To learn more about youth organizing and its many impacts, visit our About Youth Organizing page for examples, stories and the latest research.
1) What is Youth Organizing?
Youth organizing is an innovative youth development and social justice strategy that trains young people in community organizing and advocacy, and assists them in employing these skills to create meaningful institutional and social change in their communities.
Youth Organizing is a mode of social justice organizing that, much like labor and neighborhood organizing, views its constituency—young people from disenfranchised communities—as a population that is subject to specific forms of systemic inequality, and who are therefore poised to organize for systemic change. As a solution to the myriad social problems that involve youth in the United States (street violence, joblessness, over-reliance on policing and prisons, crumbling education) youth organizing views young people as agents of change as opposed to the mere subjects of change. Though services are certainly an important component to the long-term health and survival of young people, youth organizing practitioners believe that lasting and collective community transformation is achieved when young people begin to critically analyze the power that structures their lives, strategize to change relations of power, and organize to win systemic change.
The other key factor about youth organizing is it develops a critical pipeline of leadership essential for the sustainability of social justice work in this country.
2) Models: What are the components of youth organizing processes?
As with other forms of social justice organizing, youth organizing adopts several models. Three stand out:
- Stand-alone youth organizing groups: This refers to organizations with a leadership and base that is primarily, if not exclusively, comprised of youth. Adult allies may often function in the role of staff leadership and membership support, but the core issues and base-building strategies of the organization revolve around the young people.
- Youth organizing “components” within multigenerational and multi-issue community organizations: This refers to youth organizing projects within a “parent” community organizing group. The youth organizing component can function in one of three ways:
- As a leadership pipeline that moves young leaders into the core organizing campaigns of the parent organization—young people are developed to join the adult organizers.
- As a separate organizing project that focuses on developing youth leaders and a distinct youth base around a specific youth-focused issue area.
- As the primary organizing wing of a multigenerational, multi-issue grassroots group. (This model is popular in immigrant and native communities in particular)
- Youth organizing within a broader youth development/youth services institution: This refers to the development of youth organizing projects that seek to complement the political goals of a youth development and services program. The youth organizing project is usually a campaign corollary to the advocacy provided by the youth development and services program (e.g., reproductive rights, youth homelessness)
3) Does youth organizing connect to something bigger?
Youth organizing connects to virtually all social justice sectors. The issue areas that are taken-up by youth organizing groups are the same ones that are worked on by labor and environmental groups, criminal justice organizing groups, and educational justice group, to name a few. Youth organizing approaches these issues in three distinct ways:
- Taking a youth “cut” on the issue: Organizing around the way in which an issue area impacts youth specifically. (Popular in the field of educational justice organizing)
- Youth taking leadership on a community-wide issue: Organizing around an issue that impacts all community members equally, with youth taking the mantle of leadership (this model is popular in immigrant communities where youth are bilingual and bicultural).
- Youth working in equal partnership with adult (multigenerational) partners.
4) Is youth organizing sustainable?
Youth organizing has proven itself to be a pipeline for a new generation of social justice leaders. As a distinct field within community organizing, it pays equal attention to leadership development and expansion (ongoing education and training of youth) as it does to the organizing work itself. This has resulted in many youth organizing groups being able to pipeline youth leaders through the ranks of the organization into staff and board leadership positions. In this sense, youth leaders do not simply “age-out” of youth organizing organizations when they reach their early-to-mid twenties. Even those youth who choose not to take up leadership positions in their home-based youth organizing groups will have developed the skills necessary to be effective leaders in other sectors of social justice. Indeed, one will readily find former youth organizing leaders now working in labor, environmental justice, civil rights, women and LGBTQ organizations—to name but a few. Therefore the field of youth organizing is not only self-sustainable, but provides leadership sustenance for a broad range of social justice sectors.
5) What is the youth development scope and impact?
Youth organizing simultaneously expands the base of civically-engaged youth, develops the leadership skills among a diverse sector of that base (across gender, race, nationality, and educational background) and serves as a holistic developmental program for young people. The youth who enter youth organizing institutions are not viewed as “clients,” but rather as members of a politically informed and civically engaged “base.” The distinct youth services that are delivered by youth organizing—community organizing skills training, teamwork building, peer and mentor support, etc.—do not exclusively benefit individual youth; rather these components expand the broader community’s leadership capacity. “The ultimate impact of youth organizing is both simple and profound: the engagement of large numbers of young people in leading successful efforts for positive community and systematic change.”*
6) Community & policy impact: Do youth have power to win policy changes?
Youth organizing campaign wins range from the small and seemingly mundane (winning clean bathrooms) to the high-impact (winning policy reforms or new school construction). Small campaign victories serve to initially galvanize a base that is unaccustomed to having its concerns, let alone its demands, seriously considered. Creating an optimistic, winning culture among the membership of youth organizing groups serves as a precursor to future, high-impact victories. (See FCYO’s “Youth Organizing Policy Victories” document for examples.) Youth organizing practitioners understand that winning “real change” is a developmental process.
7) Why is it necessary? Why should youth be a separate constituency?
One of the biggest misconceptions about youth organizing is that it serves to separate youth as a distinct political constituency. However, youth organizing represents a mode of social justice organizing, and should not be confused with representing a distinct political class or constituency. Certainly, there are issues that primarily affect youth and the inequalities they face (educational issues are a prime example). But youth organizing groups tend to work on issues that impact the community at large: environmental justice, employment, immigrant rights etc. Youth organizing practitioners assert that youth play a specific role in achieving change in these issue areas: Most youth are nonwage workers whose means of subsistence is often safe-guarded by the social state and family wage; therefore, they possess the time and energy to work on community campaigns. So too, for the growing immigrant population, bilingual and bicultural youth serve as the primary emissaries—a bridge between their communities and broader social institutions. Finally, young people have proven capable of innovating new organizations and strategies that build on lessons of the past. They often bring fresh perspectives to the work.
Yet we must always remember that: “youth cannot engage in this struggle alone. Social change cannot be achieved without the engagement of concerned adults to act as supporters, advisers, facilitators, and activists in their own rights.”*
8) What roles can funders play?*
Funders can directly support youth organizing through providing core-operating and program support. In addition, it is important to fund networking opportunities, support intermediaries and leverage resources by involving other funders or supporting research that documents the field. Program officers have a special role in this work. They should engage in and learn about the field; see youth organizing practitioners as partners; adjust expectations and strategy to accommodate innovation in youth organizing; and provide helpful advice.
* Quotes are from the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing Occasional Paper Series no. 1: “An Emerging Model for Working with Youth: Community Organizing + Youth Development = Youth Organizing” (2003). See the FCYO’s Occasional Paper Series for more information about supporting youth organizing.