Youth activism

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Child and youth activists protesting at a demonstration in Hong Kong

Youth activism is youth engagement in community organizing for social change. Youth participation in social change focuses more on issue-oriented activism than traditional partisan or electoral politics.[1] Youth have taken lead roles in public protests and advocacy around anti-war activism,[2] anti-crime and government corruption,[3] pro-sexual education, anti-government censorship, expanded educational access, and public transportation access. Technology and the use of digital media has changed the way youth participate in activism globally, and youth are more active in media than older generations.[4]


Young people are often underrepresented in politics because adults dominate the discourse. However, many youth are concerned and informed citizens who can advocate for change within their communities.[5] Youth is an elastic category, the age at which it begins and ends varies within cultural contexts, but it is often a very distinct stage in a person's life to which particular issues or policies are highly relevant. These may include politics, health, and social issues.[6]

Sociopolitical development is a "psychological process that covers the range of cognitions, skills, attitudes, worldviews, and emotions that support social and political action" (Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999).[7] The process of SPD was further defined by Watts & Flannagan "to impact young people’s social analysis, worldview and sense of agency and to provide them opportunity structures and support towards their societal involvement behavior (2007)."[8]

Social activism is the predominant form of youth activism today, as millions of young people around the world participate in social activism that is organized, informed, led, and assessed by adults. Many efforts, including education reform, children's rights, and government reform call on youth to participate this way, often called youth voice. Youth councils are an example of this.[9]

Youth-driven activism requires young people to be the primary movers within an adult-led movement. Such is the case with the Sierra Club, where youth compel their peers to join and become active in the environmental movement. This is also true of many organizations that were founded by youth who became adults, such as SEAC and National Youth Rights Association.[citation needed]

Political activism by youth can go unnoticed because youth activism often occurs on school grounds and away from the adult society, but youth often face resistance when forming youth activist groups in schools.[10] As the central beneficiaries of public schools, youth are also advocating for student-led school change and education reform through student activism and meaningful student involvement.[11] There are structural inequalities that keep youth from engaging in political talk and action on school grounds or the public domain. School clubs require an adult adviser to make the club official, further adding to school hierarchies of adult power.[10] While some youth participate in student government, others prefer student unions because they provide a real voice to the students and present it to the administration while student governments do not have the power to effect real change in a school system.[10]


Social media[edit]

Facebook has become a tool for youth activists to gather information, post broadcasts about events and activities, participate in activists' groups, and get in contact with other activists.

Twitter is another tool. Although it is used to provide links to activism topics and activities, it is not regarded to be as useful because of the limitation of 140 characters per message.[12] Twitter has also been used to spread awareness of social issues by using hashtags. Some of these movements included Kony 2012 and Trayvon Martin.[13]

Video blogging[edit]

Video blogging may be used by youth activists as a tool to reach out to their peers and audience, gather support, establish a discourse, and mobilize others. Young activists use videos to articulate ideas and needs, organize resources and supporters, and work toward achieving the goals and causes of their supporters.[14]

Video blogs are usually found through linking in social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as on YouTube.


Independent Media Center, also known as Indymedia, is a recent development that has helped involve youth into social movement activism. It has also led to the recognition of youth as political actors in the public domain.[10]

Global youth activism[edit]

Youth activism in the Global South increased in the first years of the 2010s.[15] People under the age of 18 comprise 46% of the global population, and these youth played a crucial role around the world during the first two decades of the twenty-first century.[16]


South Africa[edit]

A classic example of youth engagement in political activism is the Soweto riots. When teachers started instructing in Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors, children took the streets for a peaceful demonstration. The police reaction was brutal and on June 16, 1976, at least 25 people were killed. The violence continued and spread all across the country. By the end of the year, 575 people had died and 2,389 had been wounded.[5]

A contemporary challenge for South African youth is the AIDS pandemic. Around 60% of adults who contract HIV become infected before they turn 25, meaning youth are particularly endangered. To advocate and protest about HIV/AIDS, South African youth known as "urban warriors" have created social movements that use youth culture, media, and peer-to-peer campaigns to advocate about HIV/AIDS.[17]


In Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Federation of Students leads the social umbrella movement against the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) of 31 August.


In India, youth born in the 1980s and 1990s comprise part of a middle class increasingly vocal against impunity for rapists and against government corruption.[18]

The Assam Movement (or Assam Agitation) (1979-1985) was a popular movement against illegal immigrants in Assam. The movement, led by All Assam Students Union(AASU) and the 'All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad' (AAGSP), developed a program of protests and demonstration to compel the Indian government to identify and expel illegal, (mostly Bangladeshis), immigrants and protect and provide constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the indigenous Assamese people.[19][20][21][22][23]

On 16 January 2017 a large group of students (more than 20 lakhs) protested in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry for the ban on Jallikattu. The ban was made by Supreme court of India in 2014 when PETA filed a petition against Jallikattu as a cruelty to animals.

Young India Foundation has been working on a campaign to decrease the age of candidacy in India of MPs/MLAs from 25 to better reflect the large young demographic of India called India's Age of Candidacy[24]


Youth activism in Indonesia takes many different forms and include a number of mass protests to overthrow governments and remove colonial powers in the past. Popular motivations of youth activism in Indonesia are indigenous rights and national unity, pro-communism, anticommunism, pro-democracy and militant Islam. A common form of activism is massa, a cavalcade of motorcycles, trucks, music, and many young people on foot. These cavalcades are mostly males and end with a rally to address a certain political issue. In general, youth have been looking for political change during the last four decades.[17]


Video blogging has become increasing popular in Malaysia. Youth activists upload their videos and independent films to the popular site EngageMedia. This is used by Malaysians to encourage young people to become citizen journalists. Youth view EngageMedia as a safe space for their video blogs, but there is still fear of retribution.[14]


In Nepal, Youth For Blood is working to solve the nation's problem of blood scarcity. They support patients to find fresh blood, award people for donating blood, and advocate to pressure the authorities for quality blood transfusion services and policies.

The Philippines[edit]

Youth activism has had a long history in the Philippines. The original founding members of the Katipunan as well as the Propaganda Movement consisted of youths. The country's national hero, Jose Rizal was martyred at the ripe age of 35. In 1964, aiming to continue the revolutionary tradition of the Katipunan, the Kabataang Makabayan was formed against the Marcos regime. It became an underground organization in 1972 after the declaration of Martial Law but continues to organize in this manner. Other organizations campaigned against the Martial Law as well, such as LFS, NUSP and SCMP. The League of Filipino Students was formed in September 11, 1977 as an alliance against tuition fee increases. Eventually it became a mass organization of students campaigning against the fascist dictatorship. Around the 60s, the NUSP dominated the scene of student activism and aided in the various student council mobilizations across the country. In 1960, the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines was formed, rallying thousands of church youth against the Marcos regime. In 1997, leaders from these organizations would eventually form ANAKBAYAN, a comprehensive mass organization of the Filipino youth, turning to combine both organizing students and community youth.


Singapore is one of the most developed information and communication technology (ICT) countries in the world. In 2010 the computer ownership rate was 84 percent, with internet access at 78 percent. In 2009, mobile phone penetration reached 137 percent, meaning many people of Singapore have access to more than one phone.[12]

Youth use ICT for social and political purposes. In the 2011 general election, people between the ages of 21 and 34 were more active in online politics. Youth who wrote about elections on blogs, Facebook or Twitter were at 28 percent, while the general public were only 10 percent.[12]

Middle East[edit]


Youth proved to be central to the Egyptian Revolution and the April 6 Movement.


Young adults in Iran defy the official regime's cultural and political policies through engaging in prohibited activities in places like taxi rides, coffee shops, and basements. Such actions re-imagine Iranian reality in ways that contest regime policies.[25]

Saudi Arabia[edit]

Youth citizens of Saudi Arabia seek quiet forms of resistance because outright activism is prohibited. Students blog to share viewpoints and feelings despite potential personal risk.[26]



Throughout the 1900s, youth took to the streets to protest against Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević. Youth activists were credited with contributing to his resignation. During the years of protests youth faced unemployment, a failing education system, and economic instability. They created the Exit music festival, which lasted one hundred days and led up to the September 2000 elections. The first year this festival was called EXIT 00 and has been defined as "creative" and "politically savvy" activism. The festival contained a civic education component and continues today.[17]

North America[edit]

United States[edit]

Youth activism as a social phenomenon in the United States truly became defined in the mid- to late-nineteenth century when young people began forming labor strikes in response to their working conditions, wages, and hours. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones organized the first youth activism in the U.S., marching 100,000 child miners from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. in 1908. Youth newspaper carriers soon followed. These actions isolated youths' interests in the popular media of the times, and separated young people from their contemporary adult labor counterparts.[citation needed] This separation continued through the 1930s, when the American Youth Congress presented a "Bill of Youth Rights" to the US Congress. Their actions were indicative of a growing student movement present throughout the US from the 1920s through the early 1940s. The 1950s saw the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee bring young people into larger movements for civil rights. All the way back in 1959, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged youth activists in protesting against Bull Connor's racist law enforcement practices in Birmingham, Alabama. The youth activism of Tom Hayden, Keith Hefner and other 1960s youth laid a powerful precedent for modern youth activism. John Holt, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire were important in this period. Youthful life and expression defined this era.

Youth activism in the 21st century[edit]

Youth activism continues to take place in the 21st century at local, regional, national, and international levels. Youth activists today use technology and social media to share their message. This makes it easier for a local or regional protest to gain national and international recognition. Additionally, a local or regional protest may, in fact, be focused on inequity or oppression in another part of the world.[27][28][29]


Since 2001, various legislation in the United States, commonly known as DREAM, has been proposed to help undocumented migrant youth and young adults who arrived as children. In 2012, President Obama authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has a similar purpose. United We Dream[30] is an immigrant youth-led community established in 2015. In collaboration with other activist groups, they have coordinated four campaigns: #RIGHT2DREAM in 2012; #WECANTWAIT in 2014; and END OF 287G IN HOUSTON and PROTECT IN-STATE TUITION IN TEXAS in 2017.[30]


In 2007, Jazz Jennings [31] gained national attention in the United States at the age of 6 when she was interviewed by Barbara Walters on 20/20 about being a transgender girl. Also, in 2007, she and her family founded the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, whose mission includes financial resources for homeless transyouth in need, education, and advocacy.[32] In 2014, Time magazine included Jennings on their list of most influential teenagers in the world.[31]


In 2010, the Student/Farmworker Alliance worked with Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to improve work standards for migrant workers in Florida.[33]

Also, in 2010, the student activist group United Students Against Sweatshops successfully campaigned for Nike to improve standards for their workers in Honduras. Their slogan was an effective play on words of Nike's slogan: Just Pay it.[34]


Heather Jarvis is a youth activist who co-founded SlutWalk with Sonja Barnett. SlutWalk's core principle is that women should be able to wear whatever they choose without being harassed.[35] SlutWalks have occurred in numerous countries.


While Malala Yousafzai has been an activist for female education, initially in Pakistan, since 2009, support for her cause reached international levels after she was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012 because of her activism. Since then, Yousafzai has established a non-profit organization[36] and received the Nobel Peace Prize. She also was the catalyst for a United Nations campaign for children's education worldwide.[37]

While there has been controversy associated with the KONY 2012 documentary video, it nonetheless became a viral sensation, in part, due to activist college students and teenagers.[38][29][39][40]


While the Black Lives Matter movement is not entirely a youth activist group, its founders were three young women who established it in response to the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American.[41] Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) was also established in response to that, but it limits participation to those aged 18 to 35. These two groups have worked together, and with others, to protest police killings of black people.[42] Unlike BYP 100, Black Lives Matters has become an international movement with chapters outside of the United States[43]

When the Ukrainian president presented a drastically reduced budget for fighting AIDS, Liza Yaroshenko,[44] then aged 14, addressed the parliament, asking them to veto that budget. As of 2017, Yaroshenko was still continuing her awareness campaign online.[31]


While the causes of the Flint Water Crisis have been determined by independent investigators,[45] the crisis is not yet resolved as work to replace the corroded water lines is slightly more than one third completed, with 7,750 of more than 22,000 lead-contaminated water services lines to replace.[46] In 2016, Flint resident Amariyanna "Mari" Copeny, aged 8, wrote President Obama to bring to his attention the public health crisis caused the Flint Water crisis. President Obama accepted her invitation to come to Flint.[47] In April 2018, Governor Rick Snyder announced that water quality is "within the standards" and the lead level doesn't exceed federal limits. This has resulted in the termination of a free bottled water program.[48][49][50] Since then, Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, continues to work to improve the lives of youth in her community. Not only has she, in collaboration with Pack Your Back, raised more than $27,000 to provide thousands of bottled water since the government program was stopped,[51][52] she has also raised money to provide 800 seats for under-served children to see Black Panther[53] and crowdfunded to send Flint youth to see A Wrinkle in Time.[54][55] Prior to these fundraising endeavors, she first worked with Pack Your Back to fill 1,000 backpacks for Flint students.[56]

At age 7, Bana al-Abed started using Twitter with her mother's assistance to share her experiences living in Aleppo, Syria. Al-Abed has become a world-renowned youth activist, publishing a memoir in 2017 and receiving the Asian Awards' Rising Star of the Year award in 2018.[57]


The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has resulted in not only some Stoneman Douglas students becoming youth activists for gun control legislation, but has also spurred a nationwide resurgence of youth activism, including school walkouts.[58][59] A group of Stoneman Douglas students also founded the advocacy group Never Again MSD. Never Again MSD led March for Our Lives.[60] "Never Again" is also one of the group's hashtags,[61] with the slogan having its roots as a resistance rallying cry during the Holocaust and is used by the Jewish Defense League.

Swedish then-15-year-old student Greta Thunberg began an initially individual school strike, avoiding classes every Friday to protest in front of Riksdag against political inaction on global climate crisis.[62] Through the following months, her activism sparked a worldwide youth movement, which intends to pressure governments and companies to adopt urgent policies on mitigating climate change.[63] Thunberg herself engaged in delivering speechs at international events, such as 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference. [64][65]


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Further reading[edit]