Today’s Youth, Tomorrow’s Leaders

Alexis Incandela, Editor-In-Chief

We didn’t start the fire, but young people are desperately trying to put out the flames. As domestic and global threats rise, so do the movements attempting to stop them. Whether it’s climate change, social injustice, gun control, or women’s rights, youth activism is on the rise across the United States and around the world. Young activists have taken to social media and have been hitting the streets, exercising their liberties and freedom of speech to make their feelings, thoughts, and opinions about issues that affect our world at large, known and heard by all.

Youth activism is the organized participation of people between the ages of 15-24 to further a common interest or address a social injustice. “Children should be seen and not heard” is an old adage that today’s youth soundly and resolutely reject. In a world where social media has been demonized as the ills of all society, youth activism has been aided by its use, which this generation has mastered with ease. Social media platforms have provided youth with an effective method that allows them to quickly bring attention to issues happening around the world and has enabled them to reach people around the planet. The ability to communicate ideas, events, and calls to action have empowered Generation Z with tools not available to activists of the past. Social media has allowed activists around the world to belong to something larger than themselves and has demonstrated the power of an individual’s voice. Some of the most serious issues have produced the fiercest and most fearless young activists and sparked movements that extend beyond the borders of this country and around the globe.

One of the most prominent issues facing youth today is gun violence in schools. Students are increasingly encountering threats of armed individuals on school grounds. One of the first major campus massacres occurred on April 20th, 1999, when two teenagers killed 13 people and injured 20 during a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. At the time, it was known to be one of the deadliest shootings in the U.S. and resulted in a national debate about gun control and school safety. Despite significant political discussion and calls for action, little has been done to prevent additional shootings. In fact, since 1999 there have been over 300 school shootings in the United States. Almost 20 years after Columbine, on February 14th, 2018, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people. This shooting inspired many teens to speak out on the issue of gun violence in America.

Parkland survivor, David Hogg became an advocate representing school aged children after he took a stand against gun violence and has devoted his life to reforms. He became a prominent figure in this movement leading multiple gun violence protests, boycotts, and marches. In addition, Hogg also co-founded March for Our Lives, an organization that aims to reduce gun violence. His activism, along with that of other Parkland survivors, encouraged and inspired youth around the world to speak out against gun violence. In the months following the Parkland shooting, millions of teenagers from around the world gathered in Washington D.C. to protest for tighter gun control laws.

Following the protests in 2018, former Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law that raised the minimum age for purchasing a rifle from 18 to 21 and imposed a three-day waiting period on all gun purchases. However, this small measure was too insignificant to effectuate change and no further measures were passed.

The mass violence against youth resulted in numerous protests for gun control and school safety. We did not write the laws that govern firearm ownership. We did not make it easier to obtain an assault rifle than a fishing license. We did not create the environment where criminals have access to the same weapons as the law enforcement working to protect us. Yet, my generation has experienced the most horrific and deadliest school shootings. While law enforcement has been praised for their response to school shootings, issues with public trust for law enforcement suffered following numerous reports of police brutality mainly affecting minorities.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained traction following the death of George Floyd after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. One differentiating component of this movement was the immense role of social media. When Darnella Frazier, 17, uploaded the video of the violent arrest on social media, it immediately resulted in a very high number of people taking to the streets to protest the injustice. The reaction to the video’s posting was swift and drew significant attention to the cause. The use of media amplified the voices of youth and allowed them to increase exposure to the unnecessary use of force by law enforcement in the United States. During this BLM movement, social media brought people together to raise awareness and allowed youth to take the call to action, organize rallies and marches, and educate others on the racial injustice happening in America.

Floyd’s death brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront at a level not seen since the civil rights movement. Young activists across the world led their own movements fighting for a better future. BLM created some of the largest protests that have taken place in the United States. On June 6th, more than half a million people across the world protested to bring attention to the racism and brutality that took place.

While many young leaders took to the streets and social media in support of change, some took it a step further and became politically active as a method to induce change. Maxwell Alejandro Frost is among the first members of Generation Z to run for Congress. Frost has been involved in politics and organizing since he was 15 years old. One of the first things that inspired him to get involved was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took place in 2015. I recently had the chance to speak with Frost who recalled his experience when he first learned about the shooting. At the time, he was getting ready for a band concert when he saw the headlines on the TV. 20 children (all between the ages of 6 and 7 years old) and 6 adult staff members were shot and killed in one of the most infamous shootings in the United States. Frost went to the memorial for the families of the victims and had the honor of speaking to some of the family members. He recalls how deeply affected Matthew Soto, 15, was as he was crying and grieving the loss of his sister, a teacher, who died in the shooting. Frost stated, “I want to fight the rest of my life to make sure no one ever has to feel the way Matthew did. No one should ever feel that way. That’s what got me into this.”

Since the memorial, he has been fighting for social justice. He has worked as a national organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), organized a movement to restore voting rights to over 1.6 million felons, and was the national organizing director for March for Our Lives in which he led young activists to fight against gun violence, all before the age of 25.

When asked why he believes youth are becoming more involved, Frost replied, “We want to make sure everyone has all the opportunities they deserve and we’re not afraid to tell folks how we feel. I think that’s why our generation has been so involved…we want to make sure everyone has the ability to live their best lives.” Frost further stated, “When we look back, we can say we did everything we could as young people to make sure that we had a better future.”

The fault of our planet’s imminent destruction does not lie with this generation, however the burden to fix it does. With technological advances, urbanization, prosperity, and population growth, our planet has paid a price. Soon we shall all pay the price. Those born within the last two decades had no input and no power to stop those before them from decimating forests, polluting the water, burning holes through the ozone layer, and causing global warming, but our desire to save the planet and correct the wrongdoings of previous generations is evident. First gaining notoriety at the age of 15, when she protested in front of the Swedish Parliament, 19-year-old activist Greta Thunberg devotes herself to reversing climate damage.

In 2018, Thunberg founded the “Fridays for Future” movement which demanded that the Swedish government act on the climate crisis. Supported by her parents, Thunberg elected to skip school on Fridays and sit in front of the parliament in hopes that lawmakers would enact change. Students all over the world began participating in the Fridays for Future movement and protested outside their local government buildings. By March of 2019, Thunberg had led more than a million students worldwide as they skipped school to protest the lack of action lawmakers were taking on the climate crisis. Again, youth emerged, paving the path for change. Thunberg’s perseverance and tenacity elevated her to become one of the most prominent global climate change activists. As a result of her fearless and focused leadership, Thunberg has spoken before Congress and the United Nations and is credited with drawing worldwide attention to climate change. Thunberg faced harsh critics and became the subject of ridicule by political groups for her attempts to curb climate change. Unfortunately becoming a young activist is not without risk. The attention and exposure leave these young individuals vulnerable to various types of attacks.

The attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the dangers of becoming a prominent activist. At a young age, Yousafzai became an eminent leader in the fight for human rights and incited change in the world. At age 11, she became an advocate for women’s rights and education. Her father established a school in Pakistan which is where she learned the importance of education. However, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley region of Pakistan where she lived. The Taliban attacked girls’ schools and enforced rules to block education for women. Yousafzai began to write articles for BBC Urdu under a pseudonym and created awareness for the oppression women in her country were facing and spoke on her experience about attending school in Pakistan. She was shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school when she was 15 for opposing their rules on women’s education. After multiple surgeries she is continuing to recover from her injuries and furthering her advocacy for children’s education. A month after her attack she created the “Malala Fund” which aimed to support education for children across the world.

The Malala Petition was also created to urge the United Nations to recommit to the Millennium Development Goal 2, which focused on universal primary education for children across the world. Over 300 million people came together to sign this petition. At 17, she became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work for children’s rights. When she turned 18, she opened a school for Syrian refugee girls. Even now at the age of 24, she is married and is still committed to fighting for girls’ education.

Today, there are a multitude of causes and social injustices on the minds of youth such as, climate change, gun violence, women’s rights, race equality, mental health, LGBTQ+, bullying, gender equality, and poverty, just to name a few. However, youth activism is not a recent phenomenon. Infamous movements such as the one for civil rights, in which activists marched for equality for African Americans between 1954-1964, Kent State University’s anti-war protests in 1970, and Tiananmen Square 1989 student-led protests for free speech and press in China, were all fueled by outraged youth who desired change.

Today’s modern issues are affecting youth like never before, forcing them to stand up for themselves. The concerns of youth today are hitting a higher magnitude than in previous years. The current generation is taking a stand to fix the wrongdoings of past generations. They are protesting and speaking up when they see world leaders and people in power doing the very opposite of what is morally and ethically right. While change is a slow process, the urgency to raise awareness of issues happening only progresses. “When we take a step back and look at the history of advocacy and movement building and people fighting for what they believe in, it tends to take a while to get little things. I think often times we feel lucky when we get the little things. I think persistence is key, we should be ready for a long fight. But we should always remember we have not failed because we have not given up,” said Maxwell Frost.

My generation has experienced active school shooting drills and grew up knowing the devastating future effects of climate change. My generation was exposed to the negative consequences of failing to provide an inclusive environment for all. We have been promised by politicians and lawmakers that justice will be given. They have sent us their condolences when a mass shooting occurred, yet they have done little to prevent future shootings. They have assured us they would take action to remedy the devastating effects of climate change, yet our planet continues along the unabated path of destruction. They have failed to understand that we’ve been fighting the same injustices for 60 years. However, young people are being bold and not letting setbacks deter them from pushing for change. Protests spark debate and, when effective, can serve to educate the public and solve existing problems, giving a sense of what true justice is.

The old adage about children being silent isn’t cutting it anymore. In following the lead of these courageous activists, youth across the world have been active on social media, writing letters to political leaders, and organizing protests. A radical shift has taken place where children are demanding to be heard, and are demanding social justice, social peace, and climate attention. Youth today have become involved in political participation and are beginning to take action to correct the mistakes of predecessors like no other generation in history.

Today’s youth are taking on leadership roles and taking back the power to affect positive social and political change because they are realizing if they don’t, it will be too late by the time the power is passed to them naturally. These young heroes have not only started movements, but they have inspired their generation to be one of activism. The future will look back upon this generation as one of the most politically influential generations in history. Each of these student leaders embarked on a life of activism while still children. While taking on such high-pressure roles with significant implications and consequences, these courageous young leaders are not only making their own mark on history but creating hope and inspiration for their generation and those generations that follow.

We didn’t start the fire, but we are surely doing our best to put it out to create a more beautiful world where everyone has the chance to live their best lives.