CYC-Net on Facebook CYC-Net on Twitter Search CYC-Net

Join Our Mailing List

65 JUNE 2004
ListenListen to this


Youth as activists in the United States

Nathan Whittaker with Teresa McCormick, Katie O’Connor and Jessi Tebben

One quarter of the population in the United States is under the age of 18.
That's 26% who participate in school and community activities,
26% who spend more than $170 billion a year,
and 26% who care about the world in which they live.

However, that's also
26% of the population who cannot vote
and 26% who are supposed to be seen and not heard,
making for a resounding 100% of the future
who have not been encouraged to exercise leadership today.
-Youth Activism Project: Kensington, MD (2004)

Four youth workers from the Youth Development Leadership M.Ed. program at the University of Minnesota set off to find the definition of “activism” by interviewing three diverse groups of youth from the Twin Cities area (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and surrounding vicinity) of Minnesota. The goal was to create a documentary video of the youth speaking on “activism” and their role as social change agents. Here is the story and outline of what transpired:

We, as an informal research group (non-empirical), had sizeable plans, lofty hopes, and meaningful passions, which we attempted to formulate into a documentary video on “youth activism,” from September 2003 through May 2004. Even though we found ourselves at a different place than we assumed we would be in May 2004, we have grown a great deal. We were determined to complete a documentary video. We went to great lengths to interview young people. We spent countless hours together at different sites. We celebrated our accomplishments and took breaks when they were needed. Today, we do not have a polished product; instead, we have some raw video footage and an immense amount of new knowledge that we hold deeply inside and wish to share with you, the reader, through our own narratives of the journey.

We do not have a documentary because we ran into numerous technology issues, which prevented us from completing the documentary. Yet, we knew that the two-plus hours of footage collected during the interviews should not be squandered. The footage had great worth and meaning; the videotape was the underpinning of this article. We concluded that what was most important was to embrace what we gained from the interviews; and, in the most honest way, report our thoughts and understanding via our individual narratives (see appendixes). Although in this article we are missing faces, dialogue, and the non-verbal language of the youth, we have gained a more holistic declaration and lens for which to understand “youth as activists” by reporting the voice of the youth we interviewed and by including our own voice and learning as youth workers.

Furthermore, we hope to bridge our learning and narratives with theory and best practice. In 1973, a hero in the realm of youth development and group-work, Gisela Konopka, a Nazi resistance fighter and later, University of Minnesota professor-emeritus, wrote a groundbreaking article on the requirements for healthy youth development. The article was written for the United States Office of Child Development and the Department of Health Education and Welfare. Gisela Konopka recently passed away on December 9, 2003 at the age of 93, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Konopka challenged the way we view young people preferring to think of “adolescence” as an “age of commitment.” It is our belief that activism can be an important part of healthy youth development, which falls in line with Konopka’s theory. To honor her life, as well as her work (which still holds immense meaning and worth today), we have included a section in this article, which includes a description of how activism may contribute to the healthy development of young people. As the reader will notice, the characteristics for healthy youth development identified by Konopka were echoed in the self-identified needs of our young interviewed participants.

So what is “youth activism?” Despite all of our phenomenological work, we cannot answer that question. We hope that the reader of this article will find the profound wisdom that we found, directly from young people, which will act as a vehicle for new insight into “youth activism.” We hope that you define “youth activism” for yourself. What we did find is this: Young people, particularly those we interviewed, have a remarkable and resounding voice, which when given the safe space to be heard, has the potential to move mountains. We have been humbled, not only by young people, but as a group through our deliberations with one another.


Initial Topics: The “Youth As Activists” research group brainstormed a list of questions and issues to explore during our first couple of meetings. This initial list of topics included:

Interview Questions: The next task was to decide how to go about exploring these topics. At the outset of the project, we asked ourselves, “What are we hoping to learn? What exactly do we want to know from youth and youth workers participating in activism?” We decided early on that conducting interviews with youth would be the most engaging method for us to use. However, we also realized that if we were to pursue all of our areas of interest, our interviews might go on for days. Therefore, we narrowed our focus to include eight open-ended questions. These questions were:

We asked these same questions to each group, although we also left room in the interviews to add impromptu questions. We brainstormed several groups to interview, including activists and non-activist groups, adults and youth, conservative and liberal groups. After much reflection and negotiation, we decided to interview youth from District 202, Cretin-Derham Hall’s School of The America’s Group, and Central High School’s “Black Box” Theatre Group.

The youth activists

District 202 Youth (Interviewed November 16, 2003): District 202 is a non-profit youth community center created by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (GLBTQ) youth and their friends. District 202 is located in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. The fact that the center is for GLBTQ youth is usually what stands out for people when they first learn about District 202. However, for the youth who hang out there, the “by and for” part has become just as important. On the District 202 web site, the center defines “by and for” in the following way:

"Youth determine the activities of District 202. In the process they define themselves, create community, expand their understanding of the world, learn they are empowered to speak to their own experience, and have fun. District 202's exceptional model of empowering youth has set a high standard of honoring youth voices and empowering LGBT youth and their friends to be themselves” (District 202 Website).

As noble and utopian the idea of District 202 is, upholding this mission has proven to be a constant struggle and the journey has often been marked by times of great anger, frustration, and pain for both youth and adults involved. Power struggles often occur and the mission is constantly tested against issues of policy, safety, responsibility, liability, and ownership.

The youth and adults involved at District 202 work bravely to uphold the center’s mission of being “by and for” youth. Tangible examples of their efforts can be found in almost every aspect of the center. Youth voice can be seen on the walls, floors, ceilings, and doors in the form of poetry, flyers, artwork, graffiti, and murals. Youth voice can be heard in the form of youth staff, youth facilitators of programs, weekly youth community meetings, and youth representation on the center’s Board of Directors. Youth at District 202 often involve themselves in issues of social justice and politics, and many readily identify themselves as activists. We chose to include District 202 as a site not only because of its mission but because of the history and experience of the youth and adults involved in the center who try to uphold that mission and work together for social change.

Cretin-Derham Hall High Youth (Interviewed November 16, 2003): The second group of youth was from Cretin-Derham Hall High School (CDH) in St. Paul, Minnesota. CDH was originally chosen because it would present a good counterbalance to District 202’s GLBTQ group and Central High School’s multi-cultural theatre group (outlined next) on the supposition that the Catholic school agenda would ground these young activists within the more conservative end of the political continuum. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

CDH is a private four-year Roman Catholic high school adhering to the social and religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Students are encouraged to live out gospel values through service and action. The group of students we interviewed chose to participate in an annual non-violent civil resistance action in Fort Benning, Georgia, protesting the School of the Americas (SOA). SOA is a United States military training facility for foreign troops that allegedly promulgates the use of terrorism and repressive violence by regimes in many third world countries across Central and South America. Participating in the protest would lend support to closing the SOA and for demilitarizing the Americas.

The CDH group of twelve was diverse. It consisted of three males and nine females. Five were ethnic minorities. One was active in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC), military training. Four of the twelve were active with Amnesty International and had helped form a group at CDH called “Sowers of Justice.” Five (Elizabeth, Jessica, Mary, Terese, and Mary Ellen) were able to get together for an interview four days before they left for Fort Benning. They had researched the issue, held many discussions, invited and listened to speakers with opposing views, asked a lot of questions, and were still in the process of discerning and clarifying their own positions at the time they were interviewed.

Central High School Traveling Theatre Youth (Interviewed December 5, 2003): The third multi-cultural group was a theatre troupe from Central High School in St. Paul, Minnesota who is involved in social action through the Traveling Theatre. The Traveling Theatre is a place where, according to one interview participant, “kids use their voice through the arts, build social skills, and show their creative side.” Jan Mandel (a highly respected Twin Cities youth worker and teacher) led the troupe.

The interview group consisted of eight high school students who had participated in at least one of St. Paul Central’s theatre classes and the Traveling Theatre. Many of them had participated in several classes, advancing from the beginning to intermediate classes. They kept coming back to the theatre class for several reasons, the most important of which seemed to be a sense of belonging. Throughout the interview, participants mentioned that they could talk about anything and felt the “Black Box” (the space where theatre class and rehearsals are held) was “a really respectful place.” The youth felt respected not only by one another, but also by the adults around them. They felt that their voice was important. They believed they were learning about working with other people and dealing with the issues they face in their school and in the larger society. It is a class that more and more students want to get involved in and was described as “the most diverse class in the whole school.”

The group often performs about political and student issues. In doing so, they identify and discuss matters important to them and form those views into performances. The troupe performs for other schools, their own school, and community groups, educating others about what they have learned. The youth in the troupe take a great deal of ownership in the process and the group. While this group participates in activism, they are not united around a single issue but rather are united by the method used to share their message.

The Role of Activism in Healthy Youth Development:

Identifying the Connections Between the Experiences of Youth Activists and the Wisdom of Gisela Konopka.

"Man influences and is influenced by a variety of complex systems and subsystems. He acts and is acted upon. Throughout his life he has the capacity to grow, to change, to modify his behavior in accordance with his values. Value formation within the individual is a continuing process, partly emotional, partly intellectual. It is born out of interaction between the individual and the systems that touch him” (Konopka, 1973, p. 5).

"Adolescents are persons with specific qualities and characteristics who have a participatory and responsible role to play, tasks to perform, skills to develop at that particular time of life. The degree or extent to which an adolescent experiences such responsible participation will determine and maximize his human development” (Konopka, 1973, p. 2).

“This move toward commitment is so serious and so significant that providing healthy conditions to let it unfold becomes just as crucial for human development as providing healthy conditions for growth in early childhood. It elevates adolescence from a stage frequently regarded as one that must be endured and passed through as rapidly as possible to a stage of earnest and significant human development” (Konopka, 1973, p. 8).

Brief overview of Gisela Konopka’s theory of adolescent development, “Requirements for healthy development of adolescent youth” (1973):

Key Concepts:


Conditions for Healthy Development:

Obstacles (abbreviated list):

Applying Gisela Konopka’s theory to the interviews conducted with the three youth activist groups:

Gisela Konopka believed that, “the young need a chance to reflect on self in relation to others – and to test self in a variety of settings” (Konopka, p. 9). The youth we interviewed appear to be doing this in their activist groups and through the activities they participate in through their activism. The groups of youth understood that their choices were influenced by others in a variety of ways and sought to control those interactions in a way that allowed them to be true-to-self. One member of the Cretin Durham Hall group stated, “Who you surround yourself with can really separate you from what you’re trying to do.”

This theme ran through the entire CDH group with another member stating she surrounded herself with leaders and activists. The group understood the importance of the support they received from a group, and reflected on how they might act without the group. In fact, the inability to act without the support of the group was brought up several times during the interview, with one member stating she feared being alone and not being strong enough to say something. A participant in the interview at District 202 described her surprise when she realized she was not a part of a group she had once considered herself to be a part of stating, “I just expected that if I cared about something, then everyone would care about that. Especially the white and wealthy “I was white and wealthy. It took me a long time to realize that I was the minority in the privileged class.”

This need for a group and a sense of belonging is, according to Konopka, another trait of healthy youth development. Konopka states that youth “need to have a sense of belonging to their own age groups and to adults as well” (p. 8). It was clear in each interview that the activist groups provided the youth with a sense of belonging.

Several young women of the Cretin-Derham Hall group reflected on how exciting it was to feel like they were a part of a movement. One member stated, “I went to the protest in DC [Washington] last year and I can’t exactly tell you why. It was mostly that a bunch of us just hopped in a van and went. But it was overall one of the best things I’ve done so far because of the amount of people that were there all joined together for many different reasons. It was peaceful – everyone coming from all over the place to support their beliefs. I felt a part of something that was definitely trying to make a change.”

Another said, “When Bush [President George Bush] was still deciding whether or not he was going to go to war or whatever, which obviously he decided he was, we went and protested on the Lake Street Bridge against it. It was just interesting to see so many other people who cared about it and were trying to get others support for it.”

A major theme from the interview with the Traveling Theatre group from Central High School was the sense of belonging that they felt as part of the group. Each member of the group identified his or her strengths and how they contributed to the success of the whole group. At one point in the interview, they even referred to the theatre group as a “family.” After talking about how they informed conflicting viewpoints, a member said, “That’s what family does though. You might fight with your brother, but you still love him.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

Although it might seem that members of a given group would agree with one another on most issues, disagreements occurred in each group, which seemed to be necessary to the development of the group. The Cretin-Derham Hall group came together to learn about the School of the Americas. They started out with different views on the school and maintained a variety of views throughout the process. However, having been exposed to a variety of opinions, they understood how someone could think differently than them, and respected those opinions. A member of the Central High Theater Group stated, “There’s so much conflict because we all have our own views”. We just sit in a group and disagree, disagree, disagree, but the best stuff comes out of that.”

In exploring different viewpoints and different ways of being active, the youth activists experienced another key to healthy youth development as identified by Konopka, the freedom to “experiment with their own identity, with relationships to other people, with ideas, to try out various roles without having to commit themselves irrevocably” (Konopka, p. 9). In each interview, participants noted that they had sometimes changed their minds, or the way they participated in activism. The freedom to move along a spectrum of involvement in political or social beliefs kept the youth from being trapped in a role. Their comfort in the group’s acceptance allowed them to change their minds without fear of rejection. A participant in the interview at District 202 stated that she “used to” do a lot more with a group working against proposed welfare reform, until she got “this thing called a life.” The group allowed her to participate on various levels without rejecting her when her priorities shifted. Youth involved in the Cretin-Derham Hall trip to the School of the Americas had their ideas challenged and to varying degrees. One participant said of the School of the Americas, “I don’t think I’m going to protest it, well, not anymore, now that we've had all the speakers.”

The responsibility to determine where they stand, as well as decide on a course of action, weighed heavily upon each group. While this responsibility might seem a heavy burden to put upon a young group, Konopka identifies it as a necessary step in healthy youth development. She feels that youth need the opportunity “to participate as citizens, as members of a household, as workers, as responsible members of society” (Konopka, p. 9). The sense of responsibility was identified as a reason that the members participated in activism. When asked why she participated in activism, an interviewee at District 202 stated, “I see things I don’t like in the world. I can’t just sit idly by and be complacent.”

Along with this personal sense of responsibility to participate, this young woman was also beginning to form theories about how others were motivated to take action and how change takes place in a society. She said, “I think it depends on the state of society – the place your in. If your in a place where people are really desperate – like they’re poor, hungry, really angry, and need someone to listen to – one person can really definitely do it [make a difference] with the help of people who are going to broadcast their message. Huge change needs dissent to occur.”

Similar sentiments were voiced with the Cretin-Derham Hall group. One member stated, “It’s our responsibility as human beings to try to make the world a better place”. You can’t just worry about yourself all the time because it’s much bigger than that.” Finally, another interviewee stated, “It’s our responsibility because we have power. If you have the power to take action, it’s such a gift, such a freedom, that to not take action is such a waste.”

Examples of what Konopka referred to as “obstacles” to healthy development were also highlighted in the stories of those interviewed. Konopka sites one such obstacle as “adult violations of an individual youth’s self respect, and adult dominance in youth services and organizations” (Konopka, p. 10). At District 202, youth spoke of their relationships with adults as being both supportive and hindering, depending on the context. One young person expressed her deep sense of anger and frustration about her experience trying to do fundraising for trips for the center. The money raised by her and other youth went into a general fund controlled by adults. Then, even though the money had been raised, the youth were told, “You are not going. We are not giving you approval.”

Having grown accustomed to having their opinions heard and validated may also have enabled the youth from District 202 to more easily recognize when they were being ignored or tokenized in the “outside” world. The same youth who spoke of the tension of fundraising also recounted her experience of going to a national conference and what it was like for her to be one of the only youth in a session and not have her voice heard. She said, “At the National Gay Lesbian Task Force Creating Change meeting, mostly adults attended. I was one of two youth at the community center’s conference on Creating Change. Every time I spoke I felt I was shut down.”

Another example of an obstacle to healthy youth development can be sited in the story told by a different young person from District 202. She explained why she didn’t feel she could be involved in the same kind of activism she participates in at District 202 back in her hometown. After describing how she had been “outed” [when someone maliciously tells many other people that another person is gay without his or her consent] during her senior year of high school, and as a result, being forced to only attend school for a few hours a day for her own safety; she made this statement, “I hate the fact that it has to be like that, but for the safety of the people I care about I will just deal. I don’t really hold any animosity towards them [people from her home town] because they’re not allowed to think outside of the box. I don’t think they know the box exists.” This story is an example of what Konopka called “limited outlet for experimentation, moral development and participation in every part of society” (Konopka, p. 11). This young person was denied the opportunity to be a part of her own school because of the prejudice she experienced on the basis of her sexual orientation. Her ability to be active in her own community was paralyzed by the fear she felt for her own safety and for the safety of those she cared about. However, it also seems that by finding other places (like District 202) where she was allowed to safely explore her own identity and moral development, she was also able to understand and even empathize with the people who had treated her badly. In essence, she was able to see how her self-development and the development of her peers was hindered by the social norms of her community, which forbade experimentation or any type of deviation from the norm.

The youth who participated in these activist groups felt a sense of responsibility, power, and belonging. They joined with others in disagreeing, creating action, and working for change. Activism is an arena where youth can make their voices heard, experiment what that voice says, interact with ideas and people who challenge them, and be a part of a community. It may not be necessary for all youth to engage in some form of activism in order to develop in healthy ways, but it does seems that the world of activism can provide space and opportunity for youth to directly experience many of the key elements of a healthy development.

Summation and opinion

Many people feel that no one-person can make a change, particularly a young person! No matter where we, as US Americans, find ourselves on the political continuum, as we move towards a new and ambiguous future, many people feel “things” are not the way they should or could be in the United States and abroad. This does not mean that people do not care, do not love their home nation, or are too lazy to make change. In the United States, many have lost faith in their own voice and their ability to make change. Because we have seen what could be fall apart at the seams, we have lost our trust for a political structure assembled “for the people, by the people,” which Lisbeth B. Schorr (1997) has dubbed the “Trust Deficit” “pervasive distrust of our most important institutions (p. xvi). We confuse a system, able of change, with “politics as usual;” we are surely overwhelmed. As a research team, we believe that people can make a change, particularly young people!

We have met young people who are not looking for someone to blame (which society often tells us is true). We found young people who feel productive; young people who are building the skills needed for change; young people who, via networking, truly are building troupes of change; and, young people who are teaching others. The young people we interviewed are, whether we are cognizant of it or not, co-creators of our democracy and have accepted responsibility to better our world for the common good. We would like to see more young people join the troupes, which we believe will not only help us all rise above our “Trust Deficit” but will also help youth with their positive development, which is our job as professional youth workers. If “democracy” in fact means, “the rule of the people,” we are of the opinion that youth are not void of “the people.”

Research team’s personal narratives

Teresa McCormick: Working with our research team to explore activism from the perspective of youth was a challenge! It was work, exciting, revealing, and rewarding. I joined the team to find out what youth had to say. Were they involved in issues? Did they see situations that were unfair, abusive, and hurtful? What power did they think they had? What course of action would they choose? Why?

Activism for me is a way of life. It involves claiming a place for my voice to be heard and being present to a people for whom our collective voices will make a difference. What was activism from the youth perspective and how did it play out in their lives?

As we worked to define whom we would interview and what we would ask, our own ideas and experiences around activism kept surfacing. Current events and issues begged action – issues and abuses that, according to us, should be tackled, altered or stopped altogether for the common good. We talked about war, the Bush administration, the proliferation of violence, loss of civil rights, the constitutional ban on gay marriage, closing schools in Minneapolis and many other disheartening injustices. At times we felt overwhelmed and often, as solitary voices, quite powerless to effect any immediate change or make any kind of timely difference.

Because of these heated and emotionally charged discussions, there seemed to be an immediacy associated with our efforts to discover why and how youth were actively involved in social change. We continued to fine-tune the project. We would contact young adults, ask them well-prepared questions on activism, document their comments on videotape and produce a presentation that would include their comments as well as music and visual images that spoke of activism. It turned out to be an ever-evolving project with many modifications.

The youth interviewed were surprisingly articulate, exhibiting strong leadership qualities and individuality. They were free thinkers, unafraid of questions or challenges. They shared their vulnerabilities and pain. They talked about action and inaction. They were motivated, intelligent and responsible. I realized how important it was in youth work and education to ask young students questions of importance, questions about things that matter, and to provide information not only from standard acceptable sources but from sources that refute prevailing theories “sources that offer opposing points of view. I heard many times that adults could be most helpful by providing access, opportunity, and a safe place for open-ended dialogue, including dissention, exploration, and action.

I was able to talk with the CDH protesters after they returned from Georgia. Both the pre-action videotaped interview and the informal one after they returned illustrate a process of discernment quite unlike milder forms of activism (specifically as in the arts, which is often a safer place for radical voices of change). The difference hinges on the students having to defend their position, their values, and their acquired knowledge in the face of opposition.

The CDH students in the early interview revealed their struggle with the issue and the struggle within themselves. They were unsure of their level of commitment. Propelled into this action by an inspirational teacher, they related the issue to their own feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability in situations they had lived through or were affected by. The later interview, after the protest, revealed that they knew, with absolute certainty, where they stood on the issue having made a public proclamation/demonstration of their stance. They now struggled with the larger more-abstract concepts of truth and power. Most of this conversation was about how to shape a world were extremes could be avoided – where dialogue could have or should have happened – where tensions and alienation could have been reduced. The two interviews together presented a picture of discernment where thoughts and values matured and developed having been impacted by immediate circumstances, conflicting alliances, and most importantly, confrontation.

Much more than being presented an opportunity to have their voices heard, they said, they had been ushered into an arena where their values, once coaxed to the surface, were tested, distilled, refined, intensified, defended, and acted on. The lived experience, the activism, became the essential tool for self-realization and growth. The research, discussion, mentorship and teaching seemed to be only one small step – one small initial step in the learning process. They were actively forming an opinion, owning it, defending it, and joining others to proclaim it publicly.

The presence of opposition, in this case, seemed cathartic. There was tension and risk. Confrontation seemed to force clarity and ownership of ideas. Values, shaped by acquired knowledge and lived experience, were acted on in a hostile public arena. Dangerous? Yes. Political? Yes. But what risks are taken in the name of education? We educators talk about building community. We talk about values. We talk about action and service. We work to develop our youth into thinking, motivated, intelligent and responsible adults. Might the truth be that thinking, motivated, intelligent, and responsible people pose a threat? Possibly become capable of critical analysis, dissention, and quite possibly disturbance? Present a subversive element that cannot be harnessed or controlled?

Conformity has been the lesson most taught and most rewarded in schools across the United States and in society as well. Conform. Celebrate capitalism. Vote. Do not question or make it difficult for leadership. Radicals are not rewarded. Activism is extreme. It is detrimental to the very democracy that allows voices to be heard. In schools themselves, students are often punished for speaking out against administrative policies they do not think are fair. Very seldom are they taught how to organize, find others with the same concern, address leadership, and win on issues.

Let’s take a look at repercussions of an active citizenship. “Homeland Security” has become the vehicle for the suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of public assembly and free speech in the United States. The current administration has channeled millions of dollars intended for the war against terrorism into quieting the voice of dissent among it’s own citizens. Non-violent civil resisters are targeted. As evidenced in articles about the protest of SOA (Voss, 2004), armed National Guards, in a massive show of force, practiced intimidation, conducted unwarranted searches, and disrupted peaceful protesters. “Karl Meyer once again did not submit to the unconstitutional search” and was arrested and jailed – as were many others (Voss, 2004).

Another example concerns Americans who oppose economic globalization. In the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 20,000 people gathered in Miami on November 20, 2003 to protest the closed-door policy of the International World Trade meeting and it’s creation of what they believed to be an even more detrimental trade agreement called, “Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA).” The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) reported that the peaceful protesters were met by Miami police who came out in force to the tune of twenty-three million dollars, filled the streets with 3,500 armored tanks, and fired rubber bullets and pepper spray at the crowd (FTAA, 2004).

Another example concerns Americans who speak out for peace. The current Bush administration recently gave Federal prosecutors license to subpoena names of anti-war protesters. Drake University was ordered to turn over documents related to an anti-war forum held in November 2003 (Neibergall, 2004). “Besides seeking the names of participants in the forum, the subpoena, one of several issued, sought campus security records about the forum, sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild Chapter at Drake.” As law professors and sympathizers rallied outside the United States Courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa, the subpoena was quietly withdrawn.

My own activism was threatening to those I targeted. It always cost someone something. Initially, I had great success at community organizing, being one of five to form an organization of fourteen churches we called the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations (SPEAC) in St. Paul, Minnesota to address social justice. We developed leaders, built the capacity of the organization, and won on issues. We held the first St. Paul police chief forum, which led to the appointment of Police Chief William Finney, the first African American to be named to that position. We also held a mayoral forum and ran a “Hot Spots Campaign” to address vacant houses and trouble spots in neighborhoods. Something called “whole language” curriculum, benefiting urban children, was introduced and adopted by many St. Paul schools. A housing loan fund was established. I chaired the economic development committee, rose two million dollars in two years, and dispersed small business loans to inner-city entrepreneurs. We went head to head with government, corporations, and institutions.

From there, I organized seven churches in my immediate neighborhood to deal with the proliferation of adult bookstores. We changed zoning laws in the city only to have them overturned again three years later. I set up job fairs for youth, job hubs in neighborhoods, secured one million dollars for violence prevention initiatives, and gave out grants for youth development. I went into community education service-learning to help students be active in their communities and to help communities embrace students. I made an unsuccessful bid for city council in 1995. My goal was to redeem activism from being a dirty word and increase access to arenas where activism could be played out.

What I learned from this project, particularly from the CDH group, was that activism is a powerful and effective educational tool. It demands courage and public display. It demands well-thought-out arguments. It demands participation and response. It is not comfortable or predictable. In fact, it presents a situation of tension, heightened awareness, and heightened fears. It can be powerful in unifying voices in opposition to prevailing oppression. It is well worth exploring!

Katie O’Connor: When I began working in education, I saw that we faced a lot of challenges. I knew some students needed more at school than what they were getting and I saw other students ignoring the opportunities they were given. As I fought for a better educational system for all, I wondered why students weren’t involved in this fight. I wondered why students, who were most affected by these changes, were not advocating for a better education for themselves. Adults spent tireless hours working for what they thought was best for youth, and the students barely saw that fight, and hardly ever appreciated the hard fought results. I wondered, “What if students became advocates for themselves? What if youth became advocates for a better education for themselves? Would they be listened to? Would it make a difference in our schools?” When the opportunity arose to do a research piece on youth and activism, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to know how other people were working with youth on issues important to them. I wanted to know how others have encouraged youth to make a difference. The process itself has been a journey of enlightenment for me.

What I learned from the interviews was that the youth who participated in activism believed that what they do makes a difference. They felt that they had the power to influence others. They felt that their voice mattered. Perhaps if more youth felt so powerful, they would participate in activism as well. Perhaps the key to getting more youth more involved in advocating for their own education is to ensure that they recognize the power their voices have.

The youth activists we met were remarkably motivated, confident, and optimistic. They believed in their power to make a difference and were satisfied with their efforts if they could see a change in even one person. The theatre group remained motivated by the reactions of the audience, questions they were asked, and the fact that others wanted to be involved. They were also motivated by what they personally experienced as being part of the group. On several occasions they mentioned the safety they felt as part of the group, the trust they had in one another, and the way that acting made them feel. The CDH group was motivated by a desire for education. When asked what difference their trip would make, they replied that they would have a better understanding of what was really going on. They had studied both sides of the issue and now had to find out for themselves – find their own truth. The group at District 202 however, was motivated by a desire for change. They needed to see a change in society in order for them to be able to feel safe and confident leading their lives. One participant mentioned she did not participate in activism for fear of retaliation. Another mentioned that she felt burned out. While members of the other groups could leave their causes at any time, when the acting class was over, or when the trip to the School of the Americas was finished, the group at District 202 had no defined end. Whereas the other two groups were participating in what could be described as a once in a lifetime event, the District 202 group looked at a lifetime of events related not only to GLBTQ issues, but a host of other societal issues as well.

Activism is -. We asked the participants to complete this sentence. Their answers were slightly varied, but most focused around change. Activism is creating change we want to see, creating positive change, working for a cause, etc. These answers are no different from the answers I believe adults would give. So, what specifically is “youth activism” and is it any different from the activism that adults participate in? This question caused me to reflect on how my level of activism has changed throughout my life.

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a letter to the school board, suggesting that our district stop using Styrofoam trays and begin using reusable trays for serving lunches. A school board member read my letter, started a committee on which I served, and eventually, started a pilot program in our elementary schools to discontinue the use of Styrofoam. The program was soon expanded district wide. I learned that my voice made a huge difference. All I did was write a letter as part of an English assignment. I believe the point of the assignment was to learn how to write a business letter, but I learned much more.

As I got older, I began to see more nuances in these situations and found it harder to clearly fight for one side or the other. When asked what they feared most about activism, one of the students we interviewed said, “Being wrong.” It struck a cord with me. I had become worried that if I chose the side of getting rid of Styrofoam trays, I would be missing the other side, that perhaps decreased business would mean that some factory workers in our town would lose their job, that perhaps their families would suffer. When I thought about every side of an issue, I was paralyzed by uncertainty. The youth we interviewed, however, taught me that it was okay to change my mind. They educated themselves on issues and as they became educated, sometimes changed their mind, and it was not a bad thing. In politics, we often see our representatives criticize one another for voting for something and then a few months later voting against it. We do not allow them the freedom to change their minds as they learn more about an issue.

As I settled into my adult life, I became complacent. I stopped believing that my voice really mattered. I became jaded. After participating in these interviews, I find myself motivated by the youth to use my voice to its fullest power. The work they do and risks they take are inspiring for anyone at any age. Each day I attempt to find more congruence between my thoughts and actions, between the values I hold dear, and the way I carry myself in the world. The youth we interviewed appear to be doing the same, however, they are attempting to change the world as well as their reaction to it. They are not only looking to express their values clearly in their lives, but also to find expression for those values in the larger society. This is a clear lesson I will bring with me from this experience.

Jessi Tebben: I have two passions in life: working with youth and working for causes of social justice. In some ways these two issues are intimately connected. Working with and advocating for the rights and healthy development of young people could be viewed as a social justice cause. I think most adults who work with youth are in some ways interested in social justice and activism, while at the same time, we have been taught to be wary of involving the youth we work with in anything too “political” or “controversial.” All this basically boils down to the idea that while it is good to encourage young people to become involved in community service, it is not appropriate to encourage youth to become community activists. This has always felt like a contradiction to me. After all, how better can a young person experience the ability to have an affect on their own world and what happens in it than through activism?

I have walked the fine line between engaging youth in “community service” and “activism” for the past four years with the young people I worked with in the Minneapolis Public Schools' Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender support program, “Out4Good.” I was constantly questioning what was appropriate and what was too political to do or discuss, even though most of the young people I worked with were already involved in many social justice causes.

One of my favorite essays about youth is, “The Politics of Childhood” by Aurora Levins Morales (1998). In this concise and powerful article, the author frames “childhood” as a state of oppression through which we all pass. Childhood is therefore a unique state of being because it is the only state of oppression where eventually all who were once members of the oppressed group have the option of becoming the oppressors (Levine Morales, p. 51).

It saddens me to think about how oppression is recreated through seemingly impenetrable cycles. Even through the overwhelmingly hopeful testimony of those we interviewed, it was difficult to overlook examples of this phenomenon. For example, the subject of the role and responsibilities of leaders versus the rights of the people to consent was brought up in two of the groups we interviewed. During these parts of the discussions, we heard youth struggle with the idea that sometimes people just “don’t know what’s best for them” and that it is a leader’s duty to tell them or even “manipulate” them in order to get them to agree.

I believe this logic reeks of negative adult influence! As adults, too many of us (both consciously and unconsciously) choose to become the oppressors. The “Because I said so!” and “I know what’s best for you!” answers we as adults so often force upon young people are carried with them into adulthood and the roles they take in positions of power. This is neither good for the healthy development of young people nor for the democratic ideals of our society. If we as youth workers truly want to be allies to young people and choose not to become the oppressors, then we must constantly work to identify and resist our own urges to succumb to our privileges as adults. My favorite essay ends on a much more hopeful note than it began. The author writes:

Nevertheless, children resist, both their own condition and the pressures to take on the perpetrator roles of the adults around them. Children have far less tolerance for overt injustice than do adults. From Soweto to Mangua, we have seen young people take to the streets and force the issue, propelling mass movements forward into open rebellion almost faster than adults could build organizations behind them (Levine Morales, p. 53).

While these words may heighten many adults' fears that allowing or encouraging young people to become involved in activism will lead to mass chaos and revolution, I think there is a more optimistic vision to be gained from this statement. What if we broadened our definition of “adolescence” to be a time of moral development and, as a result, a time of great conviction to the cause of social justice? What if challenging oppression and injustice in our society, while reminding adults of the importance of doing the same, was a crucial role for young people to play in our shared world? How then might our role as youth workers change?

This experience has lead me to believe that one of the most important roles of youth workers is to create space for deep and meaningful exploration of the ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy, while simultaneously living out these ideals in every aspect of our own lives. We must also learn that youth may be able to teach us just as much as we able to teach them about these issues, if only we are willing to walk along side (and sometimes behind) them.

Giving up total power and working with youth on real world issues makes the role of a youth worker much more complex. Taking on this role makes the previously assumed rules and boundaries seem much less concrete, and sometimes there just aren’t any easy answers. As youth workers, we often find ourselves in previously unexplored territory with difficult decisions to make. Most of these times we are forced to do our best, consult with our conscience, conjure up our past experiences, trust our gut, send out a little prayer to the universe, and jump. Ambiguity and doubt are difficult feelings to get use to. I believe this is not such a terrible thing when you consider that the well being of young people is on the line. However, this does not mean that we must always make sense of the chaos in isolation. One of the most of important pieces of learning I take away with me from this experience is that colleagues are for consulting with, and I am so grateful for the hours of mind-boggling conversation I have had with the people in this research group.

I am equally grateful for the wisdom and experiences the youth we interviewed were bold and brave enough to share with us. They have taught me new lessons about the healthy development of young people as they conveyed to me how being involved in activism is contributing to their development in very specific and tangible ways. Hearing them talk about their experiences of being involved in activism helped me to respect the work they are doing in the world and strengthen my sense of hope for the present and future.

Nathan Whittaker: My experience interviewing young people throughout the Twin Cities area of Minnesota on activism has broken through the surface to reveal my ignorance. I have not had many opportunities to discuss issues, such as activism, with young people in some time, which had caused a distance between the youth, their wisdom, and myself. The young people whom we had the magnificent opportunity to speak with have humbled me. The breadth of involvement of these young people astonished me. Their experiences in social change strengthened their skills, passions, and struggle for what they believed in. All of the youth were able to compellingly articulate that in which they strived towards, which brought about new learning for us as “professionals” in the realm of youth development.

We are all living through disquieting times here in the United States, which has rooted itself globally. Though many people move through the day instinctively, unaware of their own distress, the political climate in the United States has cast an ominous depression on us all. I am interested in activism because I care about my country and our global communities. I believe in work for the “common good,” known as Ubuntu in South Africa, a magnificent nation I work in often. I work for the common good because my humanity is bound in yours “when I oppress you, I oppress myself. My passion for this work has come through years of lived-conscientization via child-abuse, as well as homophobia directed towards my family, friends, and I, because my father is gay. At the same time, I am not hateful, or at least I am through being hateful. I believe in Reconciliation to the fullest. I knew that this research project would continue to give me a voice for the voiceless – a voice I hope to assist others in reclaiming, particularly youth “arguable the most oppressed group around!

Like the other members of my research team, I badly wanted to create a documentary-style video on “youth as activists in the United States,” which would be shared with any interested party. Since the video was the final goal, I initially lost sight of what was truly important “the lessons the youth were teaching us, including the passion that was being displayed by all players in the endeavor, the youth, their advisors, and our research group.

Three main points: First, the interviews showed me that we, as youth workers and adults, must include youth “voice” in all that we do by ensuring that the strategies, practices, and program philosophies we use reflect young people’s role by inviting them to be full and valued participants in their preferred capacities. Secondly, we must continue to strengthen our relationships with young people who are committed to social change through activism; we must be in the journey with them. Finally, we must give young people more space and time to become agents of social change.

Integrating youth voice: Whose “voice” and/or epistemology is integrated into the policies and systems that shape our work as youth work professionals? Whose “voice” and/or epistemology is in the research and evaluation? Are the “experts” of youth development using enough phenomenological research to fully understand who the “stakeholders” are and what “they” think about that which undeniably shapes them? Are we denying the “voice” of youth in the gamut of realms that make up “youth development,” particularly in higher education? In general, are the youth we invite to the table only there for our own narcissistic reasons, making them “tokens” rather than co-creators? Our interviews with young people helped me to understand that youth, by being the ultimate adjudicators of our youth development programs, have what it takes to truly strengthen our programs. Furthermore, if we, as youth workers, are not learning from youth, we have no business in youth work. We must start listening!

During our interviews with the youth from Cretin-Derham Hall and Central High School, I asked if young people saw themselves as the leaders of today or the leaders of tomorrow. My biased hope was that the youth would respond “today” with great enthusiasm, but that is not what occurred. Their initial responses where “the leaders of tomorrow,” which they have been told over and over by adults; yet, through their own deliberation, their thoughts had shifted towards an understanding that they could possibly be the leaders of today, with the assistance of, and collaboration with, caring adults. Herein lays the lesson for youth workers: When we allow young people to be heard and alleviate the stereotypes they have learned from a society that tells them they are “becoming,” the closer we all get (youth and adults alike) to who youth truly are and what they can be.

We must continue to strengthen our relationships with young people who are committed to social change through activism: Adults must be extremely mindful of the ways in which they can abuse power. A realization of young people as a “culture” is an important piece of the journey. Adults must include “youth” as influential members of our communities and a collective group of humans to protect and to be heard. Adults can either attempt to break down walls themselves or invite young people to do it with them; adults ought to have young people by their side because if they choose not to, they will most likely fail to notice the walls that stand in the way of young people or society as a whole. I would argue that we cannot fully appreciate that which we are fighting for unless young people are with us when defining the issues.

Many youth feel they are powerless and also feel adults perceive them as powerless (Lesko, 2001; Way, 1998). If this perspective or attitude is true of many adults, it perpetuates the formation of walls, which our youth are either forced to climb, fail to climb, or fail to see. This within itself is denying access to young people and ignoring the fact that they are full citizens living in a United States democratic society that prides itself on the equality based construction, or reconstruction, of our world; to think otherwise is oppressive “to do otherwise is to lose brainpower and a holistic “voice" in our work together, our “democracy.”

We must give young people more space and time to become agents of social change on numerous different levels: Our interview with all the youth became a space for openness. As the youth spoke on their trials and accomplishments, one young person in particular, Jessica, a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall, touched me in a multifaceted and meaningful way. As a Multicultural Educator, I seek the “inner,” the existential powers that be, particularly with youth around issues of “diversity.” Jessica, while recounting her experiences as a “minority” high school student, unsuspectingly touched her own “inner” during our interview together. She told us about who she is and what others consider her to be, and how this translates into her fight for social justice. Perhaps it was the silence at the table while she spoke, or the tears of struggle that rolled down her face, which revealed to us the humanity that needs to exist for social change to occur, social change for the common good. This is the inner touch that I feel so strongly about, the touch that must arise if we are to truly engage in “multiculturalism” (my activism) as a process and/or life-long journey. It was the authenticity of the space and the time that we all, youth and adult interviewers alike, created together, which allowed Jessica to open in such a way. I would argue that Jessica would not open in such a way had the space been antagonistic, unsympathetic, or fake. How often do we truly create this space with young people – truly focused on their strengths and self rather than on their risks and deficits, their “evils?” I thank Jessica for her strength, her openness, and her efforts.

So what is “youth activism?” I do not fully understand! Maybe, to some extent, “youth activism” ensues along these lines: “Youth activism” is the human gift of communication and mindfulness given to young people, which helps them to educate themselves and others “for the common good” because their humanity is bound in others, including adults. It is the voice of all young people around the world and a means by which they (youth) can help to retain true democracy. That alone should be reason enough to cultivate and encourage their activism, as well as join with them.


Cairn, R., & Coble, T. (1993). Learning by giving: K-8 service-learning curriculum guide. St. Paul: National Youth Leadership Council.

Crwys-Williams, J. (Ed.). (1997). In the words of Nelson Mandela. Penguin.

FTAA Witness. (2004). Miami police department abuse “shouldn’t happen in America.” (2004, March 02). Retrieved March 18, 2004 from

Konopka, G. (1973). Requirements for healthy development of adolescent youth. Adolescence, Vol. VIII, No. 31, fall 1973, pp. 1-26. Retrieved September 25, 2003 from

Lesko, N. (2001). Act your age! A Cultural construction of adolescence. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Levins, M.A. (1998). Medicine stories: History, culture & the politics of integrity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Lewis, B.A. (1991). The kid's guide to social action: How to solve the social problems you choose and turn creative thinking into positive action. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

Neibergall, C. (2004, February 11). Drake University: St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, Vol. 155. No. 290. p. A2.

Saint Paul Pioneer Press. (2003, December 10). Gisela Konopka, 93, was resistance fighter and U professor. Page B6.

Schorr, L.B. (1997). Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America. New York: Anchor Books.

Tuomela, R. (1995). The importance of us. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Tuomela, R., & Bonnevier-Tuomela, M. (1997). From social imitation to teamwork. In G. Holmstr–m-Hintikka and Raimo Tuomela. (Eds.). Contemporary Action Theory. Vol. II. p. 1 – 47. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Voss, H. (2003, Fall). SOA Watch. Retrieved March 18, 2004 from,

Way, N. (1998). Everyday courage: The Lives and stories of urban teenagers. New York: New York University Press.

Williams, J.B. (1998). Children who care: Educating your child about human rights. Shoreview, MN: Shoreview Human Rights Commission.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App