ERIC BRAXTON FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
From labor rights to civil rights to antiwar movements, youth have always been on the forefront of social change. Following the tragic Parkland shooting, the potential now exists for today's generation of leaders to transform politics in ways that go far beyond gun control. To do so, youth leaders must build multiracial alliances that center the leadership of young people of color who have been most impacted by gun violence. They must also turn this moment into effective political power. The recent student marches provide evidence that these changes are already in motion.
While many have expressed surprise at the eloquence and power of the young organizers, beneath the radar, a dynamic youth organizing field has grown over the last 20 years to engage and develop many such leaders. Primarily led by high school students of color, these groups are winning powerful victories to end the school-to-prison pipeline, protect immigrant rights, address mass incarceration and more. Edna Chavez, who spoke so powerfully about the trauma of gun violence at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, is a member of Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, which has organized young people to win hundreds of millions of dollars to improve schools in the region while also ensuring college preparatory curriculum for all students. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos in Denver has won statewide and local policy changes to end school discipline practices that unfairly target young people of color. More than 300 such groups exist across the country.
These youth organizing groups are responding to the Parkland tragedy in different ways. Many have pointed out the disparities in how the media coverage on the shooting compared to the lack of attention to gun violence in Black and Brown communities. Others expressed outrage that proposed policy changes including increasing policing in schools, arming teachers, and certain gun control measures will further criminalize their communities and strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Dream Defenders and Power U Center for Social Change -- which led the takeover of the Florida state capital after George Zimmerman's acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin -- are meeting and strategizing with the Parkland students and are developing plans to engage young voters in Florida. Communities United in Chicago connected student walkouts to its campaign to address violence and mass incarceration. YVote brought together 15 youth organizing groups representing young people of color in California to support student walkouts and is aiming to register tens of thousands of young voters in the next three weeks.
If the young people of color organizing for social and racial justice find unity with those activated by Parkland, they could ignite their generation and emerge as a transformative cultural and political force. Multiracial coalitions of this kind are not easily formed. White millennials are by no means immune to racism. If this movement is to be successful, it needs the voices of young people from the communities most impacted by gun violence at the center. This would require the Parkland leaders to reshape their demands to address the concerns of students of color. While their key issues are not the same, racial justice youth organizing groups and the new young leaders inspired after Parkland both stand in opposition to a right wing that is deeply intertwined with the National Rifle Association and has criminalized communities of color.
But here's the hope. Many high school students will soon be able to vote. And where some recent movements have been ambivalent about electoral politics and have therefore had limited impact on elections, the leaders of the March for Our Lives are quite clear that they intend to mobilize large numbers of young voters, the sleeping giant. Young people are more likely to express progressive views on issues, but they are less likely than their elders to align with political parties, whose efforts to reach them are often clumsy. Research shows that issues like gun control and movement-oriented campaigns can be effective tools in reaching young voters. Following this logic, this movement might just wake the giant, with a strategic new alliance anchored by youth organizing groups, many of whom have already developed effective voter engagement programs and are poised to mobilize scores of new voters.
Over the last century, watershed moments such as the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War have shaped the political views of a generation and moved young leaders to disrupt politics as usual. For many youths today, the shooting in Parkland is such a moment. For others, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other Black and Brown people are their moments. If young people find common cause (or at least common opposition) and combine protest with political action, this generation could bring in sweeping political change.
The development of a new generation of leaders requires support. Often, support for youth leadership has focused on college-age young people, but in this moment, it is middle and high school students who are the leading edge of change. Those who want to ride a wave of change would be well-advised to support them.
Eric Braxton is the executive director of the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a national association of funders and youth organizers committed to advancing the leadership of young people in movements for social justice.