Human Rights

Young People of Color Are Rising Up Against Military Recruiters

Military recruiters have unprecedented access to youth of color in America's neighborhoods. Some are fighting back.

In 2006, high school senior Stephanie Hoang started working with Better Alternatives for Youth—Peace (BAY-Peace), educating her peers about the potential risks of joining the military and helping to build alternative opportunities. For Hoang, her truth-in-recruitment work is more than just an internship. “It’s my peers being affected. [Recruiters] are looking at me and thinking that I’m the person they want in the military.”

More than just looking at Hoang and her peers, military recruiters also have unprecedented access to students and youth, particularly in poor neighborhoods. “There are generally more army recruiters on campus than college counselors,” explains Elmer Roldan, fundraising director at Community Coalition (CC) in South Central Los Angeles, “and a more aggressive strategy to militarize them than to prepare them for college.” He also points out that it is young women, and the best and brightest students, that recruiters target.

In spite of this access, the number of recruits rose only slightly between 2005 and 2007, and the share of Black and Latino recruits fell. Community organizations including BAY-Peace and CC contributed to this fall through their truth-in-recruitment work. As Ann Lennon of the Carolina American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) explains, “the military sometimes makes promises that it can’t keep; it’s important to know which ones they can.” AFSC put together a series of questions for potential recruits to help them separate myths from facts, including questions about job training and education promises, and about post-traumatic stress disorder and other potential consequences of combat.

But in 2008, as the economic crisis took a firm hold, recruitment numbers began to rise. “Jobs with stability are rarities,” Lennon explains. “Options are narrowing and we have people that may have been in the work force that are now thinking about going into the military and getting some stability.” In 2008, 185,000 men and women signed up for military service—the highest numbers since 2003—and many of the new recruits come from the groups being hit hard by the economic crisis. The National Priorities Project (NPP) report of FY2008 army recruiting reveals that with unemployment climbing to 7.6% in that year—and to 12.6% in the Black community—the steepest climb in recruits came from lower-middle-class neighborhoods with income ranges hovering around $40,000. One quarter of recruits from these groups were women of color compared to 10% of white recruits. The share of Black recruits rose 2%, making up 95% of the total increase in recruits.

In the midst of the ongoing economic instability, community and peace organizations are working to build local opportunities and alternatives. The Carolina AFSC is building alliances with groups involved in green economy initiatives and developing sustainable training and employment opportunities. “People need to know what all of their options are,” says Lennon.

CC works with students who are part of the New World Foundation’s Civic Opportunities Initiative Network (COIN) pilot program. Through COIN, youth leaders will be mentored and paid to do social justice organizing. This new grant will keep talented students in their communities, working to create new sustainable opportunities.

Suzanne Smith, former research director at NPP, describes the impact of carrying on two wars the United States cannot afford as “draining resources from other areas.” The solution she proposes “is to shrink our global [military] footprint.” The current economic situation provides the perfect moment to start redirecting funds away from unsustainable military solutions and into the areas that community-based organizations have identified as priorities: education, health support for veterans, community-based solutions to decrease violence and militarism, and economic development to increase opportunities.

Anisha Desai is executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center, a movement building organization, focused on the leadership development, well-being, and human rights of women of color across the United States. Maryam Roberts is the peace and solidarity program director of the Women of Color Resource Center.
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