Youth activism

Youth activism

Youth activism is best summarized as youth voice engaged in community organizing for social change. Around the world young people are engaged as activism planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, social workers, decision-makers, advocates and leading actors in the environmental movement, social justice organizations, campaigns supporting or opposing legalized abortion, and anti-racism, and anti-homophobia campaigns. As the central beneficiaries of public schools, youth are also advocating for student-led school change through student activism and meaningful student involvement. [Checkoway, B. & Gutierrez, L. (2006) “An introduction,” in Checkoway & Gutierrez (eds) Youth Participation and Community Change. New York: Hawthorne Press. p 3.]


There are three main forms of youth activism. The first is youth involvement in social activism. This 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. [Chawla, L. (2002) Growing Up in an Urbanizing World. Paris/London: Earthscan/UNESCO Publishing.]

The second type is 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.

The third type is the increasingly common youth-led community organizing. This title encompasses action which is conceived of, designed, enacted, challenged, redesigned, and driven entirely by young people. There is no international movement that is entirely led by youth, aside from the World Federation of Democratic Youth, which has UN NGO status.

United States

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. Child laborers in the coal mines of Appalachia began this trend, with newspaper carriers, soon following. These actions isolated youths' interests in the popular media of the times, and separated young people from their contemporary adult labor counterparts.

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. This led to the outbreak of youth activism in the 1960s.

Important individuals in U.S. youth activism

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. In 1959, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged youth activists in protesting against Bull Connor's racist law enforcement practices in Birmingham, Alabama. Coupled with the youth activism of Tom Hayden, Keith Hefner and other 1960s youth, this laid a powerful precedent for modern youth activism. John Holt, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire were each important in this period.

In the 1960s, the Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas handed out two landmark case decisions in favor of youth rights, "Tinker v. Des Moines" and "In re Gault".

In recent years, educators such as the Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Howard Zinn, Alfie Kohn, and Jonathan Kozol have all called for young people to become central actors in the guidance of schools and communities. Modern advocates have included Aaron Keider, William Upski Wimsatt and Adam Fletcher. Researchers, including Shawn Ginwright, David Driskell, Barry Checkoway and Lorraine Gutierrez have led the burgeoning study of modern youth activism.

See also

* Youth voice
* Youth movements
* Student activism
* Youth empowerment
* Community youth development
* Teaching for social justice
* Youth-led media


* Youth Activism Project
* The Freechild Project
* American Youth Congress
* Students for a Democratic Society
* Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
* The Newsboys Strike
* Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor
* Day of Silence


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