Youth activism is by no means a new phenomenon. Youth have led some of the greatest political uprisings and movements of the 20th century such as the Lunch Counter Sit-ins, the Soweto Uprising, the Anti-War Protests, as well as the protests in Tiananmen Square. Nonetheless, it’s evident that we are now seeing an uptick in youth activism, as many activists take leadership roles in movements such as climate change, racial justice, and gender equality.
The question all educators should be asking themselves is: how can we foster the passion that youth are demonstrating through activism in the classroom? How can traditional K-12 education play a role in this process? We may find the answer by taking a deeper look at what is inspiring these youth leaders in the first place.
Isha was only 13 when she got her start in environmental activism. She wasn’t inspired to take action by traditional classroom practices, instead, she was inspired by being exposed to “relevant truths” as she describes them. When she was made aware of the injustices afflicting her community and others, she quickly sought out the knowledge and tools to address those injustices. Couple this with a chance to explore her own interests through project-based learning and an experiential internship program at her high school, MetWest High School in Oakland, CA, a perfect storm of opportunity was presented.
Isha jumped on this opportunity and became one of the founding members of Youth vs. Apocalypse. She understands the importance of giving students agency over their own learning and how important relevance is when it comes to inspiring young people. She believes “the person that you’re learning from matters” and that educators need to go through a similar process of being exposed to and understanding the same “relevant truths” that she did.
“Students are underestimated,” Isha states, and too often “we’re given lessons and information that we don’t care about.” However, Isha goes on to explain that when given the opportunity to make connections between the environment and the direct impact on their lives, students are often the best agents of change.
“Around the world, we are seeing children and youth engage as social, political, and economic actors, demonstrating their capacity to help make social change,” says author Jessica Taft.
Taft is the author of Rebel Girls and The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru’s Movement of Working Children. She has spent more than a decade studying children’s rights and intergenerational activism.
“Youth, given the opportunity to work alongside adults who are willing to manage their own power, can lead activist communities and organizations,” she said. “To not include them is anti-democratic. They deserve to be listened to, to be seen as collaborators and treated as equals.”
In relation to climate change and environmental justice, we are seeing youth leaders emerge where education has been insufficient, slow, and irrelevant. Listening to Isha explain how environmental literacy can advance “collective liberation from systems of oppression” by helping people see the interdependence between natural and human systems is inspirational. It also highlights that, while educators may understand the importance of the learning about environment, the environment is core to the identity of many youth today. Using the environment as a multi-disciplinary lens to highlight and provide context around injustices facing students’ communities will reach students and inspire action.
Isha may be exceptional but she’s not alone, there are many other youth activists and organizations inciting meaningful change in their local communities. In addition to Youth vs. Apocalypse, there is Youth Climate Action Coalition (YCAC) based in Loomis, CA. YCAC started as an environmental club at Del Oro High School and has now reached over 1 million students worldwide, helping to improve sustainability in hundreds of schools. Future Coalition, a national network of youth-led organizations and youth organizers who work on a variety of issues including the climate crisis, gun violence prevention, and gender equity is another example of students taking action. Their spokesperson, Dillon Bernard, states “We believe that young people have the ideas and passion to make extraordinary change in their local communities and across this country.”
One major challenge in bridging activism and education is that school leaders tend to view activists as disrupters and shy away from engaging with them. On their part, activists need to develop tools that can channel their passion into constructive learning projects.
Outdoor learning projects and community programs are ideal focal points for bringing together activists and educators. With support from the environmental literacy community, we can create new learning experiences for students that are inspired by youth leaders.
Isha implores all the educators to reach out to community-based partners and activists like YVA to provide a new lens and to “Give [students] the opportunity to do something that matters to us.”
Youth Vs. Big Oil is a California-based youth activist organization focused on shaping policy and political action around the fossil fuel industry. Their demands are to stop approval of new oil and gas permits, halt all existing oil and gas production, and establish safe distances between communities and fossil fuel sites.
In thier effort to lift the voices of youth, in particular youth of color, and fight for a livable climate and an equitable, sustainable, and just world, Youth Vs. Apocalypse released its first EP in December 2020. Listen to their musical tracks and spoken word on SoundCloud.
Every year, the Brower Youth Awards recognizes 6 outstanding emerging youth leaders, representing accomplishments across the full spectrum of the environmental movement in North America. Check out one of the 2019 award winners, Isha Clarke, and her story.
The Office of African American Male Achievement was launched in 2010 and creates the systems, structures, and spaces that guarantee success for all African American male students in Oakland Unified School District.
Independent non-profit committed to improving the educational and life outcomes of Black boys by working with school districts nationwide on professional development, curriculum adaptation, student leadership opportunities, community engagement, and an overall system change through district collaboration.
A youth-led activist campaign calling on adults to take a pledge and do everything in their power to leave a livable and just society.
A youth-led activist campaign demanding changes to PG&E and California’s energy market. They are especially focused on assisting communities that have been impacted by dirty energy.
A network of more than 65 schools nationwide and around the world committed to student-centered learning with a focus on community engagement and mentorship.