Active Millennials Speak Out, Desire Change
The Applied Research Center published a study, ‘Millennials, Activism & Race,’ which highlights what gets young, progressive activists energized to remain civically engaged, and to tease out the social and racial barriers they identify as obstructing their goals—and to what extent they believe these barriers can be overcome.
The research was conducted with nine focus groups held in Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York, Portland, OR, and Oakland, CA. Group participants were demographically diverse with 53 percent of participants being people of color, and 45 percent identifying as female, aged 18-30 years. To qualify, interviewees had to have experience working with a social justice organization or have participated in the Occupy movement—who made up about 70 percent of interviewees.
Through surveys and conversation generated in the focus groups, the study produced some interesting findings. Here are some of the highlights:
Capitalism is the Culprit
Most group members listed lack of awareness regarding history and politics, along with an innate economic emphasis on individualism as key areas in need of change in order to push progressivism to the next level.
“We need to see a public that’s more aware in general—more invested in learning about what’s going on in their world, instead of being focused on entertainment,” said a participant from Atlanta.
Considering the anti-corporate greed rhetoric that came out of the Occupy movements, capitalism was often blamed by participants as the underlying cause of contemporary issues and disunity.
“I’d like to see an increase in what’s called social capital,” said an Asian-American identified as Nelson. “And having society move from individualism and self-interest towards groups and organizations and restoring relationships and community.”
Race Still Matters
Interviewees also noted that racism, and refusing to challenge the status quo were barriers to progressive change.
Most Millennials agreed that there is still much work to be done on the topic of race, even among progressives but acknowledged that intertwined within race are the issues of class, gender, and sexuality. Group members noted that promoting equality and generating social and economic change requires addressing these additional issues that serve to separate Americans. Many who were part of the Occupy movement felt that, though class was the big focus, it was necessary to have a discussion about race, and other factors as well. They were shocked that, even among such forward-minded individuals, race seemed to be a taboo topic.
“People don’t want to talk about race in general around the country and around the world because it makes people uncomfortable. Because at the end of the day it’s about ‘you’ve got more than me,’ or ‘I feel guilty’,” a 28-year-old community organizer in Portland said.
I Do it for the Family
When asked about the values of their ideal society all participants listed community and cooperation as the most desirable.
Millennials cited personal or family experience as their primary influence for choosing a path towards social justice and activism. Family as a motivator was most apparent among people of color, at 81 percent, and among non-occupy participants, at 89 percent.
“My passion came from my personal experience and my rage about it came from understanding that it was broader. Poverty is a political issue, so is immigration enforcement, etc. It’s all part of a plant to keep people down,” said 27-year old Derrick.
And while some people’s motivation is strengthened by a personal connection to a cause, others wish to distance themselves from issues that hit close to home—consciously choosing not to align themselves with social justice organizations that may have affected them personally, often for emotional reasons.
“Where as fighting economic justice, it’s really personally affecting me and it’s an uphill battle,” says a 30-year old identified as Mary. “Where as dealing with prison reform, I have never been to prison. It’s just a little easier emotionally to work with.”
Faith in Politics is Waning
Another portion of the study highlights a sense of disillusionment among today’s youth regarding bipartisan politics. Young progressives, many of whom eagerly volunteered during President Obama’s 2008 campaign, are frustrated by the lack of change and inherent flaws in our political system. A few are unsure that they will even vote during this election. Some interviewees channel their efforts into local elections hoping that here they can have a voice, and actually be heard.
“The people in power do have a lot of influence over our lives, but how do we get the people in power who we want? I think that’s the answer that a lot of us don’t have,” says Alex who took part in Occupy Atlanta.
Rinku Sen, President and Executive Director of the ARC, suggested that organizations that work with young people should work to foster an open environment, share personal stories, provide the tools to work toward desired values, and generate dialogue—especially about “off-limits” topics. But progressiveorganizations are just one part of the equation—young people must also be willing to open up, to share their stories, to talk about the touchy issues, and to realize that, even though they may feel like they’re in the minority, there are others who feel just like them.
“I was struck by the balanced way in which the young people in our focus groups spoke about what works and what doesn’t in the organizations they have joined and started. While they have many critiques of themselves and others, our participants exhibited an optimism and steadfastness that made me feel the same,” Sen said.
Amisha Sisodiya is an online communications intern with Campus Progress.