Youth activism gains prominence, students speak out

February 25, 2019 — by Anna Novoselov

Freshman Anouk Yeh performing slam poetry.

Freshman Anouk Yeh gazed over a crowd of 700 people clustered at the Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall. With words full of force and emotion, she performed three slam poems she had written — one about feminism, one about seeking asylum and one about gun control — as people cheered and shouted support.

To the boy in her writing class she said, “understand when I say feminism, I do not mean the genocide of chivalry,” to the asylum seeker she voiced, “I wonder what it is about migration, or chasing salvation, that asks to be antagonized into bloodthirsty home invasion,” and to gun supporters, she declared, “No matter how times honored your guns are, yes they still kill. Yes we still bleed when we’re shot.”

Yeh believes that her words helped move a lot of people and exposed them to a different perspective.

“It felt really exciting, especially since I could feel the energy radiating from the crowd, almost as if they were hanging on to every single word I was saying,” Yeh said. “When I was speaking, it almost felt like there was an electric current in the air.”

She was pleasantly surprised about how well the audience received her performance for the annual Oakland Women’s March on Jan. 19, where she was invited by the women’s march “afterparty” organizer  Rita Forte. Afterward, numerous marchers praised her and gave feedback. A young girl even said that Yeh was her inspiration.

Advocating for the causes she supports by using her words “to convey emotions and tug at people’s heartstrings” has helped Yeh discover her political beliefs and solidify her stance on several issues.

 

Yeh becomes involved with activism

Yeh began writing slam poetry last summer and got involved in youth activism a few months ago. At first, she was afraid that people would criticize her for speaking about controversial issues such as gun control and the true meaning of feminism, but now she thinks that people are grateful that she is willing to step out and voice her beliefs.

“A lot of people might be scared to go into activism because it might seem daunting,” Yeh said. “But I think the most important part is to keep in the back of your mind that what you’re doing has a greater purpose than just yourself and that it may be benefiting people you don’t even know.”

She is part of the slam poetry team at DMC studios MACLA, an organization aiming to help young people gain the courage to participate in social movements and use their art to galvanize change. Slam poetry, which combines performance, expressive writing and powerful emotions to stir an audience and transfer personal experiences or beliefs, is one art form that activists may use to discuss social and political issues.

She was inspired by the 2017 Brave New Voices International Youth Slam Poetry Festival winner, Samuel Getachew, whose political poetry impacted many people and taught her the importance of participating in the fight for reform.

Yeh said that youth activism is gratifying and has a larger potential for impact than some people may think.

Youth activism involves young people speaking out about issues to raise awareness and bring about social change. Throughout the years, it has played a crucial role in sparking prominent movements and encouraging youth to become involved in societal matters.

 

Examples of Youth Activism

One of the earliest examples of youth activism is the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike in New York City. When The New York World and New York Journal owners, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst respectively, raised the price of 100 newspapers from 50 to 60 cents, the homeless boys who sold newspapers on the streets to earn a living were outraged. They rallied together and went on strike, refusing to sell any more newspapers. Their numbers were so great that their rallies created traffic congestion and became known throughout the country.

Although Pulitzer and Randolph did not lower the newspaper prices following this two-week movement, the newspaper publishers agreed to buy back any unsold papers at the end of each day. This demonstration inspired protests around the nation as more youth demanded social change.

A recent wave of youth activism came about following last year’s Feb. 18 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.  After 17 of their former classmates were killed and 14 wounded, a group of teenagers, including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover and Cameron Kasky, began advocating for harsher gun restrictions and greater safety in schools.

By organizing nationwide March For Our Lives protests and promoting the hashtag “#neveragain,” the teens garnered attention from people of all ages, spurring others to join the movement for greater gun control.

 

The Power of Social Media

Special Education Resource Aid Michael Morosin emphasized the power of social media to amass widespread attention and appeal to a variety of people.

“The internet is this door to issues that are far away from the area you happen to be living,” special education aide Michael Morosin said. “There’s a greater consciousness on youth today that they’re all connected and that they have very similar issues, whether they’re living in North Dakota, or Florida or California.”

Yeh said that even though the March for Our Lives activists were unable to create legislative change as of now, they opened up the eyes of innumerable people. The teens inspired countless other young people to rise up and advocate for their beliefs and participate in matters important to them.

“I think that the youth have realized that even though they don’t want to grow up to become politicians or lawyers, that this is their future,” Yeh said. “If they don’t try to help steer the country in the right direction or try to do something, then this is going to be their mess to clean up.”

Morosin praised social media for its ability to spread awareness efficiently, generating movements almost instantaneously. When he was a teen in the 1960s, there was no mass media other than television, newspapers and radios, so movements started from rallying in the streets or making phone calls.

Now, joining a movement is much easier. Social media provides a platform where youth activists can connect with others and reach many people with their message.

 

Age should not dissuade young activists

Morosin said that although young people don’t usually have the same financial power as adults, they do have the numbers and passion.

“They can change things that we've tolerated for way too long,” Morosin said. “Just because they're young doesn't mean the should be disrespected or that their life experiences are too short.”

When Morosin was a teenager, youth activism was largely concentrated on anti-Vietnam War efforts. He said that people were passionate about the advocacy, as their lives were at stake if they were to be drafted into a war that many did not believe in.

Morosin himself attended several protests. He said that the protests were very successful, as they raised awareness and got “under (then-President) Nixon’s nerves.” Adults were forced to come to terms about identifying the reason behind the war, which spurred even more anti-war campaigns.

“People are rightfully outraged about what hasn't been done by adults in this country, so they participate in social movements,” Morosin said. “That is meaningful and powerful.”

In fact, six relatively recent influential social movements — The Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War protests, Tiananmen Square, Arab Spring, the Indigenous Water Rights Movement and March for Our Lives — were either sparked by youth or largely motivated by youth action.

Yeh said that youth activism has helped close the culture clash between older generations and younger generations as adults have started taking youth activists more seriously.

“This new activism has created a place where the older generation can give us knowledge about their beliefs and we can explain to the older generation why we believe in this and why this is important to us,” she said. “It has started to create a bond between different generations and I think that’s it's cool to have one unified body of people.”

She said that there is no age limit for young people wanting to get into activism.

For instance, Mari Copeny, known as Little Miss Flint, tirelessly advocates for access to clean water in Flint, Mich. When she was only 8, she wrote a letter to President Obama and urged him to respond to the crisis; soon after, Obama came to Flint and ensured the people that he would help.

Now, Copeny continues to raise money for disadvantaged children in Flint and support women’s rights. She has even spoken at the White House and at the United Nations Girl Up Leadership Conference.

“If you’re a youth activist, there will always be people trying to discredit you because you’re younger and you should just brush that aside because if you really want to do this than that shouldn’t be a limit,” Yeh said. “If you’re passionate about something and have the drive and motivation, then you should be able to do it regardless of age.”

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