Youth Protests: A Positive Sign of the Times?

Civics Lesson for the 21st Century

Posted Jan 06, 2015

People, like me, who were raised in the Sixties, remember the gut-wrenching images of social unrest – anger, protests, bloodshed, and chaos on college campuses. We spoke truth to power then, and felt empowered to make a difference in Vietnam and for civil rights.    

Today, protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray remind us that the struggle for social justice is never-ending. It’s a conversation that must go beyond Grand Jury decisions, words spoken by public officials, and a single focus on police. Young people must be able to envision pathways forward, be positively engaged in the process, and see themselves as important voices for systemic change. Historically, protests have played a vital role in social change. What makes today’s youth motivated to speak up for change as we did in my generation? 

Education is a big part of the answer. In Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz blames schools for failing to instill the values that led prior generations of Americans to work toward the betterment of society. He sees today’s students as “sheep” who follow prescribed pathways to material, academic, and self-success, while ignoring the needs of those around them. Deresiewicz convinces us that the goal of education should always be “to leverage learning as an agent of social change — the kind of objective that makes leadership and citizenship into something more than pretty words.” 

Here’s where we have a problem. Never before have young people been so disengaged from their communities and uninformed about the tenets of democracy. In No Joking: Our Kids Are Failing Democracy 101, I laid out the sad state of civics education and youth civic engagement today. I agree with Deresiewicz that we need a better educational and developmental model for children, one that instills civic values and encourages engagement. Only then will civic protests lead to positive dialog and needed change. 

While civic apathy has increased over several decades, there is one psychological motivator that always drives social change — anger. When young people care fiercely enough about justice, equality, or other societal issues, their voices are powerful agents for change. Diverse middle and high school youth, from those living in affluence to those living in poverty, must talk with each other as well as with parents, teachers, and public officials. When they take part in dialogue; walk together in peaceful protests; and problem-solve in their local communities, they send a strong, formidable message to elected officials. 

Will the deaths of young black men engage more youth in protests and conversations about social justice? I hope so. In fact, it may be education’s golden opportunity to transform the anger of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore into real learning for American youth.   

Teachers don’t need to look far to find resources to support young people to make a difference. Check out the following organizations for guidance and inspiration. And then, help students find their voices in meaningful, nonviolent, artistic, and powerful ways that may just be the greatest civics lesson of the 21st century. 

9 Resources for Engaging Youth in Civic Dialogue 

Highlander Research and Education Center

Highlander is a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement-building in Appalachia and the South. They work for justice, equality, and sustainability — helping people learn to shape their own destinies. 

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

The NCDD is an excellent resource center, providing a dialogue and deliberation process that helps people come together across differences to tackle societal challenges. Thousands of resources are available on their website, many can be used with young people. 

Restorative Justice

A cooperative process aimed at healing those affected by the criminal justice system, restorative justice is a concept gaining momentum worldwide. Edutopia also maintains an excellent list of resources for using restorative justice in schools

The Ruckus Society

The Ruckus Society, headquartered in Oakland, CA, provides human rights and social justice organizers with tools, training, and support to achieve their goals through the strategic use of creative, nonviolent direct action. 

Seattle Young People’s Project

The Seattle Young People’s Project is a youth-led, adult supported social justice organization that empowers self-expression for youth ages 13-18 to take action on the issues that affect their lives. 

The FreeChild Project

The FreeChild Project provides tools, training, and technical assistance to help create new roles for young people throughout society. They have an amazing collection of resources to help young people create social change. 

Teen Empowerment

The Teen Empowerment program in Boston inspires young people and the adults who work with them, to think deeply about the most difficult social problems and provides tools to create positive change. 

Youth Act! – A Program of StreetLaw

The Youth Act!® program teaches youth how to advocate for meaningful change in their communities using the legal advocacy process as a guide. 

Youth Speaks

Youth Speaks inspires young artists and visionary activists through written and oral literacies. They challenge youth to find, develop, publicly present, and apply their voices as creators of social change. 

There is much to be learned from the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and other American cities — and young people can and should be meaningfully engaged. What will set today’s youth apart from the “sheep” to whom Deresiewicz referred is leadership by adults who encourage youth to speak truth to power, help them find non-violent ways to express their feelings, and support them as they become part of the solution. Through positive youth activism, students change the way they see themselves and the world around them. They see how they can have a lasting impact on society. 

This will be an important moment in social history if young people are meaningfully engaged. If we apply what we know from research about what makes youth activism successful, we can build the kind of society that Deresiewicz dreams about – or at least turn more sheep into lions for social change. 

If you know of other organizations or programs that provide valuable tools and resources for positive youth activism, please feel free to add them in the comments section below.  


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of ActionTwitter, or Facebook.    

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