Participate, But Know Your Place: Young Civic Activists Get Mixed Messages

Greta Thunberg, center, the 16-year-old Swedish activist leading the Climate Strike campaign against global warming, stands with people from an indigenous group at a news conference last month in Washington.
Greta Thunberg, center, the 16-year-old Swedish activist leading the Climate Strike campaign against global warming, stands with people from an indigenous group at a news conference last month in Washington.
—J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File
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Youth activists who have gathered by the millions across the country demanding responses to gun violence and climate change have been both celebrated and hounded in recent years.

While much of society—from schools, to celebrities, to lawmakers—have long urged young people to get involved in their communities and in national issues, young activists are sometimes finding that when they do step into the civic sphere, they are shouted down, mocked, and harassed.

However, even as students are the targets of vitriol that comes online or in the real world at protests and city council meetings, many struggle as much or more with an inverse problem: how to get grown-ups to take them seriously.

“I’m often viewed as, ‘Oh, how cute, you’re a 16-year-old kid,’” said Stephan Abrams, a junior at Del Norte High School in San Diego and a gun-control advocate. “I don’t want to be seen that way. I know my facts. I want to do the same things the adults want to do: I want to advocate for legislation.”

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.

To better understand the role of education in the current crisis, Education Week consulted experts, visited classrooms, and conducted surveys. This article is part of that ongoing effort. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the months ahead.

Like so many young activists, he was moved to action after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people and spurred walkouts and protests of students across the country.

Abrams has dealt with taunting and insults on and offline. He said he was booed at a San Diego City Council meeting when the group he works with—Team Enough, the youth division of the gun-control group the Brady Campaign—successfully advocated an ordinance change around gun storage. He is frequently jeered on Twitter by people he doesn’t know.

Social media, the thing that has given youth activists so much power, has also been weaponized against them.

Organizers and activists urge action to stop climate change at the U.S. Capitol, part of the Fridays For Our Future campaign begun by teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
Organizers and activists urge action to stop climate change at the U.S. Capitol, part of the Fridays For Our Future campaign begun by teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
—Graeme Sloan/Education Week

Through the internet, teenage activists can amass tens of thousands of Twitter followers, building an influential platform that allows them to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of civic and political discourse and action: the news media and the government.

Time magazine recognized student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as a runner-up for Person of the Year in 2018. Greta Thunberg, whose Climate Strike campaigns have elevated the climate control issue, has been mentioned as a potential contender for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the attention also exposes young advocates to the basest forms of human ugliness, which can take a toll on their mental health.

The Parkland students have been falsely accused on Twitter of being crisis actors and threatened with physical violence.

Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was called a “mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left” by conservative pundit and podcast host Michael Knowles on Fox News, and even mocked on Twitter by the president of the United States.

Adults’ Motivations

In many ways, the vitriol aimed at high-profile youth activists is a far cry from what most student activists face, but it can have a trickle-down effect.

“Since I’m involved in the same activist work, I feel like they’re attacking the work that I’m doing,” said Sabrina Feldman, a 16-year-old from Tampa, Fla., who champions gun control.

The harsh blowback likely comes from adults uncomfortable with young people finding and flexing their power on media platforms that seem alien to them, say academics who have studied youth movements.

While there’s been a renewed focus on improving civics education, and young people are often vaguely encouraged to “care” and “get involved,” mass protests are not what many adults have in mind, said Jessica Taft, an associate professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“I don’t know that schools and society encourage young people to be activists,” she said. “It’s more often: Be part of a youth council ... go to the local soup kitchen.”

It can be unnerving—even seen as an affront—to many adults, who may see activism on the scale of the Climate Strike and the March for Our Lives protests as several steps too far, said Hava Grodon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Denver.

“When you’re allowed to vote, you’re responsible enough to participate. There’s this idea that you should learn how to become a responsible citizen and engage in these institutional politics,” she said. “Some of these youth activists are violating some of our assumptions about who can responsibly participate in a democracy, because they’re trying to claim some political power really early, when they’re still kids.”

But high school students turn to activism precisely because they can’t vote. It’s their only means of influencing the political system, protesting, and asking adults in power to do more.

David Hogg, who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., speaks at a March for Our Lives rally in Washington. Both Hogg and Thunberg have been praised and criticized for their advocacy.
David Hogg, who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., speaks at a March for Our Lives rally in Washington. Both Hogg and Thunberg have been praised and criticized for their advocacy.
—Andrew Harnik/AP-File

Young people’s social-media savvy—and the mind-spinningly fast pace at which a movement grows online—can also alienate some adults, said Gordon, especially as teenagers challenge ideas embraced by a not insignificant number of Americans—such as the Second Amendment and capitalism.

“That [gets] even more pushback from older generations that are also not coincidentally more likely to be white,” said Gordon. “We’re seeing a generational and also a racial split.”

But many young activists who advocate at the local level and don’t have the large global following that Thunberg has see a different threat to their advocacy work—one that on the surface looks much more benign: simple dismissal by adults in leadership or positions of power.

Hearing But Not Listening

While it may not sound as harsh as slurs and threats hurled across cyberspace, this lack of serious consideration erodes young people’s confidence and morale over time, said Denyse Wornum, who lives in Boston and helps advocate for ways to address the school-to-prison pipeline and other issues.

“A lot of times our plans and ideas are not really listened to,” Wornum said. “They’re heard but not really listened to.”

When she was in high school, Wornum said, adults in leadership often claimed that her opinions were not her own—that she was being manipulated by adults with an agenda. Now 22, Wornum sees the same thing happening to the younger activists she mentors through an organization called Youth on Board.

That’s one of several ways adults shut down dialogue with young activists, say experts and students. These adult critics claim that students don’t understand the issue, that young people are angry and rude, that they’re un-American, and that they are parroting what other adults have told them.

That was the experience of Sabrina Feldman, the Tampa student, who was inspired to start advocating ways to stem gun violence after the Parkland shooting. She visited the nation’s capital this summer as part of an American Civil Liberties Union-sponsored program that teaches youths how to lobby lawmakers.

Feldman and a group of students visited their senator’s office where they met with an aide, who, as Feldman put it, zoned out during the group’s presentation.

“Then he told us we needed to think for ourselves. He said we were brainwashed,” Feldman said. “It discouraged me from wanting to meet with my senator. Why even try?”

Dismissal comes in many forms and from many sources, even from adults in leadership who support the same issues that have animated so many young people.

“I see a lot of people praising the activists,” said Taft, the UC-Santa Cruz associate professor. “This kind of response can also be a kind of dismissal. Saying, ‘It’s so amazing you’re doing this, I can’t wait until you can run for office’ is a way of saying, ... ‘I’m going to be impressed by you rather than engage with you seriously.’ ”

Gordon, the University of Denver researcher, said she sees a similar issue in how the news media have covered protests such as Climate Strike and the March for Our Lives.

“Journalists have had a hard time really talking about young people’s political outrage,” Gordon said. “Sometimes the dominant frame was, ‘Look at these kids, they’re exceptional,’ or ‘Look at these kids, they’re foolish,’” said Gordon. “But it’s very hard for a frame to organize around, ‘Look at these kids, this is their political critique, and we should think about this.’ ”

But it’s not just the internet trolls and the smiling dismissals of policymakers that young activists must contend with. Their peers—even those advocating on the same issues—can be hard on one another, too, said Jenny Sazama. She is the director of Youth on Board. Sazama believes the stress from harassment online, whether it’s from Twitter or the comments section on a YouTube video, sometimes leads to infighting.

“When you feel bad about yourself, you take it out on other people. It’s what we do as humans,” she said.

So how is a teenager to cope with all the mixed messages from celebrities, politicians, schools, local leaders, and peers?

Stephan Abrams’ tactic is to ignore it all: the good as well as the bad, the accolades as well as the insults.

“I block it out,” the San Diego junior said. “I’m doing this for my little sisters. That’s what drives me. You just have to go with what you’re passionate about.”

Vol. 39, Issue 08, Pages 1, 14

Published in Print: October 9, 2019, as Youth Activists Draw Taunts, Threats
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