Who's Got the Power?
The familiar yellow school buses that rumble through the streets of America's leafy suburbs each weekday morning don't stop to pick up the city kids. In urban areas like Philadelphia, public school students have to pay to get to class. The 30,000 students concentrated in the city's low-income and working class neighborhoods ride red and white mass transit buses to and from school each day. And while the suburban students get a free ride on the yellow buses, their urban counterparts pick up the tab for their daily transportation. A weeks worth of tokens costs $9."My family has three kids going to schools that don't provide transportation. Each month my parents have to pay out $108 for us to go to school," explains Hang Do, 17. She says that the high cost of public transit acts as a barrier to low income students who seek a chance at a decent education. So when the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) unveiled a proposal in January 1995 to increase the transit rates, already some of the highest in the nation, student riders decided the cost was too high to bear. Youth members of Asian Americans United (AAU) a veteran Philadelphia community organization, initiated a campaign to fight the fare hikes.With posters and flyers in hand, Do and others began to let students know about the increase and how it would affect them. The day before the SEPTA board met to vote on the proposal, a multi-racial group of 350 students rallied at Central High School to denounce the fare hike. The next day, students packed the SEPTA hearing, testifying against the undue burden the hikes would place on students who already pay up to $400 a year just to get to class.The students forceful action prompted one board member to suggest the students need to go back to civics classes. Still, the hearing room erupted in cheers when the board decided to spare students from the rate increase.According to Lai Har Cheung, 18, an AAU member for four years, the action taken to stop the fare hike was probably the first time many students had ever seen people protesting against something. She says that the success of the campaign demonstrated the power of organizing for them, a lesson AAU hopes to build on around other youth issues.The success of the AAU fight against SEPTA would appear to be the type of initiative youth organizations around the country would be racing to replicate. Not only did their organizing yield an important, concrete victory, it also provided a hands-on framework for dozens of young people to develop recruitment, leadership development, and political analysis skills, in addition to strengthening the organization. AAU members exercised power in its purest form.AWARENESS BEFORE ACTIONYet to some observers, while youth-focused organizations operate in many communities around the country today, few employ the direct action approach used by AAU. There's not as many examples as there could be, admits Taylor Root, 24, Program Coordinator for YouthAction.Roots organization, based in Washington D.C., provides technical assistance and capacity building support to youth organizations around the country. The group's director, Eli Lee, also coordinated last years Freedom Summer 94, a summer-long program that provided similar support to more than a dozen youth groups.While YouthAction bases its training's on direct-action organizing models, the organizations they work with use a range of approaches, from focusing on service and advocacy to offering leadership development programs. Few initiate their own youth-led organizing campaigns. Root explains that the groups go with whatever works, and that the distinctions in models are necessarily blurred because of the slow process in developing the consciousness and analysis of youth participants.Indeed, many youth organizations see the political education and skill development of their youth members as their primary objectives. For example, Curtis Moss, 24, a YouthAction intern at the Center for Community Change in Lumberton, North Carolina, recently organized a series of day-long conferences for nearly 100 area youth. "It allowed people to talk, interact, and share their common concerns," explains Moss. While some participants had previous experience organizing against hazardous waste dumps and other environmental issues, for many, the conference was intended as a first step down a longer road of action for social change.Similarly, each summer in early August, hundreds of young people gather outside Philadelphia for the Annual Future Leaders Network Summer Institute. The week-long program trains participants in areas such as cultural sensitivity, meeting facilitation, political analysis, and public speaking, according to the projects founder, Shafik Abu-Tahir, 45. Like the Lumberton project, the Summer Institute was born from an analysis that young people lacked the tools and political exposure to effectively organize in their communities. "We saw a generation of people missing from [social change] work," says Abu-Tahir. "We had to reach out and teach them organizing skills to help them deal with the frustrations of life."In many areas around the country, youth-sponsored initiatives, organizations and events have become a regular part of many community calendars. The Real Alternatives Program (RAP), based in the Mission District in San Francisco, offers a range of peer counseling and youth support programs. Youth make up many of the organizations 50 person part-time and full-time staff, and help run gang outreach programs, HIV education services, conflict resolution, and other prevention and diversion programs.Down the street from RAP, a program called Education for Liberation ran out of the Mission Cultural Center for several years, and held political education sessions and community events designed to expose young people to a broader range of social and political experiences. High schools, churches, and youth centers sponsor regular unity days and other programs designed to enhance cultural pride and raise political awareness.Many youth organizers explain that the day-long conferences, music events, peer education sessions, rap groups, and so on provide a forum for youth to develop relationships with each other which are critical to effective direct-action organizing. The approach has some historical precedence.Three decades ago, farmworker organizers in California and the Midwest spent several years setting up mutual cooperation programs like food banks to develop communities of interest as a precursor to massive direct action organizing for higher wages and improved working conditions.Yet many contemporary youth organizations never take the big step from talk to action, preferring to remain in the relationship-building stage. Around the country, there are frighteningly few examples of young people joining together to exercise any type of collective power over the institutions that have such power over their lives, such as the schools, the mass transit authorities, the police and the multitude of youth-oriented social programs. The action which does take place, such as the massive student walkouts in California and other states around immigrant and student rights, are rarely initiated or led by established youth organizations. The large-scale rallies and marches, as dramatic as they are, often lack the organizational infrastructure and support necessary to endure prolonged campaigns and win concrete victories.As one organizer notes, just how much consciousness or political experience is necessary to organize youth to fight against a youth curfew, or to confront a racially-biased school suspension policy? In organizing adults, most organizers argue that people acquire political education through action and reflection, rather than training and discussion. Members are certainly educated about the issue, but the goal is to get people doing something as soon as possible. Further education takes place during post-action discussion sessions and evaluations. "The goal of direct action organizing is not only to teach people that something needs to be done," says Sonia Pea of Denver Action for a Better Community, "but to show them that something can be done, and that they can do it."Some youth organizers say that youth prefer different approaches to social change other than direct action organizing, and that music and cultural events and leadership sessions more directly interest and engage young people than organizing campaigns. There is also a fear that unless youth themselves directly identify, plan, and initiate a particular organizing project, that project will be forced rather than homegrown and that the participation and ownership of youth will be sacrificed.The idea that organizing will only be effective if young people instinctively and consciously choose to organize and plan and implement their own strategies is a peculiar one. No other constituency would be expected to spontaneously come up with a strategy and tactics that's what organizers are for. Certainly organizing any constituency, whether senior citizens, health care workers, or monolingual Spanish speakers, presents a particular set of challenges. Youth organizations, for example, may have a high rate of turnover as youth members get older and move on to other experiences.Youth may also need particular types of support from adult sponsors which both provides direct, relevant training while allowing youth the freedom to identify their own areas of interest."Organizing is not natural," says long-time organizer Alfredo De Avila. "It's not something that just happens. This idea that I hear all the time that organizers somehow manipulate people into doing things against their will is either right-wing garbage to keep people from fighting back, or a cop-out from activists who aren't willing or able to do what it takes to build power for their members."DIFFERENT STANDARDS FOR YOUTHEven the standards for what constitutes organizing seem different among youth and adults. No labor organizer would suggest that a rap concert by garment workers would in itself represent a change of power relations in the garment industry. Nor would a conference on homelessness be viewed as the equivalent to homeless people organizing to challenge cuts in the safety net. Yet when young people hold such events, they are often led to believe that they have somehow empowered themselves. But most of the empowered youth groomed by organizations to lead the next generation of social change movements never come close to leading or participating in an on-the-ground organizing fight.Namane Mohlabane, 19, an Oakland-based trainer and activist, points out that most youth groups, unless sponsored by activist organizations, aren't activist in their missions and goals. Not many youth groups are based on change or empowering young people to create change.Matt Hammer, an organizer with the Mississippi-based community organization Southern Echo, agrees that adult sponsors and supporters have a profound role in defining the limits of youth projects. "Adults have narrow views about the abilities of young people. You sometimes have to struggle against the gatekeepers. Hammer suggests there is an apprehension on the part of most adults to share power with and among youth."Most organizers say that many challenges remain to developing successful models of youth organizing. As with adults, leading youth into experiences of confrontation and collective action can be difficult. Mohlabane suggests that new tactics must be developed to bring youth into campaigns. "You have to constantly refine the process and make new judgments," he says.And of course, the larger dynamic remains that organizing in general can be a difficult row to hoe in relation to other social change approaches. The confrontation, collective action, and critical reflection valued in organizing goes against many of the social and cultural values shared by both youth and adultsBut is this unique to youth organizing? Fear, lack of experience, and a shortage of resources and support are facts of life in organizing in general. And there is no shortage of powerful examples of youth organizing campaigns, from the bus fares fight in Philadelphia to a successful campaign to stop a proposed youth curfew in Oakland earlier this year.PROSPECTS FOR YOUTH POWERThe highly-publicized school walkouts among students in California and other states against last years anti-immigrant Proposition 187 revealed the depths of frustration, dissatisfaction and willingness to organize among youth. The blow outs also showed that young people generally have far more extensive networks of friends and acquaintances from which to recruit than most adults, and that communities of youth often have easily identifiable and natural leaders. These are social relations of which most organizers dream.But it seems clear that until youth organizations are more willing to dirty their hands in direct action organizing campaigns, the potential power revealed in the anti-187 demonstrations will never develop into a system-changing movement. And while conferences are planned and unity days are organized, the list of potential youth organizing issues continues to grow.From the lack of safe and interesting public places to hang out, to the hostile, regressive policies of many school boards and law enforcement agencies, to the pittance of jobs and job training programs available, it's difficult to imagine what investment young people have in maintaining the status quo of public life.Strong, thoughtful, youth-led organizations built through direct action campaigns seem waiting come to life. For generations, parents have reminded their children across a plate of peas, You can't knock it until you try it. Could youth organizations take similar advice?