Stepping in front of over 800,000 people gathered at the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. (and many more watching via live-stream and on cable news networks), Emma González stood fearlessly through a six-minute and twenty second moment of silence as she asked her audience to reflect on the short time span it took for her classmates to die at the hands of a school shooter. Latinx, female, bisexual, with a shaved head, Emma González has become an icon of youth empowerment. Her green bomber jacket, covered in patches, buttons, and pins, reflected an anarchist visual vernacular: a revolutionary Cuban flag, the Apollo 11 mission insignia, the words “We Call BS” and “Not too shabby,” and colorful ribbons tied to unique causes (including a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag).
Some of these patches no doubt had personal associations, some subcultural, but the assemblage suggests the diversity of identities and affiliations to which contemporary youth seek to lay claim. Her jacket helps us to trace the roots of this movement through other recent examples of networked activism—Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, the Dreamers, the LGBTQ movement, and many others. These patches position González and her peers as intersectional figures bridging different populations, forging a new coalition for social change. Her symbolic choices demonstrate an awareness of the multiple media contexts in which her message will spread.
The jacket, especially the Cuban flag patch, became a focal point for right-wing television and radio pundits. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) described González as wearing a “communist flag” and suggested that “your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens.” Others suggested that the Cuban flag be understood “not as a symbol of political orientation.… but rather as a sign of national belonging, independent of ideological belief.”
As politicians and political commentary tried to nail down the meaning of this one patch among the many on the jacket, her young supporters began to construct their own jackets, embracing the attire as a symbol of youth empowerment to be worn at rallies across the country. The shared fashion statement expresses solidarity even if the selection of patches allows each participant to express unique aspects of their identity. While many discussions of networked activism start and stop with the digital, González’s jacket helped her to embody the change she wants to inspire. During her extended moment of silence, the television cameras fixated on her jacket, signaling who she is and what she cares about.
This young activist’s resourcefulness and commitment contrasts sharply with wide-spread critiques (especially in the popular press) of American youth as disconnected from politics or as engaging in forms of online expression that can be easily dismissed as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism.” As one critic explains, “The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonald’s is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.” The clicktivist critique often describes online campaigns as involving limited risk or exertion and having superficial impact on institutional politics. Typically, such critiques isolate what takes place online from its larger context within a social movement, so that much of what we will discuss in this essay would not surface in such accounts.
Drawing on field research conducted by USC Annenberg School PhD candidate Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, we co-authored an article for The Brown Journal of World Affairs, discussing the #NeverAgain movement as an example of “Participatory Politics” at work. Youth today often express their civic agency through alternative forms of political participation where culture, media practice, and social networks coalesce. According to Joe Kahne, Cathy Cohen and Danielle Allen, working with the MacArthur Foundation-funded Youth and Participatory Politics Network (YPP), participatory politics are “interactive, peer-based acts through which youth exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” YPP researchers found that young people who engaged in participatory politics were almost twice as likely to vote as those who did not. Young people have been the focus of voter suppression efforts; candidates often talk past young people, not only ignoring their issues, but also using insider language which can be hard for many voters (young and old) to parse (e.g., six-point plans involving multiple governmental agencies). Despite all of this, by almost any measure, youth involvement in participatory politics has dramatically increased over the past decades. Contrary to those who dismiss slacktivism, these practices often involved deeper commitments of time, energy, social capital, and knowledge than those of institutional politics. Social media may enable quick, superficial mobilizations intended as a rapid responses to an immediate concern, but networked political practices also allow participants to stay linked, develop strong social ties, and generate shared perspectives, all of which can result in young people protesting, registering to vote, or lobbying political leaders.
In their 2018 book, #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws The Line, David and Lauren Hogg suggest the merging of these old and new pathways to youth engagement:
We are growing up in a time when technology gives us the confidence to assume that we can do things and figure out the world in ways that it hasn’t been figured out before. No permission necessary. Stoneman Douglas is a big piece, too, because teachers there put such a huge emphasis on studying real problems in the world today, so we already knew a lot about politics and social issues and just presumed that we could do something about them.
Some of the Parkland students acquired skills through high school debate, student government, newspaper, drama clubs, A/V groups, and through their civics and public speaking classes. These new activists are also fans, gamers, and bloggers. All these experiences inspired their participation and built capacity, but the shootings were their catalyst. As David Hogg wrote, “Before February 14, we thought we had plenty of time. We wanted to do something that would make the world a better place…But first we had to finish high school…When it happened to us, we woke up….We had to make the world a better place now. It was literally a matter of life and death.”
Six weeks later, the teens had helped to organize a massive march on Washington, a march which would attract national media coverage. Since this monumental day of action, #NeverAgain has sustained their momentum toward gun legislation reform, and their efforts are yielding real results. Since the Parkland shooting, more than 26 states have passed 55 gun laws. Parkland has become emblematic for the new youth activists, in part because this movement has been so successful, at forging intersectional networks with leaders from other social movements, such as Black Lives Matter or those involved in the Standing Rock uprisings, showing the often unacknowledged connections amongst diverse communities involved in struggles around gun violence in America. Working together across divides which hobbled previous generations of activists, these young people seek to change the world by “any media necessary.”
At this year’s Connected Learning Summit to be held on October 2-5 at the University of California-Irvine, I will be sitting down with two young activists to discuss the factors which have enabled them to have an out-sized impact upon contemporary social policy debates.
Jessica Riestra attends the University of Sacramento. She worked with the California Democratic Party as a field organizer, serves as the Co-Director for March for Our Lives California, and acts as the Vice President of External Affairs for a new group called GenUp. Moreover, Riestra has also been an organizer for MoveOn while being the Volunteer Coordinator for the Western Service Workers Association of Sacramento.
Justin Scott Jr. also known as STR33T. is a student, activist, and “constant learner” who shares that ‘Throughout the past three years I have worked diligently alongside grass roots organizations such as Students Deserve, United Black Student Unions of California, and Black Lives Matter, to combat the massive inequity within education. I use the arts via poetry, music, visual arts, and more as a mode to effectuate social and political change.”
Speaking with them via Skype in preparation for the event, I was left with a sense of awe about how much these young activists have dedicated themselves to making a difference on issues that matter to them and their communities. In our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activist, we described the experience of pulling together a similar mix of young change-makers for an event at MIT and having each of them step away from the label of activist, feeling that it did not describe their understanding of their methods for changing the world. Today, Jackson Bird, one of the student leaders who participated in this event, has emerged as a key figure in the fight for the rights of Trans youth, writing an upcoming book, Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place.
Speaking with Riestra and Scott, it was clear that they had no trouble conceptualizing themselves as activists. The times have changed. In the age of Trump, many of the issues that impact young people’s lives have come to a head, requiring them to speak out, often for their own survival.
Preparing this blog post, I asked each of them to share some thoughts about what the term, activism, means to them and what set them on their current paths as people who dedicate seemingly every waking moment to their causes.
Jessica Riestra shared:
Activism means giving back to the community that has provided to you. It means never forgetting about your origins but fighting for your people. It is a continuation of a civil rights fight that has been fought by multiple generations to improve for the next one. I come from a background where I have been belittled because of my race and my language. Although born in the United States, I grew up with Spanish being the dominant language in my life. Throughout my life I have had to surpass multiple challenges and struggles in order to succeed in life. People have been vocal on their desire to see me fail, which has empowered me to become a voice for my community.
The biggest wakeup call was during Trump’s campaign trail that landed him in Orange County. During that rally, I was called more names then I can ever imagine. I was called an alien, dirty, immigrant… I had people telling me to go back to my country and was harassed by 10 men who were trying to take advantage of me. It has and will always be one of the most difficult moments of my life. However, my political participation means me being a voice for many of my family members. Most of my family members are still undocumented and risk the chance of deportation. My participation means me empowering my family to fight for their individual rights as citizens of this country. It means an overcoming of an era where I felt I would not become anyone simply because I had so many people wishing me to fail. In general it means me continuing the fight of the generations before me and hoping to make changes for the generations after me.
Justin Scott Jr. told me:
Activism is more than protesting, voting, marching, and Instagram posts. Activism is advocating for underrepresented and oppressed communities in all aspects of life. Activism is being a community builder and future sculptor. Activism is analyzing the oppressive systems that halt the growth of underrepresented communities, then having the courage, will, and faith to use direct actions and indirect actions that would destroy those systems that exploit the vulnerable. Activism is all about working out of one’s love for people and community in order to change the world around us.
As they prepared to speak to a room full of educators, activists, artists, and community leaders, the issue of mentorship was one we all knew we would need to speak to. Our audience will want to know what they can do to support young people who are putting so much effort into social justice struggles inside school and beyond. I asked the two youth to share what forms of mentorship they had received along the way.
Justin Scott Jr. recalled:
I’ve been blessed to have numerous elders that have nurtured me and assisted in my journey to becoming a critically conscious individual. From some of them, I learned the importance of seeking knowledge because the current public school system does not truly educate Black youth, so we must find other methods to develop our consciousness. This critical education can come from the arts, literature, history, and mostly interacting with the community that you are surrounded in. My elders have also taught me that this work comes with a lot of pain, anger, and anxiety at times, but the only true emotion that can solve the problems at hand is love. The community’s pain and suffering can only be healed through love, so the community activists and advocates must move with love in every aspect of life. Us, the activists, must be the light in the community when all that everyone else sees is the dark; we must bring our people the love resources and happiness that they deserve.
Lastly, my elders have taught me that activism starts first and foremost, with the youth. The youth are the most fertile soil to plant the seeds of love, community, and critical thinking. If Black youth got the opportunity to experience true love, support, and happiness, we would be unstoppable and I am living proof of that statement.
Jessica Riestra shared:
One of my mentors was named Asia. She taught me that it is important to take care of myself while it is significant to love myself. In this type of realm, mental health often becomes our worst rival. We have doubts about ourselves and our fight. We often sacrifice so much for others, that we forget to take care of ourselves. In the end, we fail to realize our own importance. It is through the constant reminders, love, and trust that I learned this lesson. Now I use this to help my members understand their contributions and knowing that before the organization, comes the person.
We plan to talk more about the ways schools do or do not support students who are involved in social change movements, the ways that students and teachers are making common cause to transform these institutions, when we take the stage together at the Connected Learning Summit. This is an event you will not want to miss.
Registration is open for the 2019 Connected Learning Summit and tickets range from $200-$410, with special pricing for students and K-12 and informal educators. An early bird registration discount is currently available through August 16.