Considering Youth as an Identity

By Thomas V. Maher

After the Parkland shooting, Emma Gonzalez gave a thoughtful and furious speech calling “BS” on politicians, the NRA, and corporations for their complicity with the proliferation of guns and gun violence. Gonzalez began her conclusion by stating that “[t]he people in government who were voted into power were lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice…” and ended by calling BS on the notion “that us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works.” In the case of Parkland—as well as recent campus activism—media and supporters have celebrated youth leading the way, but youth activism is not always so well received. John Lewis famously railed against being told to “be patient and wait” by older Civil Rights activists. Others have questioned whether online activism could have an impact. More have raised concerns over whether activism against racism on campus is a misstep or a distraction from addressing institutionalized inequality. But to understand these critiques we must first recognize the role that youth plays as an identity for young activists.

Social movement researchers have largely considered youth in connection with biographical availability and campus activism. This concepts suggests that youth are more likely to participate in activism because they have more free time and fewer family or occupational obligations, and campuses are hotbeds of activism because they bring lots of young people into close proximity to one another. Yet young people are not just small adults. They have their own set of motivations, beliefs, and concerns that shape the issues they mobilize around, the tactics they adopt, and how they talk about issues. Tactically, youth may emphasize new or more confrontational approaches that may lead older activists to tell their compatriots to “Be Patient and Wait.” Substantively, youth may rally around inherently youth-oriented issues like sexist dress code policies, changes to school curriculums, sexual assault on campus, racist microaggressions on campus, as well as school shootings. These issues predominately affect young people, and young people are most likely to get involved. Yet these same issues may be dismissed as tangential the struggle for inequality by older activists, journalists, and the broader public. But that makes it even more important that we consider how youth as an identity shapes participation and mobilization campaigns. To illustrate, I highlight two possible areas where considering youth as an identity may be useful for researchers.

First, being mindful of youth as an identity may open new avenues for understanding internal movement and organizational dynamics. Existing research shows that SMOs are not doing enough to recruit young people online or off, especially on intersectional issues. Being mindful of how issues impact diverse groups as well as how the substantive issues are being framed may be particularly useful for understanding successful (or unsuccessful) recruitment drives. Of course, some organizations are making attempts to recruit youth. Groups like Empower (the youth wing of the Women’s March), Black Lives Matter, Zero Hour, and Everytown for Gun Safety have started to incorporate youth wings or youth-oriented recruitment efforts like attending music festivals, speaking to youth issues, and incorporating low-cost opportunities for participation that are attractive to youth. Indeed, some of my own work suggests that these attempts to meet young people where they are at may prove to be especially fruitful for recruitment. Attracting young participants can bring new tactics, new goals, new perspectives, and new energy to an organization or a movement. However, the influx of youth can foster conflict and change too. More research is needed to understand how new young members may change the overall complexion of an organization and the challenges that come with incorporating young people into movement organizations without alienating them.

Youth may also strategically utilize their experiences as young people to mobilize others. The best example of this phenomenon is where I started this essay, the March for Our Lives. Gun violence—particularly school shootings—resonates with young people because it is an issue that uniquely affects them. Many states require live shooter or lockdown drills for students. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that students in 95% of public schools participate in some form of lockdown drill; something their parents never had to go through. But as the so-called “Mass Shooting Generation” participated in drills and saw media coverage of other mass shootings, they saw politicians’ inability—or unwillingness—to address the problem. By drawing on their experiences as survivors or as young people, these activists are explicitly framing the anti-gun violence as a youth issue. Participants centered their youth at the initial vigil, in television interviews, and the national March for Our Lives in Washington DC. Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky declared that the “kids are going to make this difference because the adults let us down.” They also centered youth as the group most affected; such as when Trevon Bosley said that he was in DC to “speak for those youth who fear they may be shot while going to the gas station, the movies, the bus stop, to church or even to and from school.” The movement has also centered youth in their framing. They have given students a “price tag” based on proportion of NRA donations to students, and they pointed out that you can legally buy an AR-15 before they can buy alcohol or rent a car in many states (an implicit reference to the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” frame that helped to pass the 26th amendment). Part of the resonance of these arguments is that they have re-articulated the issue to be about the safety of children rather than guns.

Of course, focusing on youth as an identity has its own limitations. Youth-oriented issues may only attract widespread media attention under specific conditions. But this is not solely due to the limits of the issues themselves. Many adults assume that they must teach youth to be knowledgeable of and interested in politics (this phenomenon is known as the deficit model), and many youth-oriented concerns may be dismissed as trivial, naïve, or a distraction because they emerge without adult intervention. But these limitations call for more research in understanding not only when youth-centered issues arise, but what happens to youth voices when their issues are pushed to the sidelines of the movement. While youth is not marginalized in the same way as gender, race, class, or sexuality, it still has an impact on how young and old people behave within social movement organizations. Organizations must make sure that they are doing enough to encourage participation across the age spectrum, and researchers must be cognizant of how youth shapes the strategies they adopt, the issues they prioritize, and how they impact individual participation.


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