New Frontier for Organizing: Youth and Elders, Working Hand in Hand

New Frontier for Organizing: Youth and Elders, Working Hand in Hand

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Near a decade ago, I gave media workshops to a group of youth of color in East Palo Alto who worked for a grassroots group called Youth United for Community Action (YUCA). Though still in high school, they identified themselves as environmental justice activists, deeply committed to a local struggle that started before they were born. They were trying to rid their community of a toxic waste plant that was polluting the air with dangerous chemicals and causing a rash of respiratory illnesses.

Ten years later, those teens, despite a world of naysayers, successfully removed that toxic waste plant, and are the managing staff of what is now a nationally acclaimed organization, and are giving their own workshops to a new crop of East Palo Alto youth.

They are one of many success stories of the modern “youth movement “ that was born in the late nineties out of a sense that youth of color were targeted and disenfranchised by the body politic, and as a matter of survival, needed to come together, organize, and fight for their own well-being as youth. Back then, a lot of organizations popped up across the country that started with the words “Youth For…” They allowed platforms for youth of color to transform from passive recipients of decisions made about them to active agents of change in the arenas that impacted their lives — education, criminal justice, immigration, and environmental justice. The organization I work for, Silicon Valley De-Bug, started as a way for young workers to be heard about their issues in the workplace.

It was a generational identity crafted from a common consciousness – that young people needed to be involved in local and national policy discussions that impacted them, and once established, needed to protect and strengthen the space they carved out for themselves.

And now, without a doubt, there are local communities and national policies that have been changed for the better as a direct result of youth organizing. Youth organizations are now assumed into the political discourse through the efforts of groups like YUCA. “Where are the youth?” is no longer a rhetorical question, or a chant because of the organizing infrastructure that has been built over the past decade.

And yet despite these hard fought achievements, young people of color are facing perhaps more threats and are being offered less opportunities than ever. Juvenile incarceration rates continue to climb as schools crumble and avenues to higher educations are being cut off. The jobless rates for youth of color — estimated at 22% for Latinos 16-24 years old, and a stunning 52% for young Black males — are arguably the most injurious, yet least talked about fallout from the worst economic landscape since the depression in American history.

So how does a now seasoned and proven youth movement re-imagine its role to meet the current challenges of a new political moment? Until now, the ethic was to build up protective walls to defend youth issues and spaces, allowing young people to communicate to themselves, lest they be drowned out by the adult world. Now, the youth movement needs to extend beyond the spaces they once built to reach out to older generations who need their leadership and are linked to a common destiny.
Two Sides of the Same Coin of Crisis

Last month I was at a gathering in DC convened by the policy group Generations United of advocates of youth and of the elderly from across the country to get a sort of temperature check as to how the economy was impacting different age groups. And while our issues (schools for youth, health care for seniors) may have had different entry points, underneath the surface, the feelings were the same — a sense that without political power in a time of dwindling resources, our respective communities are going to suffer. As it turns out, the despair from a teenager in California who is sitting in a broken down overcrowded school can sound very similar to that of an elder in a dilapidated senior home in Virginia.

The cross-generational sense of crisis though is also an opportunity for ally building that can benefit all ages, and in particular, may be the new frontier for youth organizing.

A report recently released by Generations United highlights this common state of affairs. They write, “One in five children lives in poverty. More than a third of older adults have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line…child, parent, and grandparent are coming back together and living in the same home…” The data holds up a reality that both policy-makers and organizers sometimes forgot – that families cannot be parceled out, artificially separated on spreadsheets, and what impacts one member will invariably impact them all. As such, to say that school reform is a youth issue and that social security is a seniors’ issue is simply a false framing.

The studies around Social Security benefits, for example, tell the story of families, not just elders. According to the US Census, roughly 6.5 million children are being raised in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. In these households, the Social Security check is as much about a teenager being able to pack a lunch as it is a grandparent being able to pay for their medication. At the Generations United convening, one of the headliners was an author named Beth Finke who lost her father when she was 3 years old. She and her siblings received Social Security survivor benefits, allowing Beth’s mother to make ends meet for the family. Losing her sight in her early twenties, she says, “Without Social Security, I wouldn’t have been able to afford college.”
Intergenerational Challenges Require Intergenerational Solutions

The Generations United report centered around a survey that finds that a majority of Americans want federal policy-makers to acknowledge the needed generational interdependence in future funding. According to the survey, “78% of adults said policy-makers should make it a priority to fund policies and initiatives that foster stronger relations between older and younger people.” And in a rebuke of current political gamesmanship, the survey concludes, “More then 80% of adults agree politicians sometimes pit one generation against another in order to limit public support for government funding of programs such as child care, health care, or Social Security.”

Communities are seeing this dynamic locally as well. This past summer in San Jose, city officials who were facing a major deficit (like almost every other major city in the country) went on a vicious slash and burn cutting campaign on social services. Naturally, senior services and youth activities found themselves on the same chopping block. Yet in response, it was the one center that provided both the senior nutrition program as well as after-school youth programming in a low-income San Jose neighborhood called Gardener that led the fight against the cuts. At the peak of the campaign, City Hall was over-run with young folks with sideways hats and baggy pants alongside gray-haired, and wheel-chaired seniors demanding the same thing – save our services. The different generations were there for themselves, but also to protect the other, as they were ultimately the same community. Their collective organizing turned the City Council away from the cuts, saving the Gardener Center and other needed community services for youth and elders.

In hindsight, some of the best youth organizing victories and support systems for young people has always been inter-generational, even if rarely acknowledged. Major achievements like the California youth organizations that shut down draconian youth prisons, always had moms and grandmothers at their rallies and actions. The visiting rooms of juvenile halls are consistently packed with grandparents. The massive immigrant rights student walk outs and marches that took place in 2006 across the country, the largest acts of protest in American history, were largely about the children of immigrants taking to the streets to protect their undocumented parents and grandparents. Even at YUCA, their shutting down of the toxic waste company was driven by youth trying to protect the health of their grandparents, and used the wisdom of their elders, veterans of the civil rights movement, to carve out their winning strategy.

Today there is a rare, if not fated, intersection of an emboldened youth movement with a decade of experience under its belt, and a larger community of families and elders that could use some back up. And in many ways, to have an intergenerational lens is as much self-serving as it is altruistic. Because youth movements, as a generational platform, is unique from any other movement it its biology – different from the struggle for racial, gender, or even economic rights. None of those movements invariably become that which they once felt unheard from. Women do not become men, black does not become white, impoverished do not inherently become rich – but young become old.

Best to defend elders now, as we all will be there eventually.

The next era for youth organizing is to not only lead and protect young people in the community, but rather see themselves as protectors and advocates for the entire community.