Throughout history, Americans have taken to the streets to express their concerns and outrage at injustices. The past few years have been no exception and have been filled with a spark in activism and advocacy, amplifying voices across the nation. Young people have joined and sometimes led protests rallying around climate change, social injustice, gun control, immigration issues, and more.
Black Lives Matter has been one of the issues at the forefront of protests since 2013 when it was founded in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013, the death of George Floyd in 2020, ignited a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and launched outrage around the world. The recent conviction of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd in 2020 has continued to highlight the inequities of police violence against the Black community.
Participating in rallies, protests, and boycotts provides credible and important avenues that offer opportunities for the voices of young people to be heard. They shine a spotlight on critical issues and help mobilize people, but as those who have fought for racial equality and civil rights for decades have learned, systemic change results from public policy, which requires that stakeholders take a seat at the table.
Taking Activism to the Next Level
Youth engagement isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a crucial part of youth development that enables young people to be more than just passive recipients of external influences. Young people, like everyone, are affected by public policies in multiple aspects of their daily lives. Encouraging young people to actively participate in shaping the world around them prepares them to become dynamic citizens in a democracy.
To affect lasting change, young people need to understand and be part of the process that determines public policy. Comprehending and appreciating how legislation is developed and becomes law is a critical component of a well-rounded education.
Recently, REAP joined with other organizations, including the Oregon Association of Student Councils, the Oregon Association of Secondary School Administrators, and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, to work with more than 300 students to participate in the state legislative process.
Students worked together to craft a bill to create a state-level Racial Equity and Justice Student Collaborative (House Bill 336-2). The collaborative will include students, ages 11 to 18, with a majority from racial or ethnic communities that have historically been or are now underrepresented or underserved and focus on improving educational outcomes for students from those communities, including students who identify as LGBTQ2SIA+, are emerging bilingual, and or are experiencing disability.
Multiple Benefits of Youth Involvement in Policymaking
Everyone benefits from youth involvement in policymaking. Young people learn tremendous skills and gain knowledge. It also provides an opportunity for them to develop valuable relationships and connections and help promote confidence and self-esteem.
Youth participation in policymaking also provides essential context for political and community leaders because it allows them to gain perspectives and information about policy and pending legislation. Access to other viewpoints and experiences can be enormously helpful to improve programs and initiatives.
Another advantage of fostering young policymakers is that it can strengthen communities by improving the quality of life, ensuring that needed youth services are in place, and creating an environment that authentically embraces diversity by representing young people.
The late US Representative, John Lewis, is an excellent example of taking activism to a higher level. After decades of work as an organizer and activist for racial justice and equality, he galvanized his work to shape the future by serving in the US House of Representatives, beginning in 1987. Becoming part of the mainstream didn’t diminish his activism but instead allowed him to exert a more significant influence on the country as a policymaker.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
– Rep. John Lewis, A tweet from June 2018