April 13, 2018 under Posts

The Youth Empowerment Movement: Timely, Sure. Reinvention, No.

By Nakia Johnson, Program Manager, Training & Development

It is with pride and honor that I say, “The Youth Empowerment Movement has not reinvented the wheel.”  Young people have been mobilizing, moving, and shifting the needle to chart new paradigms for years.  The critical questions, however, are:  Who has taken notice?  Have we taken notice?  Have we supported and equipped young people with all that we have so that they have all that they need to fully become their own best advocates on issues that affect them and the trajectory of their lives each day?

For examples in fairly recent history, I need only reach back one generation to the segregated South in which my mother was born to find examples of young people mobilizing, boycotting, and undergoing abusive treatment at “White only” lunch counters day in and day out during the Civil Rights Movement.  Cited as one of the most overlooked actions of the Civil Rights Movement is the 1963 school boycott in Chicago where 250,000 students staged a one-day boycott that challenged overcrowded and under-resourced conditions that, instead of dismantling the color barrier, often relegated black students to trailers outside of school buildings1.  The following year in 1964, over 450,000 Black and Puerto Rican students in New York City organized an even larger action, protesting similar discriminatory acts in New York City public schools2, both actions in close proximity to the 10-year anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that had theoretically desegregated schools.

Fast forward to today:  The Civil Rights Movement has evolved into present-day movements like Black Lives Matter, where we have young people who are active on multiple fronts across the country.  We’ve become familiar with the names of young people like

  • 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, the youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives, who urged us not to forget black women and girls who are disproportionate victims of gun violence and whose stories often do not make the evening news;
  • 17-year-old Edna Lisbeth Chavez, a youth leader from South L.A. who lost her brother to gun violence who also spoke at the March for Our Lives; and
  • 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez whose several minutes of silence at the march spoke volumes.

Yet, still, there are countless other youth leaders whose names we do not know.  This not only begs the question, “Why?” but also points to a pressing need to do more to support young people in ways that are accessible and engaging for them.  So, no, the Youth Empowerment Movement does not reinvent the wheel.  It does, however, offer teens tools so that they can grab hold of the wheel that empowers them to begin to steer their lives toward social justice and positive social impact.  For that, I will always be a willing supporter.

To read excerpts from the Call to Action that I shared with our YEM graduates at their closing ceremony on April 6, 2018, click here.

To view video of YEM participants in their own words, click here.

Find the closing ceremony photo recap here.

In totality, both represent what we, as adults, can offer as support to young people and, in turn, a glimpse of what they can do when fully supported.

1 Dickson, Rachel, “Good,” October 23, 2013, https://www.good.is/articles/on-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-1963-chicago-public-schools-boycott-segregation-and-unfair-resourcing-endures

2 Anderson, Melinda D., “The Atlantic,” November 23, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/student-activism-history-injustice/417129/