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What Fires Young People's Activism? A New Study Asks Them

What draws 18 to 30 year olds to social justice work, and how do people with progressive politics deal with race as part of a larger political worldview?


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This week,’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, released “ Millennials, Activism and Race,” a report on the motivations of young people who are active in progressive politics. Following up on last year’s research, Don’t Call Them Post-Racial, this report gives us more information about what draws 18 to 30 year olds to social justice work, and how people with progressive politics deal with race as part of a larger political worldview.


Our study is among the earliest bits of research conducted with participants in  Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, and some of the most interesting findings reflect the subtle but important differences between those activists and others who have been active as staff or volunteers of community-based organizations.

The findings are based on nine focus groups held in five cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Portland) in 2011 and 2012, with participants who either worked/volunteered for a progressive organization or participated in the Occupy movement. The goal of the research was to better understand the attitudes and motivations of millennials who are actively engaged in social justice—why they engage, what they see as barriers to an ideal society and opinions on whether an explicit racial justice lens is essential.

Here are some highlights that stood out for me.

-- Politically active, young progressives most often find themselves in the work as a result of family influences. They aren’t having grand epiphanies at lectures by prominent people or even recruited heavily by their friends. Their understanding and commitments come from observing or experiencing daily struggle.
-- People active in Occupy and those active in community organizations are similarly disenchanted with the electoral system. Their frustration was less about the Obama administration than it was about the dysfunctionality of the electoral and legislative systems generally.
-- All our participants named a dominant doctrine of individualism as a critical barrier to progressive change, but people involved with Occupy had a more explicit critique of capitalism as a system than those involved in other organizations.
-- Most respondents felt the need to address the racial dimensions of inequality, but they both wanted to include other systems in that analysis, and had few tools with which to bring in race with any combination of other systems like class, gender and sexuality.

I’ve been talking a lot recently about lenses. Most of us have a lens or two through which we look at the world. Mine are race and gender. I developed those two lenses almost simultaneously and early in my political life. For others, the first lens might be gender or sexuality. A lens isn’t the same thing as your identity, but your identity can certainly influence your lens. The essential work of building unity across difference is to be able to see through someone else’s lens, and prioritize working through that lens for a substantial period of time. I love this quote from one of our focus group participants:

There is racism and there is transphobia and there are acts that fit within those frameworks … everything is interconnected within those isms, but at the same time we do have to recognize the differences that occur. For instance, I don’t notice the experience of racism because I am white and my friends don’t know what it is like to experience transphobia, but we can talk about this upbringing [and a] common language that we understand about suffering.

We recommend several things for groups, advisors, organizers and activists who want to work with young people, whether on capitalism or gender.

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