Youth Activism: What Role Can Kids Play In Political and Societal Change?

Survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting are getting organized. And they demand to be heard.

Sascha Raiyn

These last twenty years, we as a country have watched in horror as children are slain in their own schools — over and over again. And over and over again we plead for an end to the violence.

Those pleas have been met with the same thing from our adult leaders: silence.

Last week’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida looked like it would be just the latest in that same cycle — youth slaughtered, public outcry, inaction from policymakers, and the crushing feeling of helplessness that follows.

But this time, something a bit out of the ordinary happened. The silence that often follows the white noise of these events was broken. There were voices — diminutive but resonant — that we weren’t used to hearing. Not from politicians. Not from gun control or gun rights activists. Not even from teachers or parents. These were the voices of the teenagers who survived the shooting begging for adults to put an end to the needless violence that ended the lives of 17 of their peers.

These students in Parkland, Florida aren’t just speaking up. They’re getting organized. Within days they had created a movement on social media, emblazoned with the hashtag #NeverAgain. They have a headquarters. They have a strategy. And soon they’ll help organize and lead two protests: the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24. These kids are engaged in real political and social advocacy. And they demand to be heard.

This all seems extraordinary, and it is. But it’s also not the first time kids have felt the need to organize for political and social change.

Youth advocacy has played a significant role in the progress of our country over centuries. Think of the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges who put their lives on the line to desegregate white schools in the south.

Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson explores the role young people can play in moving our country forward.

Jonathan Stith

Henderson speaks with Jonathan Stith, national coordinator with the Alliance for Educational Justice, a national network of intergenerational and youth-led organizations working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Stith has decades of experience working with youth to address social inequities.

“It’s not an uncommon response,” says Stith. “And in my work…we would say that, actually, there is some healing in organizing and trying to change the set of conditions and circumstances that created the tragedy that happened there.”

Frank Joyce, a longtime Detroit activist who was involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, also joins Detroit Today to talk about this new generation’s political activism.

“I think it’s just incredibly encouraging that these young people in Florida are setting an example,” says Joyce. “They are challenging, essentially, the order of things…that adults have created.”

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.

Courtesy of Jonathan Stith/Alliance for Educational Justice



  • Detroit Today
    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.