Teaching Youth & Activism- Focus Questions & Annotated Readings

We offer some suggested focus questions to help synthesize sections of the course, as well as a subset of annotated readings and discussion questions to help organize class discussion. The discussion questions are intended to highlight the core points of each article, and build connections to contemporary movements.

Additional material are available here.

A link to a word version of this post is available here

Focus Questions

How does youth political engagement compare with overall political engagement?

What challenges do youth face as they begin to get politically involved, and how do they overcome them?

Why is college such a significant time for youth political activism? Do you see that changing as the role of college changes in society?

What issues have youth brought to greater public attention in the last five years? How have these issues been received by politicians, presidential candidates, and the news media?

Annotated Readings

McAdam, Doug. 1986. “Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer” American Journal of Sociology. 92(1): 64-90.

This article proposes a distinction between low risk (cost) and high-risk activism, and outlines who gets recruited to participate in the latter using the Freedom Summer campaign as a test case. McAdam argues that participation in high risk activism is driven by social connections—specifically the strength of one’s ties to activism (via personal or organizational contacts or activist participation) and their biographical availability—, and not strong individual beliefs. In order to show this, McAdam looks at the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964 where hundreds of northern college students went to Mississippi to help register black voters. To study participation, McAdam takes data from participants (1068 in total), and codes for participants (720), rejects (55), withdrawals (239), and those with unclear statuses (54), and compares across them to understand the differences. McAdam finds that motivations for participation between withdrawals and participants did not differ significantly, but they did differ in the number and types of organizations that they were a part of. McAdam also finds that participants with strong ties to other Freedom Summer participants or known activists were more likely to participate than those with weaker ties, and that those who had participated more in the past were more likely to participate. Lastly, McAdam finds evidence of what he calls “biographical availability” or that those with more time to engage and fewer personal responsibilities will be more likely to participate. Specifically, he finds that the youngest applicants were more likely to withdrawal in comparison to “older” mid-twenties applicants.


  1. What does McAdam mean by high risk and low risk activism? What are some additional examples that we can give for movements that are operating today?
  2. What was the Freedom Summer campaign? What did the movement ask participants to do? Would you have gone?
  3. How important were youth for the Freedom Summer campaign? Generally, how important do you think young people are for social movements?
  4. McAdam finds some counter-intuitive findings for age. What does he find? Do you think that there is a “sweet spot” for high risk activism?
  5. Are there examples of high risk activism that are currently happening? How do they shape who we think of as activists and protesters?
  6. Is high risk activism enough for a movement to succeed?


Van Dyke, Nella. 1998. “Hotbeds of Activism: Locations of Student Protest”   Social Problems. 45(2): 205-220.

This paper explores why student protest occurred on some campuses during the 1960s, but not others. The article proposes that the cultural history of universities (i.e. the history of activism on campus) shapes where protests occur. Van Dyke argues that campus activism is due to longstanding activist subcultures that endure across generations (specifically clubs and organizations that keep activism going), the availability of resources (possible acting as a proxy for students’ ability to take classes without working), as well as other factors like school size and selectivity. To show this, the author draws on data from 423 colleges and universities as the unit of analysis. 187 had student activism (measured as the presence of an Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter (105 schools) or contributing Freedom Summer participants) (146 schools) between 1960 and 1965 (236 did not). Van Dyke finds that schools with a history of activism (in the 1930s), some degree of selectiveness, and large student populations are more likely to have activist organizations, and religiously affiliated schools are less likely to have student activism in the 1960s. Van Dyke also finds that the presence of SDS organizations prior to the summer of 1964 predicts participation in Freedom Summer, and Freedom Summer participation, in turn, predicted the founding of SDS chapters supporting the argument that campus cultures facilitate activism broadly.


  1. How do Van Dyke’s findings about political culture fit with your school?
  2. What do you think of Van Dyke’s argument that “long standing activist subcultures” contribute to activism on campus? Her work focuses on the 1960s, do these matter as much now that we have the internet and social media?
  3. What do you know about the history of activism on your own campus? Are there any groups or locations that are associated with protest?
  4. Van Dyke finds a symbiotic relationship between SDS and Freedom Summer participation. Is this unique, or do social movements on campus still “spillover” into one another?
  5. In line with previous work in the area, Van Dyke finds that schools that are more selective are more likely to have activism. Why do you think that is the case?


Gordon, Hava. 2007. “Allies Within and Without: How Adolescent Activists Conceptualize Ageism and Navigate Adult Power in Youth Social Movements” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 36(6):631-668.

This article focuses on how young people experience and respond to ageism directed against them for their activism. The article argues that youth politicize the ageism they face, but they do so in different ways based on where they fit in race and class hierarchies, and these positions inform their organizational structures and mobilizing strategies. Gordon argues that “adolescence”—like race, class, and gender—is as much a socially constructed category as it is an immutable part of development, and has long been constructed as oppositional to adulthood. Indeed, treatment of youth often emphasizes adult identities, value systems, and power at the expense of young people’s lived experiences, and young activists must often develop ways to negotiate the ageist expectations of the social movement organizations they are a part of. To demonstrate this empirically, Gordon draws on qualitative analysis of two youth movement organizations between 2002 and 2004: the Coalition of Student Activists (CSA), a mostly white middle-class network of teenage activists in Portland OR, and United Youth (UY), a multiracial working class network of teens in Oakland CA. Gordon finds that the youth participants in UY saw ageism as a form of systematic oppression, and tried to emphasize youth empowerment with the support of adult allies, rather than youth autonomy from adult allies. In contrast, middle class CSA did not integrate adult allies, making its youth-centered mission particularly empowering for participants, but the lack of adult mentors also left members bereft of guidance and historical perspective when they faced obstacles and failures. In sum, Gordon argues that teenagers recognize, politicize, and criticize ageism and their social subordination as a result of living in an adult oriented society, and that young people’s collective understandings of ageism guide their social movement tactics and organizational strategies.


  1. What were the pros and cons of incorporating adult allies into youth activist organizations? Are the benefits worth the costs?
  2. Are adult allies and connections to history particularly important for working class activists, activists of color, or poor activists of color?
  3. Does ageism matter more or less for youth who are minority members of society in other ways (e.g., class, race, and gender)?
  4. What role have adults played in the political and activist organizations you have been involved with?
  5. For those who have never been active with a group, how would you perceive an activist group that was entirely run by youth?


Crossley, Alison Dahl. 2015. “Facebook Feminism: Social Media, Blogs, and New Technologies of Contemporary US Feminism.” Mobilization 20(2): 253-268.

This article explores how online social and friendship networks shape social movements, and argues that Facebook and online blogs enlarge and nourish feminist networks, create online feminist communities, sustain solidarity, and expand recruitment bases for online and offline mobilization. Crossley argues that interpersonal networks are important for collective action, but there are questions about whether online communities are sufficient for establishing close enough ties for mobilization. Despite these concerns, it is increasingly difficult to research offline movements without considering their online dimensions (255). To demonstrate this, Crossley focuses on college students’ feminist organizing and networking on Facebook and blogs. The author collected data on individuals and organizations at three different universities, and conducted in depth semi structured interviews with 75 undergraduate students (25 at each school). The author finds that respondents reported regularly visiting feminist blogs, and that these blogs aided in developing online communities and connecting activists across diverse geographic locations. Blogs offered information on feminism and feminist ideas, and helped to build offline relationships and connections. Crossley also finds that Facebook allows members to circulate substantive and personal information, and helps them to build solidarity with one another. It was also a medium for advertising to new members; in contrast to more traditional paper flyers. Of course, Facebook also brought members into contact with adversarial people, but participants viewed this as an opportunity to share information and ideas. In sum, these online sources reinforced participants’ commitment to feminist causes, and allowed them to express these beliefs to one another.


  1. Do you follow activists or activist organizations on social media? How do they influence your beliefs and perceptions?
  2. Can you think of other cases of online communities developing close ties and strong commitments? How do the activist organizations that Crossley describes compare?
  3. What do you think of the benefits of online organizations that Crossley outlines? Had you thought of all of these before? Do they make online communities more important, or are they still the same?
  4. Why do you think youth gravitate toward online activism?
  5. Do you think negative perceptions of online activism have anything to do with adults associating it with youth? Why or why not?


Earl, Jennifer, Thomas V. Maher, and Thomas Elliott. 2017. “Youth, Activism, and Social Movements” Sociology Compass. 11(4)

This article synthesizes and summarizes the article on youth political socialization, campus activism, and rising issues related to youth activism including fan activism, online activism, and issues of race, gender, and intersectionality. The article addresses the role that college campuses play for fostering political activism, the broader political science and political communication literature on political socialization, the complex role that youth organizations play for fostering political activism, and how issues of race, gender, and intersectionality are particularly important for creating inclusive activist experiences. The article concludes by highlighting several areas where the authors anticipate the field will grow. Namely, through fan activism—the process of getting politically engaged through culture or media (like Harry Potter or soap operas) rather than a political issue—and the use of social media for activism. The authors contend that these are the areas where youth are most comfortable and most active, and, because youth with set the tone for political activism into the future, they will be crucial for understanding the future trajectory of activism.


  1. Are perceptions of the lack of youth political socialization based on an actual lack of youth socialization or adults looking for forms of political activism that are familiar to them?
  2. How does the intersection of age with more recognized forms of inequality (race, gender, and class) make it harder for youth activists to get recognition and respect for the issues they care about?
  3. Do you think that tactical innovations developed by youth have more or less chance of having an impact? Why?
  4. Have you ever experienced ageism? Have you ever experienced ageism in connection to your political beliefs and opinions?
  5. Why would youth be more mindful of issues of race, gender, and intersectionality for activism? What do you think of the authors (and Gordon’s) argument that age is an aspect of identity that should be considered alongside race, class, gender, and sexuality?
  6. What are the advantages of fan activism and online activism? Have you ever participated in these actions? Do you think they will lead to street protest disappearing?


Leave a comment

Filed under Informing Activists, Teaching Materials, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s