Taking Stock of Youth Organizing

Photo credits: JaniceJordan.org (top); Boston Area Youth Organizing Project (bottom)

by Tommaso Verderame, 15; and Jordan Denari, 18 for Y-Press

Genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Africa, child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Uganda—  these issues are publicized on teenagers’ T-shirts across the country. With the help of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, youth around the globe can find hundreds of ways to organize and get involved with issues that transcend national borders. Compared to their counterparts of the last few decades, today’s youth activists would seemingly have come a long way.

But Barry Checkoway, a renowned University of Michigan social work professor who has spent more than two decades conducting research about young people involved in community change, says youth activism today is not much different from youth activism of the past.

“I do think that the rise of telecommunication has enabled many youth to learn more and focus on issues that go beyond their national boundaries,” he said. However, “I think that the basic interest of youth activism remains in domestic social problems. Over the years, the interest in poverty, homelessness and the environment have continued to be pretty stable issues,” he said.

Checkoway says that though youth are certainly more aware of global issues, few can actually be considered activists, which requires dedication and action. In fact, Checkoway observed that through the years, the number of “serious” youth activists has remained small and “many, if not most, of the high-school-age youth are sort of involved and sort of not involved.”

The increasing role of community service in youths’ lives does not seem to translate into activism either, Checkoway says. “I see high schoolers who want to help the homeless, but they don’t want to work for affordable housing, and they don’t necessarily want to mobilize voters for a socially just housing policy,” he said.

Like Checkoway, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has spent years looking at youth and activism, generally as a community organizer and consultant but also as the chief researcher and contributing editor of Future 5000, a directory of progressive youth activists and organizations published in 2002. Now working with the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, he, too, says he’s seen little growth in activism on global issues with the advent of online social networking.

Rather, he says, the Internet is mainly a tool that youth activists use to further their work. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s when they had rallies, what did they give you?  They gave you a newsletter. The network and community was face-to-face back then, but still you got some information, walked away with like a pamphlet that told you what they were about. That’s just like reading a blog, only a blog reaches more people.”

Technology has been helpful in other ways, mainly in putting like-minded organizations in contact with one another throughout the U.S., Checkoway says. Youth in California are especially savvy on using the Internet for community organizing, he added.  

Abdul-Matin and Checkoway agree that local community activism enjoys more success than projects of larger scope. “We try to encourage young people to focus on the local community of which they are a part because local action and local officials are more accessible. You can go to a meeting and you can actually see them,” Checkoway said.
Democracy requires citizens to act locally, Abdul-Matin added. “When you’re rooted like that, then you’re definitely more effective.”

Abdul-Matin sees youth drawn to the same key issues that Checkoway cites—poverty, homelessness and the environment—but focused on the local level. “In the old days, caring about the environment was about a lot of empty spaces out in the middle of nowhere that you were protecting. So it was not really about power or people power,” he said. Now, youth are galvanized by environmental issues in their own backyards, like polluted waterways and air pollution.

As an example of a model community group, Abdul-Matin cited the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project, which works to keep the mass transit system accessible and affordable. “Young people from Boston are involved in the work, from the different high schools around the area. They meet in a very central part of Boston near Copley Square and they hash it out,” he said.  “They’re trying to get a youth pass, and not just little like rinky-dink high school pass, but like a youth pass up until age 21.  So that’s like a real campaign,” he said.  They have captured their work on a YouTube video.

Abdul-Matin is seeing an upswing in community organizing by youth in their 20s regardless of issue. He credits President Obama. “Now community organizing is sexy,” he said. “You tell your parents like 10 years ago, ‘I’m gonna be a community organizer,’ they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, get a real job!”

Both men welcome more activists because they benefit not only their communities, but themselves, says Checkoway, who has long studied the effects of activism on organizations, communities and youth involved.

“When young people participate in the community, it’s good for them and it’s good for the community,” he said. “Youth organizing makes young people more confident, contributes to their leadership abilities, enables them to do better in school, contributes to their organizational skills, affects many, many aspects.”

Social justice is a calling heard by young people not only to right a wrong, but as a way to learn more about themselves and their roles in the world.

“I really believe that people who are mostly in their middle and late adolescent years are the strongest social justice advocates, and I believe that this is pretty much worldwide,” Checkoway observed.

“The search for social justice is also a search for finding an identity … finding role models.”


Kids on the Wire


Shout Outs


have a story for wkcd?

Want to bring public attention
to your work? WKCD invites
submissions from youth and
educators worldwide.

Write to us


“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator




Boston Area Youth Organizing Project 

Video of BYOP in action

Youth and Community highlights of some of Barry Checkoway’s work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work with community groups and activists

Inner-City Muslim Action Network of Chicago is a community-based nonprofit that works for social justice, delivers a range of direct services, and cultivates the arts in urban communities

Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing is a collective of national, regional and local grantmakers and youth organizing practitioners dedicated to advancing youth organizing as a strategy for youth development and social justice

Future 5000 is a directory of progressive youth organizations across the US. It is both a historical document of the organizing movement and a tool to keep it growing in a connected way.