By Natalie C. Jacobs, J.D., coauthor of Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court
Youth activism and civic engagement are nothing new. Young people often have an energy and a determination that can make things happen, even when older adults have failed. The civil rights movement included young people marching, organizing, and taking action for justice. In 1960, four African American college students did not accept being refused service at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They peacefully protested by staging a sit-in and refusing to leave the lunch counter. Their bold act of civil disobedience resulted in marches, protests, and, ultimately, the desegregation of that lunch counter. Go, young people!
The following year, 187 black students were arrested for peacefully marching to the state capitol in South Carolina to protest discrimination. Yes, they were arrested and convicted, but the case went all the way to the Supreme Court,* which overturned the students’ convictions and held that the students’ First Amendment right to peaceably assemble (march and protest) had been violated. Go, young people!
Long before the courageous youth of the civil rights movement were the very young leaders (and rebels) of the American Revolution. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Alexander Hamilton, a founding father, was only 21 years old. Many of the other leaders were in their teens or 20s. Go, young people!
The tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has evoked the latest youth-led movement—a vocal and active response by many youth activists demanding sensible gun reform. The students are justifiably angry and frustrated after 17 of their classmates and teachers were slaughtered in the mass shooting. They’ve had enough of Congress’s inaction and have taken to the streets, social media, and the airwaves to call for reasonable gun control legislation.
Here are some ways these brave students are getting involved, which can inspire other young activists to do the same.
1. They are speaking up. In particular, students are vocally opposing the National Rifle Association (NRA) and politicians who accept campaign donations from the NRA and oppose gun reform. Students have used social media, and in some cases television and other media, to speak up.
2. Students have staged “die-ins” outside the Florida Capitol and the White House to protest gun violence in schools.
3. They have engaged adults and pundits. CNN hosted a town hall one week after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Students attended and urged lawmakers to do something about gun violence in schools. Some students who had just lost friends and siblings spoke up and demanded justice.
4. They have spoken directly to legislators. A bus full of students traveled to Tallahassee (Florida’s state capitol) to advocate for a ban on assault weapons. Additionally, students have met with members of Congress and even the president.
5. They have been pointed and critical. When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came to Parkland to hold a press conference, students attended and asked her questions. They used social media to vocalize their frustrations over her responses, stating that her appearance in Parkland was simply a publicity stunt.
6. They walked out. The #NationalStudentWalkout occurred March 14, when countless students, teachers, and others walked out of their classrooms and schools for 17 minutes (one minute for each of the Parkland victims). The walkout was organized to protest gun violence and demand legislative action.
7. They are active in other causes. In an unrelated case, 21 youth plaintiffs are fighting for their right to a clean environment and stable climate. These young activists are suing the federal government over climate change and violation of students’ rights to life, liberty, and property through the government’s energy policies.**
Here are some other ideas for middle and high school students to join the gun reform movement or another cause and become engaged members of their communities.
8. Mark your calendars. Students across the country as well as educators, parents, and supporters will be taking to the streets March 24 for March for Our Lives to demand reasonable gun control measures. Find out if your town or city is organizing a march in support of this event at marchforourlives.com. In addition to this march, there are many opportunities to participate in local and state demonstrations, rallies, and marches. Connecting with the right organizations (see below) and signing up for email, text, or other alerts about upcoming events can help students stay connected and informed.
9. Volunteer for a partisan or nonpartisan organization. Whether a student wants to volunteer for the local chapter of a political party or a nonpartisan group working for a cause like climate change or immigration, such organizations are always in need of volunteers. (Check the resources and links below for more information about finding the right organization to connect with.)
10. Attend a town hall meeting. Communities throughout the country will be seeing more and more town hall meetings this midterm election year. This is a great way for students to learn about the issues and candidates on the ballot and to ask questions directly of candidates. To find a town hall meeting near you, check out townhallproject.com.
11. Volunteer for a campaign. For students who become passionate about a particular issue or candidate, volunteering for a campaign is a great way to get involved and learn more about the political process. A student who is too young to vote can still help a campaign.
12. Organize and mobilize via social media. Teens and young adults can take advantage of their tech-savvy skills by harnessing the power of social media to bring awareness to an issue, gain support, and connect with like-minded people to help bring about change. Joining a social media group, or better yet starting one, is a simple and easy way to get started. The #NeverAgain Twitter account was created by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and it has gained a ton of support and media attention. Some of the more vocal students have hundreds of thousands of followers on their own Twitter accounts.
13. Contact your state legislators or members of Congress. Calling, emailing, or writing any lawmaker, whether at the local, state, or national level, is something all citizens have the right to do and should be encouraged to do. These lawmakers work for us, their constituents, and therefore should hear from a diverse group—including young voters and those who can’t yet vote.
14. Get out the vote. Even students who can’t vote yet can help with voter registration drives and with educating their peers on the need for everyone 18 and older to get to the polls. This is our most basic and fundamental responsibility as citizens of a democracy.
The students of Parkland, Florida, and others all over the country who have taken on the issue of gun control, have created a movement for change, and they are inspiring role models for everyone. Through students’ fierce demand for justice and action, their bold confrontations with lawmakers—even the president—and their vocal reminders not to let the latest school shooting slip into the shadows with countless other mass shootings, this youth-led movement is already making a difference.
Check out Speak Out’s: “Links to Student & Youth Organizations” for a list of organizations where young people can volunteer, and visit Youth Service America’s: “Ideas by Issue Area” for action ideas specific to causes.
*Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963).
**Juliana v. United States, Case No: 6:15-cv-01517 (Dist. Or. 2015).
A former criminal defense attorney, Natalie C. Jacobs works with her father, Judge Tom, on the teen rights website AsktheJudge.info, helping teens and their parents become better informed about youth rights and the laws affecting minors. She has volunteered with the Arizona Innocence Project, which investigates claims of innocence and works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted. Natalie lives in Arizona.
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