Are Today's Young Civic Activists in It for the Long Haul?

Demonstrators, many of them high school students, fill Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in Washington last March.
Demonstrators, many of them high school students, fill Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in Washington last March.
—Alex Brandon/AP

Taking stock of a youth movement’s gains, losses

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For Philly native Rachel Steinig, a core March for Our Lives activist, returning to the University of Pennsylvania for her sophomore year highlighted a stark contrast between her life on the protest frontlines and the orderly campus. There just weren't many supports there for student organizing or activism, said Steinig.

So in January, nine months after student walkouts rippled through American schools, the 19-year-old and a handful of her classmates decided to fill the void themselves, and launched the UPenn chapter of March for Our Lives.

In a few weeks, the chapter had amassed an email list of some 250 students, visited the Philadelphia office of Sen. Pat Toomey to lobby for a federal proposal to close gun background-check loopholes, and contacted long-established Philadelphia gun-violence groups, to ask how it can help.

As the anniversary of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School arrives, the efforts of groups like this one represent one of several possible answers to this question: What is the future of the extraordinary youth activism #neveragain unleashed in 2018?

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.

It may seem like a pointed question to ask of a movement that has already helped reframe the issue of gun violence in the United States and catalyze genuinely higher youth-voting rates in some states. But, as ultimately all social movements do, #neveragain faces a reckoning over its sustainability.

The difficulty isn't just keeping the issue of gun violence on policymakers' agendas amid the barrage of other national crises, like the recent federal government shutdown. It's also navigating the short attention span of the media, coordinating among dozens of scattered chapters, and—most of all—getting peers to commit to more than just one march or pull of the voting-machine lever.

"I think one of the main challenges is that a lot of the students who got involved in the March for Our Lives movement haven't been personally impacted by gun violence, and I think it's hard when it hasn't personally affected you to stay motivated and stay in the fight long term," said Steinig. "That's just a human tendency."

Quick and Slow

Research on social movements generally concludes that, as with voting, past activism is the best predictor of future activism. The problem is that it's much less clear exactly what experiences or expectations help individual activists commit to the long haul.

Narrowing media interest doesn't help. Since the midterm elections, mainstream outlets have focused almost exclusively on just two of the activists, former Parkland students David Hogg and Emma González. It's hardly novel to remark that personalities and public demonstrations tend to attract more attention than the minutiae of day-to-day strategy, but that truism has real consequences for the shape of youth activism.

Sustainability has been the keystone of some of the most successful social movements. The LGBT rights movement began in the 1950s but did not really become an unstoppable force until the sight of same-sex couples waiting on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall to obtain marriage licenses, in 2004, thrust it into the national consciousness. The civil rights movement relied on more than 100 years of painstaking, detailed work—and suffered many defeats—before the legislative accomplishments of the 1960s.

"It's easy to look back at that in retrospect and kind of collapse it in our collective memory, but change takes time. And change on big, cultural, touchstone issues like Second Amendment rights, or even more broadly gun safety and violence, isn't going to get solved overnight, or in the span of a year," said Tom Maher, a lecturer at Purdue University who studies youth activism and social movements.

Shorter-lived social movements can have a major impact, too. Some scholars, for example, argue that the waning Tea Party movement paved the way for Donald Trump's election; others trace the rise of progressive political candidates, like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the now-defunct Occupy Wall Street movement.

For March for Our Lives and for student activism generally, the question seems to be: Which of the two forms will their movement take—a slow burn, or a powerful but brief whirlwind?

A sign protesting the National Rifle Association is held overhead during the March for Our Lives rally in Pittsburgh last year.
A sign protesting the National Rifle Association is held overhead during the March for Our Lives rally in Pittsburgh last year.
—Keith Srakocic/AP

Early Impacts

To a degree, March for Our Lives activists have already shown they are capable of evolving nimbly. They can also lay claim to some bona fide results.

The activists made an early, critical decision to incorporate into the movement the perspectives of students of color facing gun violence in their own communities, for example. And while gun control was the primary focus of the March 24 protest last year, the students' message had broadened by the time they embarked on their summer Road to Change tour to one focused on voting: Over and over, they encouraged rapt audiences of parents, students, and community members to hit their polling places.

That message seems to have resonated among youth. According to data first reported by the Associated Press, 2018 voter turnout rates for individuals ages 18 to 29 in Florida, the epicenter of the movement, rose to 37 percent. That's an increase of more than 15 percentage points from 2014. Additional data from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, first reported in Education Week, found increases in that age category of 24 percentage points and just below 12 percentage points in Nevada and Oklahoma. In both states, the surge in youth turnout surpassed the increase in the general electorate.

Qualitatively, the picture of the students' specific impact on gun issues is less clear cut.

On the one hand, their activism fundamentally rewrote the script on guns as a public policy issue, allowing some candidates in the midterm elections to embrace proposals that were anathema even to Democrats in previous cycles. In 2018, states passed some 50 pieces of legislation restricting gun access, according to an analysis by Pew's Stateline news service.

"Prior to Parkland, there was a 'wash-rinse-repeat' element to the discussion around gun control, especially after Sandy Hook," Maher said, referring to the general lack of successful gun-control legislation following the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut. "To their credit, the students talked about it as a school safety issue. That's a very different way of talking about gun violence—not as a [Second Amendment] rights issue, which is the discussion we've had for the last decade."

On the other hand, the midterm results were mixed. Pro-gun control candidates made progress in the U.S. House of Representatives, including in five of the six races where groups like Everytown for Gun Safety spent the most money, according to the Trace, a news site that tracks gun news. But they made less progress in the Senate. And no losses were more disheartening than those in Florida, where the National Rifle Association-backed Republican Ron DeSantis bested Democrat Andrew Gillum for the governorship. (The March for Our Lives organization did not endorse specific candidates.)

Building Structure

In recent days, though, some small but significant signs suggest that March for Our Lives continues to mature. Its Arizona chapter recently celebrated the introduction of a mental-health bill in that state, written by high school students. And the organization can now claim a more sophisticated operating structure.

Vikiana Petit-Homme is a senior at Boston Latin Academy. She's also the Boston March for Our Lives chapter's executive director. Last year, she helped organize the march in that city that attracted more than 80,000 people, and got a crash course in the finer points of advocacy tax law—all while practicing her Latin declensions. ("I was 16 and had to figure out what a fiscal sponsor was. It was so confusing.")

Now, Petit-Homme has another new job: She is one of March for Our Lives' eight regional directors, a new arrangement announced by the organization Jan. 20. She'll be in charge of Southeastern states, including Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.

In general, Petit-Homme said, the regional directors will help the group's many small, often hyper-local chapters tap resources from the national group, like social media assistance, its network of organizers and speakers, and grants from its Action Fund, a 501(c)4 lobbying wing. They'll also help chapters connect to established, tent-pole anti-gun-violence groups in each state.

"I would love for us just to continue to enhance our structure and make sure that it is something that can be sustainable and can last a while, that I can leave someday and know there will be someone to take my place, because [our work] isn't going to be done anytime soon," she said.

Core participation in the Boston chapter is steady at perhaps 60 people, Petit-Homme said, and it's flexible about opportunities to engage at its monthly meetings.

"We are trying to create a structure where you can come in and give what you can. You can come to one of our monthly meetings and some of our events; if you want to do more, there's space to move up the ranks," she said. "Part of what keeps people coming is that they ... are still seeing this problem persist, especially those closer to the pain."

Flagging Interest?

As for the wider range of activism that the students helped prompt, the jury is still out. For every new example of renewed commitment—like the new UPenn chapter—there are anecdotes of faltering student interest.

A Michigan organization created in response to the Parkland tragedy, Students for Gun Legislation, initially received a slew of local media coverage and a handwritten commendation from former President Barack Obama. But the group hasn't been active on social media since August, and one of its organizers, now a freshman in college, said via a Twitter message that he no longer had the time to volunteer.

At a local level, too, election defeats can take their toll, raising new questions for activists about how to maintain momentum.

Ryan Wesdock, a graduate student in history and education at Virginia Tech and spokesman for the Green Party of Virginia, was thrilled at how his colleagues and students were engaged by the midterm elections: The school newspaper did a whole issue on the contests. Many students rallied behind Anthony Flaccavento, a local Democratic candidate for a U.S. House seat. He favored more gun-control proposals—such as lifting the ban preventing the federal government from researching causes of gun violence—than incumbent Morgan Griffith.

But then Flaccavento lost by a substantial margin.

"I was certainly disappointed and my friends were disappointed. When you work tirelessly for months and that's the result, it can be kind of heartbreaking," said Wesdock, who helped organize the Road to Change stop in Blacksburg, Va. "On the other hand, the NRA's success has been built over the last 30 or 40 years, so these things take decades."

So how do you prevent young activists from being discouraged?

"I try to always phrase these things in terms of investment: You're making an investment in the community," Wesdock said. "You're coming up with new ideas you can use, and new candidates you can run so that you can then win the next time."

For now, he's been working to re-energize students on a range of issues, including student debt and climate change, where young people have much at stake.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm. Whether or not that will extend beyond having voted this one time is a decision those of us who are really engaged have to make," he said.

Related Blog

As the new March for Our Lives chapter on UPenn's campus takes its first steps, its leaders are trying to take similar lessons to heart. They're hoping that existing gun violence groups in the city—like the CHARLES Foundation and Moms Demand Action Philadelphia—can bridge the gap between their university's largely white, affluent campus and the communities in the city that are most affected by gun violence, said Beatrice Forman, the chapter's communications director.

Maybe, she suggests, the sustainability of March for Our Lives isn't even the right way to think about the movement's impact. Maybe what's most important is the long-term orientation toward civic engagement that at least some participants will take with them.

"We feel like it's training a generation of students to become organizers and re-integrating social consciousness into the national thought process," Forman said. "Even if the movement itself may not be around in a decade, the effects will be. And I think that's almost more important."

Vol. 38, Issue 21, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: February 13, 2019, as Boom or Bust? Civic Activism and the Next Generation
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