The Messy World of Activism

Over the past few years, youth activism has taken the United States by storm. Politically engaged teenagers have organized national marches, worked on campaigns and advocated for policy. Building on the legacies of the students who protested American ties to the South African Apartheid government, took to the streets to oppose the Vietnam War and sat at segregated lunch counters, youth today are again challenging the older generation’s status quo through their activism. 

But what is activism? Which activists are highlighted by our society, and which are ignored?

In recent years,  it has often been white youth—activists like Greta Thunberg and the many of the original founders of March for Our Lives—who have been the faces of youth activism. Because of their race, these activists are given more attention than activists of color who work, with equal dedication, in their communities to fight against systematic oppression. There is no doubt that the advocacy of Thunberg and the Parkland students is invaluable in bringing the issues of climate change and gun violence to the forefront of national and international conversations, but it is an injustice to see the continual neglect of black and brown youth whose day-to-day reality requires them to speak up. 

“Activism isn’t cute for me—it’s survival,” said Helisa Cruz, a senior at BASIS High School and a State Director for March for Our Lives D.C. “It is serving your community, giving to people and uplifting them. It is knowing that you’re changing something that affects you. I just don’t want my family members to die.”

Director of the Community Engagement and Experiential Learning Office Jeremy Haft lamented how young activists of color are often excluded from mainstream narratives: “A negative byproduct of celebrity culture is latching onto what sells. Our culture, our media have naturally gravitated towards the marketable, sellable spokespeople.”

 Junior Lauren Hogg, a co-founder of March for Our Lives, agreed. A friend told Hogg that “she was ‘tired of activism being gentrified.’” Hogg added, “The white individuals that are organizers need to acknowledge their privilege and know when to step back.”

Just as messy as the question of which activists the spotlight tends to favor is the question of what actually counts as activism. The term “activism” has been used to describe everything from a message of solidarity posted on an Instagram story to the international Climate Strike. Former President Barack Obama called out “woke” culture when he said, “There are ambiguities…. One danger I see among young people… is this sense sometimes of … ‘if I tweet or hashtag about how [someone] didn’t do something right… then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself… I called you out.’… But that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” 

So what does “activism” really consist of? Is it posting a photo with your middle finger pointed at the White House? Is it skipping school to march in a walkout? Is it lobbying for local and federal bills that help your community? Is it all of the above? 

 “A lot of times people think of an activist as an individual, but I’d much rather think of it as an action,” said Hogg. 

Senior Viraj Prakash, head of the GDS’ Turning Point club, added, “Activism is standing up for what you believe in a way that seeks to inform people around you. People will come up to me and say, ‘I actually learned something from what you had to say.’”

At GDS, activism is cultivated throughout a student’s education. Fifth-grade students participate in the new ChangeMakers program, an incubator for social enterprise. The GDS Corps for middle schoolers teaches empathy and civic participation with a foundation in environmental justice. The GDS Policy and Advocacy Institute provides deep dives into contemporary issues and tangible action. And the GDS Student Action Committee is the one-stop shop for activism at the high school. 

“You can see that [GDS activism] lights a fire under students, no matter their age,” Haft said. “The most powerful way of engaging with activism is through beginning with the heart, and then the head, and then the hands. It’s connecting deeply with the human side of an issue.”

Anoushka Chander ’21