- Younger youth are increasingly active: a doubling of those between the ages of 11-13 since 2013 which means a growing pool of potential collaborators.
- Intentional outreach by youth to build alliances with older generations. In the words of one immigrant rights activist:
Young people that were doing their own thing and then realized, wait a minute, we don’t want our parents or other family members who aren’t DREAM Act eligible not to be organizing with us. They were working with adults or even younger, bright young people who weren’t DREAM Act eligible either. But they were doing multigenerational organizing.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) assessment of six community-based grantees described as “intergenerational partnerships” focuses on significant adult attitude adjustments, including:
- Rethink age binaries and one suggestion – drop the label “youth” altogether;
- Redefine “adult allyship” that reflects adults’ individual assessment of their ability to listen to, respect and support young people – regardless of the participants’ own age;
- Build rapport through informal exchanges with youth outside of meetings even though these interactions may feel “unprofessional” to adults; and
- Recognize that knowledge transfer is mutual and evaluate both youth and adult civic learning.
Intergenerational interdependence is in its early stage of development. It is a complex process because it hinges so much on relationships. Instead of asking youth to conform to established modes of operation and prevailing practices, staff must be genuinely curious and actually reliant on perspectives of those not represented or misrepresented. If youth know their role is not to be cheerleaders or clones but co-designers and yes, even critics, serious collaboration can actually make history.
20 Years of Youth Power: The 2020 National Field Scan by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing
Working and Learning Together for Equitable Impact: An Impact
Assessment of Intergenerational Civic Partnerships in The Civic Spring
Project by Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
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