Our country has a long history of youth-led movements that brought about significant change. We’ve seen young people advocate for environmental justice, labor laws, voting + civil rights, immigration reform, school desegregation, LGBTQIA+rights, and much more. When we only organize and strategize with adults and exclude youth, we believe it undermines the lived experiences of young people who can offer solutions because they’ve been subjected to the problems. This post is about the ways youth can engage in activism rooted in the historical legacy of movements led by generations of young people. It’s written for parents, educators, and anyone with passionate young people in their lives!
“Being engaged gives teens a way to relieve their stress and to turn their fear or outrage into positive action,” Sarah Clark says. “These opportunities will likely expose teens to a broader set of experiences to help them expand their world view, help them develop lifelong attitudes about citizenship, and reinforce the importance of voting and how every person can make a difference."
7 Ways Youth Can Engage in Activism
There are many ways to protest! Here are a few examples:
In the streets
Black Lives Matter created a space for activists of all ages to take a stand against anti-Black racism. After the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teen activists held a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest that shut down Chicago streets. In response to the murder of Eric Garner, then 18-year-old Nupol Kiazolu led protests in Garner’s home state of New York. And after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, 2020 saw a huge uptick in teens participating in protests against racism.
In 1960, young African American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The sit-in movement spread to collect towns throughout the South. Though many of the protestors were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace, their actions made an immediate and lasting impact against segregationist policies.
Greensboro Sit-In | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images via History.com
A month after the traumatic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students and staff in 2018, students organized a national school walkout. Since, we’ve seen an increase in the number of school walkouts, from students in Oakland protesting school closures, to students in Virginia protesting anti-trans policies, to students in Minnesota after the murder of Amir Locke, to Friday climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg.
Minneapolis students gathered outside US Bank Stadium in April 2021 as part of a statewide student walkout to protest racial injustice. | David Joles/The Star Tribune via TNS
2. Volunteer / Engage in Community Issues
Activism is inherently rooted in community and relationships. Volunteering with local organizations is often a pathway to further engaging in an issue. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen mutual aid groups become an indispensable part of the public response. For example, for young folks that are in lower-risk categories, they have been able to provide many forms of support, in particular grocery shopping for high risk neighbors.
NourishNYC team (from left to right) Reki, Puma, and Omari posed with supply kits | Photographed by Tania Maree via Mutual Aid NYC
In the 1960s a group of poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth called The Young Lords, consciously fashioned after the Black Panther Party, were deeply concerned about community issues. They brought attention to neighborhood issues with garbage collection by blocking traffic with uncollected garbage. They tested children for lead poisoning and advocated for the removal of lead paint from tenement walls. They fed breakfast to poor children and supported childcare for working mothers. And they occupied a hospital and took over an ambulance to provide healthcare to their community.
3. Educate Yourself + Others
Whether searching for books to read, videos to watch, or a museum or place to visit, there is always room to dive deeper! We can encourage young folks in school to center school projects around these interests or advocate for topics like climate studies to be added to the curriculum.
Felix Finkbeiner was a fourth grader in Germany when he had to write a school paper on climate change. He wrote about what tree-planting can do for climate change and ended his class presentation with a proposal: Germany should plant one-million trees. His crusade received a lot of attention, and four years later, he was invited to speak at the United Nations and Germany reached his goal of one-million trees. He started the non-profit organization Plant-for-the-Planet and believes that kids have the power to fight climate change now, without waiting for adults to solve the problem.
The next step is engaging with others about this newfound knowledge — talk to other people, write an article, make a video, or use social media. (Check out our guidelines of social media activism.)
Gen-Z for Change is a coalition of over 500 creators and activists that does a great job leveraging the power of social media to educate, encourage and mobilize civic participation, shift the political debate, and enact change. For example, Gen-Z for Change reproductive justice activists created the S.A.F.E.R. initiative that seeks to extend abortion access to those in dire situations by following their five-prong plan: Spam, Assist, Fund, Educate, and Register.
For another example of educating others, we look to First Nations Canadian activist, Autumn Peltier. Hailing from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory and from Ojibwe/Odawa heritage, Peltier is a water protector who has stood up to stop the construction of pipelines that threaten sacred Indigenous land. She has spoken to the Canadian prime minister and addressed the United Nations about the right of all people to clean, safe water and the importance of uncontaminated water to the environment. When she was fifteen, she told a UN Meeting, “I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again, you can’t eat money or drink oil.”
4. Contact Your Representatives and Advocate for Legislation
Even if young people are not old enough to vote, they are able to engage in politics. It’s never too early to let elected officials know that young people are paying attention and eager to hold them accountable.
Since April 2015, Flint, Michigan residents have had a contaminated water supply. After more than a year of complaints, a group of doctors investigated and ran blood tests on the children of Flint. They found that lead levels in the blood were off-the-charts high. When the government refused to take action, eight-year-old Mari Copeny, aka Little Miss Flint, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to visit Flint and see the water crisis first-hand. After the visit, he approved $100 million in relief for the city. Mari continues to use her platform to fight for clean water in Flint and to fundraise and champion causes like environmental racism.
In 2008, Cristina Jiménez and Julieta Gariba co-founded United We Dream (UWD). UWD originally consisted of young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and fought for legal protections and rights through protests and lobbying. After a 2012 hunger strike and sit-in, Obama signed an executive order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images
5. Use the Law and Bring the Battle to the Courts!
Legal actions are generally time-consuming and costly, but the law is another tool that activists can use when the circumstances call for it. For example, in 2015, young people filed a suit against the government in the US District court in Oregon. The climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, claimed that the government had known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels was causing “catastrophic climate change” yet continued to make climate change worse. They said that the government’s actions were a violation of rights guaranteed by the US Constitution because they interfered with the young people’s “fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty, and property.”
Aji Piper, 19, was a plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States climate lawsuit. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Similarly, a group of Torres Strait Islanders filed a first-ever legal complaint about climate justice with the United Nations in May 2019. The complaint says that by failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions and take proper measures to protect the islands, the government of Austria has violated the islanders’ rights to life, culture, and freedom from interference.
Regardless of the final decisions of these cases, they are bringing climate issues to national and global platforms. They show that young people will not sit by while their homelands erode and their futures are darkened to feed the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.
6. Leverage Financial Power
Youth can engage politically by raising money. Olivia Julianna, a 19-year-old organizer with Gen Z for Change took on Congressman Matt Gaetz and raised more than $2 million for abortion funds. A tweet from @umichvoter responding to a video from Dr. Oz went viral and raised more than $500,000 for his political opponent, John Fetterman.
Callaghan O’Hare for The Washington Post
On the flip side, another way to make a statement is by refusing to spend money on something. Boycotts become powerful when they spread through social media or letter-writing campaigns, so thousands of people are telling a company, “If you want our business, change your ways.” Young people have been paving the way with fossil fuel divestment campaigns within their colleges and universities.
A rally in Nashville in February 2021 calls on Vanderbilt University to divest from its involvement in fossil fuels. | Anjali Chanda/The (Vanderbilt) Hustler
In 2020, young people voted at the highest rates ever in a national federal election. Since then, we’ve witnessed an insurrection, a state-by-state attack on voting rights aimed at disenfranchising voters of color, and a growing sense of apathy and skepticism from young people towards the political process. We understand this sentiment and applaud the organizers that believe in the power and joy in civic participation and are meeting people where they’re at. For example, Native Skateboards are executing a national campaign called Ride to the Polls that will drive disenfranchised communities around the country to ride to polling locations in their own style and in ways that resonate with their communities.
By Kyle Lieberman
We’ve also seen legislation that would transform access for young voters. In 2019, Ayanna Pressley introduced a bill to lower the federal voting age to 16. She said, “Our young people who will inherit the nature we design here by virtue of our policies or by default of our policies and authorities — these very same young people should have a say in who represents them. Our young people deserve to have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.” And in July, Senator Warren and Representative Williams introduced the Youth Voting Rights Act. This bill would transform voter access by expanding registration service, allowing voters to pre-register before turning 18, increase access and codify the right to vote from a college address, gather data, and support youth involvement in elections.
8. Run for Office
The US government is not reflective of the American people in multiple ways. One notable way is the under-representation of young people in office. The gerontocracy — a government run by old people – has perpetuated a system that works for itself. In this op-ed, Run for Something co-executive director Amanda Litman explains why young people need to get into politics. This can start with student government positions, expand to local positions like school boards, and go all the way to the halls of Congress.
Voters in many parts of the world are electing young people to public office. For example, Chlöe Swarbrick was elected to New Zealand’s parliament at the age of twenty-three. She ran for office representing the Green Party, which takes strong positions in favor of protecting the environment and fighting climate change. Similarly, Jordan Steele-John was elected to Australia’s national parliament when he was twenty-two. He was the first elected member with a disability, and he represents the Austrian Greens, a party that supports ecological sustainability, social justice, and community-level democracy.
“It can be incredibly challenging to get to a place where youth and adults are authentically sharing power, but I think once that place is reached, there’s already been so much mutual effort to understand interpersonal dynamics and their relationship to social inequities that organizing becomes all the more effective and intentional.” – Taylor Kahn-Perry, with Student Voice via Teen Vogue
Resources to Dive Deeper
By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shreshtova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely M. Zimmerman. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth.
Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope by Ty-Ron M.O. Douglas, Kmt G Shockley, and Ivory Toldson. Campus Uprisings demonstrates the power and value of principled nonviolent activism to provoke change and provides thoughtful strategies to help universities manage conflict and racial tension.
Generation Brave: The Gen Z Kids Who Are Changing the World by Kate Alexander. Generation Brave showcases Gen Z activists who are fighting for change on many fronts: climate change, LGBTQ rights, awareness and treatment of mental illness, gun control, gender equality, and corruption in business and government at the highest levels.
How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other by Naomi Klein with Rebecca Stefoff. Full of empowering stories of young leaders all over the world, this information-packed book from award-winning journalist and one of the foremost voices for climate justice, Naomi Klein, offers young readers a comprehensive look at the state of the climate today and how we got here, while also providing the tools they need to join this fight to protect and reshape the planet they will inherit.
Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change by Robin Stevenson. Every activist started out as a kid — and in some cases they were kids when their activism began! But even the world's greatest champions of civil liberties had relatable interests and problems — often in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. Kid Activists shares moving, relatable, and totally true childhood biographies of 16 inspiring activists.
Organizing While Undocumented: Immigrant Youth’s Political Activism Under the Law by Kevin Escudero. Drawing on more than five years of research, including interviews with undocumented youth organizers, Escudero focuses on the movement's epicenters — San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City — to explain the impressive political success of the undocumented immigrant community. He shows how their identities as undocumented immigrants, but also as queer individuals, people of color, and women, connect their efforts to broader social justice struggles today.
You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World by Carolie Paul. This kids' guide to activism is the perfect book for those with a fierce sense of justice, a good sense of humor, and a big heart. This guide features change-maker tips, tons of DIY activities, and stories about the kids who have paved the way before, from famous activists like Malala Yousafzai and Claudette Colvin to the everyday young people whose habit changes triggered huge ripple effects.
The Young Lords: A Radical History by Johanna Fernández. Fernández demonstrates how the Young Lords redefined the character of protest, the color of politics, and the cadence of popular urban culture in the age of great dreams. Their dramatic flair, uncompromising socialist vision for a new society, skillful ability to link local problems to international crises, and uncompromising vision for a new society riveted the media, alarmed New York's political class, and challenged nationwide perceptions of civil rights and black power protest.
Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality by Ben Kirshner. Kirshner argues that youth and societal institutions are strengthened when young people, particularly those most disadvantaged by educational inequity, turn their critical gaze to education systems and participate in efforts to improve them. The interdependent relationship between youths' political engagement, their personal development, and democratic renewal is the central focus of this book.