Tonight (February 4), both chambers of Congress will convene and many in the nation will tune in as the president delivers his fourth State of the Union address. While we don’t know for sure what he will say, it’s pretty easy to anticipate what the tone and overall orientation of his words will be. We can expect him to derisively fan the flames of racism, sexism and xenophobia. And he will undoubtedly outline economic goals that mostly benefit the wealthiest of Americans. What he certainly will not do is say anything that speaks to the realities of today’s young people of color or their aspirations for the future.
Fortunately, young organizers and activists in this country, especially working-class young people who are racially and gender oppressed, are not waiting for the president to give us a sense of hope. As we contend with the many obstacles that stand between us and a life of security and dignity, we are standing up in this moment to declare our own vision for our lives, our communities and our country. In this open letter, we the undersigned groups, wish to offer our view on the State of Power for Youth of Color in the United States—both where we are and what is possible for us in this new decade.
What Is the State of Power for Youth of Color in 2020?
Youth activism was a defining characteristic of the 2010s, as young people led and participated in movements for environmental, immigrant, gender and racial justice. We fought for safer communities by opposing police violence, organizing against the school to prison pipeline, and resisting policies that terrorize and criminalize immigrants. We led in the defense against fossil fuel pipelines and ratcheted up the global conversation on climate change through massive student strikes. We were on the forefront of economic justice campaigns calling for a complete transformation of our economic system. And we laid critical groundwork to educate and mobilize voters to increase participation in our democracy.
Throughout the history of the U.S. and the world, young people have been critical to building social movements for liberation. We have a unique moral authority that can inspire action from within our own communities, win the support of other social groups and shift public debates on critical issues. We are more willing to take risks and engage in the types of militant action that are necessary to win the hearts and minds of the broader public. Working class young people of color, particularly those who are gender oppressed, have the most to gain from the transformation of society and, based on our direct experiences, are the best equipped to reimagine a new world. This makes us a vital source of political leadership.
Youth led movements have had great successes in recent years, mobilizing millions of young people, raising critical issues and winning policy changes. Now more than ever, we know we have to build the necessary power to transform the structure of our economy and social institutions. In order to achieve a more just and democratic society, we have to level up in key ways.
First, we must shift our emphasis on youth engagement from empowerment to collective power. While the former deals with the skills and development of individuals, collective power is the only way to change the systems that impact whole communities. Our movements must be able to claim critical seats within official decision making bodies, create the necessary conditions to hold those bodies accountable, and maintain our ability to apply pressure from the outside.
Second, we must grapple with how to develop campaigns that move beyond single issue policy fights. Issues are important; they are how we bring people into our movements. But issues change—the things that are most pressing for young people today may not be relevant a couple years from now. This means our campaigns, while fighting for policies that currently impact young people, also need to communicate a broader world view that can prepare participants for a lifetime of movement engagement across a multitude of issues.
Finally, our movement must break down the silos that separate us. This includes working toward common political goals across issues, geographies, constituencies and age groups. And if we wish to build sustainable movements that are intergenerational and intersectional, we have to form leadership pathways that intentionally connect youth organizations to adult organizing groups.
It’s time to move from defense to offense, from reacting to injustice to setting the agenda for our collective liberation.
What a Time to be Alive!
Beginning with the Great Recession of 2008, we entered a pivotal historical moment in this country. Rising economic insecurity and growing frustration with the political status quo have fueled calls for major changes to the way we do things. But disgust with the system has manifested into two fundamentally opposing views on how to move forward. On the one hand, millions of people have been moved to action by inspiring social justice movements, often led by young people. On the other side, we are contending with the terrifying resurgence of White Nationalism and the threat of 21st Century Apartheid—the modern day champion of which currently occupies the White House. This is a struggle for the very soul of our country. Like other critical moments in our nation’s past—think Civil War, Reconstruction, New Deal Era, Civil Rights Era—the outcomes of today’s political fights will have consequences that reverberate for generations.
Young people will play a decisive role in determining whether we can defeat the forces of austerity and authoritarianism as we strive toward new levels of justice and democracy. It is incumbent on those who believe in freedom to support the organizations that can facilitate young people’s leadership and build the power we need to win. If you’re a young person, that means joining an organization and learning how to organize. If you’re an adult, it means participating in organizations and coalitions that bring multiple generations together and share leadership with young people. If you are a foundation or person of wealth, it means partnering with these organizations to ensure they have the resources and infrastructure they need.
For our part, the undersigned groups are leading a process called the Youth Power Lab that will bring together youth organizers from across the country for collective learning, visioning and practice.
This year is a profoundly consequential one, as it kicks off a decade full of transformative potential. Young people are ready. Let’s go win.
In Love and Solidarity,
Alliance for Educational Justice
Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing
Power U Center for Social Change