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It’s Time to Invest in Youth Leaders

May 16, 2018

DCPSWalkout_AFA-1024x681In the months since the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the response of youth activists has captured the attention of the nation. What has largely gone unnoticed, however, is that across the country a dynamic youth-organizing field has emerged. Over the past twenty years, groups — many of them led by low-income young people of color — have been organizing to improve education, end the school-to-prison pipeline, protect immigrant rights, and address other critical issues.

New research demonstrates that not only does youth organizing result in concrete policy changes, it also promotes positive academic, social/emotional, and civic engagement outcomes. Yet despite recent investment in youth organizing from funders like the Ford Foundation and the California Endowment, overall funding remains modest. That's unfortunate, because even as a new generation demonstrates its willingness to take on some of our toughest issues, the need for investment in the leadership of young people, especially those most impacted by injustice, has never been more important.

According to the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing's National Youth Organizing Landscape Map, there are more than two hundred youth organizing groups across the country, the majority of them focused on middle and high school students of color. These groups support the development of young leaders and organize campaigns to address inequity in their communities. In Los Angeles, Inner City Struggle and Community Coalition led the campaign to ensure a rigorous college preparatory curriculum for all students. Groups such as Communities United in Chicago, Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver, and the Philadelphia Student Union have gotten their school districts to create policies that address racial disparities in school discipline, resulting in changes that have benefited hundreds of thousands of students. 

A new report summarizing the findings of multiple studies suggests that not only does this kind of organizing drive positive change in communities, it is also one the best ways to support the healthy development of young people. Contrary to the common misconception of organizing as rabble-rousing, researchers found that organizing engages young people in a cycle of research, preparation, action, and reflection, while providing them with many opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. Researchers also found that youth organizers engage in "emotional work" that supports the development of the social and emotional skills which experts believe to be among the best predictors of future success.

Indeed, a study of more than three hundred youth organizing alumni found that they were nearly twice as likely to attend a four-year college, more than three times as likely to attend a top college, and seven times more likely to belong to a political organization than peers from similar backgrounds. Researchers also found that youth organizing is especially relevant for low-income young people and young people of color because of the way it speaks to their lived realities. 

Part of the power of youth organizing is that it connects individual transformation to systemic change. Too often, funders and community leaders feel they must choose between these very different outcomes. But the reality is that we cannot achieve one without the other. While some young people faced with adverse circumstances will develop the resilience to succeed, there is a direct relationship between young people's development and the quality and health of their schools and communities. To create real transformation, we must develop strategies that connect individual and community change. 

We find ourselves once again in a moment where young people are demonstrating that they are the most effective drivers of change. The post-Parkland movement is turning its attention from marches and walkouts to engaging young voters. Collaboration between the young people inspired by the Parkland tragedy and those organizing around racial justice could create a powerful force for good. A generation of civically engaged young people with the skills to bring people together across lines of race and class may be our best hope for creating a just and democratic society. For this to become a reality, however, philanthropy must invest meaningfully in the leadership of young people, especially those from communities most impacted by injustice. 

Despite the many benefits of youth organizing, less than one percent of the money invested in youth development goes to organizing. This must change. Engaging young people in organizing is a three-for-one investment: it creates real change in communities, supports young people's healthy development, and trains the next generation of community leaders. Youth organizing develops productive, empowered young people while also creating societal conditions in which they can thrive. This generation of young people is ready to lead. It's time for philanthropy to get behind them.


(Photo credit: Allison Fletcher Acosta)

Eric Braxton is executive director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a collective of social justice funders and youth organizing practitioners that works to advance youth organizing as a strategy for youth development and social change.

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