Youth Say Race Still Matters–So What Are They Doing About It?

Our focus groups found young people still see race shaping U.S. society. Here are five campaigns working with them to tackle modern racism.

By Juell Stewart Jun 28, 2011

Earlier this month, our publisher released a report, "Don’t Call Them Post-Racial," which surveyed attitudes about race in key systems in U.S. society among young adults 18-25. Dom Apollon’s research team conducted focus groups with dozens of young people in the Los Angeles area, and learned that their thoughts on race are far more nuanced than most polling and commentary has suggested. Theirs is the most diverse generation in U.S. history, but that doesn’t make them post-race. Rather, the young people in the focus groups made clear that they believed race still matters today.

The young people struggled for language to define racism and they differed across racial groups in how they saw race impacting society. But they identified race as a "significant problem" in a few key areas, with all racial groups agreeing that race remained a problem for both criminal justice and employment. Young people of color identified education as a particular trouble spot as well.

They also differed in what they thought should be done about these problems–while white Millennials, as this generation has been dubbed, largely identified racism as driven by individuals and demanding individual solutions, young people of color were more likely to identify racism as a collective problem that demands political action to resolve. As Apollon wrote, "All of these ideas are crucial to understand because they also shape how this generation will choose to act upon racism and racial injustice."

So to make these ideas more concrete, we talked to five organizations and campaigns that are working with Millennials to tackle racism as a collective, systemic problem rather than an individualized, personal one. Here’s what they had to say about their work.

Fearless Leading By Youth || Chicago

FLY’s "Trauma Center Track."

Brittany Blaney, 17, got involved in Fearless Leading by Youth (FLY) after her best friend was shot and killed on Chicago’s South Side. FLY is the youth leadership arm of Southside Together Organizing for Power, and one of their main campaigns is an effort to bring the University of Chicago’s trauma center back into the community, after 23 years of shuttered doors. "There’s no trauma center on the South Side. Why should we have to go all the way [downtown] to Northwestern when we could have a hospital right here?" Brittany and the other young leaders in FLY have been doing research on urban trauma centers, presenting their findings to the university and doing direct action in the form of protests, die-ins and teach-ins in the community. They’ve also gone beyond their own campaign to partner with allies working on issues that feed the systemic problem as well. They joined forces with CeaseFire to address the violence that makes the trauma center necessary in the first place, and they’ve supported the University of Chicago hospitals’ nurses during labor negotiations.

Ali Forney Center || New York City

The Ali Forney Story.

The Ali Forney Center was started in 2002 to provide resources and services for homeless LGBT youth. "There was no safe shelter in New York City for LGBT youth when we started," says Carl Siciliano, the Center’s executive director. Siciliano estimates that nearly 80 percent of the teens and young adults that come to the center are people of color. In the nearly 10 years since it was founded, AFC has expanded to provide more than beds; it helps young clients build independent living skills, provides medical care and, importantly, has job placement programs. And it has led a coalition of groups reminding New York State politicians that LGBT people need more than marriage; they’re currently fighting for adequate funding to ensure safe housing for queer youth in shelters around the city. Earlier this month, as comedian Tracy Morgan apologized for an anti-gay tirade during a standup routine, the "30 Rock" star visited AFC to hear queer youth of color explain to him why violence against them isn’t funny.

Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy & Leadership (AYPAL) || Oakland

AYPAL has been working with allies and conducting outreach in the Bay Area for 13 years. After sending out a survey to search for solutions to problems plaguing youth in the area–isolation, racism, inter-generational tension, sexism–the group’s organizers got an interesting response from teachers, students and community members: The best way to ease tensions would be to introduce an ethnic studies curriculum in the Oakland Unified School District. "We don’t know about each other’s histories," says Armael Malinis, lead organizer. Malinis believes dropout rates and school violence can be attributed to the fact that Oakland’s student body, which is overwhelmingly students of color, doesn’t see school as culturally relevant. "Incorporating ethnic studies into the curriculum allows them to feel connected." As a youth-led organization focused on base-building and empowerment, AYPAL looks to students to guide their campaigns. "Those who are deeply impacted by racism … are the ones who can come up with creative solutions," added Malinis. AYPAL is looking ahead to next school year, when its Ethnic Studies Task Force–along with OUSD administrators and teachers–will launch a pilot program in the area’s high schools, focused on developing a curriculum that will hopefully be replicated throughout the country.

Center For Young Women’s Development || San Francisco

"Young women have very different issues than boys," says Venus Rodriguez, CYWD’s program director. CYWD’s core programs are targeted toward young women age 16-24 who participate in the underground street economy or have been in the juvenile or adult judicial systems. Their core programs are designed to develop young women into "peer models"–young leaders who can serve as examples to other girls in the center. CYWD gives incentives for participating in their programs, and gives young mothers childcare, parenting classes and meals to help them transition into the community. A big component of their work is their political education program, which "is almost like a re-education. They come in with all kinds of stereotypes and we use culture-shares to break them." Because there are so many bigger interests along the school-to-prison pipeline and the incarceration system, Rodriguez points out that it’s necessary to educate girls about alternatives, and about how to navigate life in their communities.

Young Women of Color Initiative || Nationwide

The Young Women of Color Initiative started in 2001 as a part of Advocates for Youth, a national organization focused on building youth movements for sexual and reproductive health. "When we started the program, we saw the need to have culturally relevant and gender-specific community health organization programs. Nothing focused on young people or women of color; everything was about general HIV education," says Trina Scott, Advocates for Youth’s associate director of health equity and youth empowerment. Scott describes the Initiative’s Leadership Council, a group of 14 young women who work together to promote HIV prevention programs targeting youth of color, where the epidemic is raging. Young women that have participated in the Council have gone on to careers in public policy, public health and education, taking the framework of reproductive justice to a broader scale and working toward equitable sexual health care nationally.