Missing in Citizen Action: Gen Z
Much has been said about Generation Z-- today's tweens and teens -- and our endless selfies on Twitter, 6-second Vines and Snapchats. Though many demographers say this is the generation that will help bring better futures through our civic-mindedness, it’s still common to hear that apathy among young people is creating a generation of passive bystanders.
The prevailing fear is that the next generation of leaders – two billion worldwide and more than one-quarter of the U.S. population – will be neither engaged nor equipped to lead transformational change.
Repeat after me: the phrase “youth apathy” is a misnomer. It places the blame on adolescence, when it’s really adults that are disengaged from talking with us about the issues that concern us.
Gen Z has the power to lead change at the community, state and national levels. However, this power is limited because of a perception that we don’t always have – or want -- to play a part in making the decisions that affect us.
Think the average 14-year old doesn't have an opinion about climate change or the economy? If you said no, time to think again. According to a report from Northeastern University, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Gen Z believe that healthcare should be free for everyone, and 53 percent believe that college should be free for all. More than half (55 percent) say that illegal immigrants should have the right to become U.S. citizens.
Despite study after study, when it comes to youth involvement in movements ranging from environmental issues to criminal justice and racial equality, to the Republican and Democratic National Committees or even our local schools, solicited input is typically reserved for those 18 years and older.
Gen Z is a critical part of the echo chamber, yet we do not have solid representation at the table. There is seldom a seat for us. And while we appreciate that adults are fighting for us, we need to be able to fight for ourselves.
We want to have the opportunity to be an active part of closing the book on injustice, instead of just being relegated to “the face of” status.
“When my cousin, Marcus Golden, was killed by St. Paul Police, I remember the feeling I had when I saw my face, covered in tears, on the front page of the local paper,” said Alexandra Doty, age 17, from Woodbury, MN. "They used my face to sell their paper, but not once asked me for my views on what needs to be done so that these unjustifiable killings stop."
How can we speak truth to power, if our innate power isn't recognized – or worse, dismissed? Age shouldn’t be the deciding factor for engaging people in fighting injustice; interest should be.
As Gen Z looks to assert its power, young millennial student activists like University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler and students at Yale fighting racism, serve as an inspiration and a beacon. They are showing the younger generation not only the importance of raising one’s voice and taking a stand, but how to do it effectively.
Energizing and mobilizing our youth should society’s collective goal, for when it is, the result is a powerful and transformative movement.
Earlier this month, I attended We Day Minnesota at Xcel Energy Center. More than 18,000 diverse students from across Minnesota came together as part of a global youth movement for social change. We were welcomed into a forum for discussion surrounding issues like bullying, inner-city violence, inequality, illiteracy.
“Imagine an entire generation of young people taking on the challenges they see and building a better future. They are aware, connected, creative and committed. Engage with them, as they will transform the world at an even greater scale,” said Craig Kielburger, International Activist and co-founder of Free the Children and We Day.
Here are four lessons from We Day that all organizations and social movements should embrace... so that Gen Z may do more than imagine.
1. There is power in numbers. We Day Minnesota brought together 18,000 young people from across the state. Together, throughout the year, they volunteered over 700,000 hours of their time and raised over $835,000 in support of local and global organizations. The ripple effect of this extensive pipeline of service can change the world, one community at a time.
2. Educate and involve youth in decisions that affect their lives. Pia Phillips, diagnosed with Hopkin’s Lymphoma at age 14, and Abbie Nelson, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 13, founded PAB’s Packs. They are backpacks filled with comforting items that are given to youth suffering from chronic illnesses during long hospital stays. When we allow youth to take action on the issues that personally affect them and that they truly care about, amazingly impactful things happen.
3. Be authentic. We Day Minnesota included Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation; Grammy® Award-winning singer, songwriter, actress and producer, Ciara; actor, director, producer and author Henry Winkler; and Free the Children ambassador Spencer West. The star power in the room was mesmerizing, but do you know what was even more impressive? They all recognized that Gen Z’ers can be powerful change agents.
4. Actively solicit, listen to, and respect the ideas of young people. Kielburger started Free the Children when he was only 12 years old. It’s easy to disregard the ideas of the much younger members of society, but as we can see from his story, if we support the dreams and goals of youth we can help them achieve anything. At first, Kielburger had the support of 12 students in his elementary class, now he empowers millions internationally.
“It’s important that everybody volunteers and gives back to make Minnesota, and our world, a better place,” says 11-year old Kaleah Phillips-Kelley-Bynum, a 6th grader from John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood, MN, who attended We Day for the first time. “I earned my way to We Day by doing a year of service through student council and volunteering, and I left the event feeling motivated and supported to do more.”
Now, imagine if every social justice movement had 18,000 Kaleah’s around the table.