Where Activism is Born
AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana
Young people have faced some enormous challenges as a generation since the beginning of the new century. Thousands have been killed or wounded in two overseas wars. On the home front, there has been the challenge of finding jobs with decent wages and health insurance. Not only are a majority of young people buried under mountains of student loan or credit card debt, the latest generation could actually end up as the first generation in a hundred years to be worse off financially than their parents were.
Enter We Fight to Win: Inequality and the Politics of Youth Activism, a book by University of Denver sociologist Hava Rachel Gordon. Gordon deserves credit; instead of adding to the large array of writings that already expound on college activism (especially from the 1960s and ’70s), the author takes a more creative approach by focusing on students in high school who are desperate to stop injustice and discrimination in their own classrooms. Gordon’s mission is to explain just “how young activists negotiate relationships with adult allies to achieve political legitimacy.” But Gordon’s study, while interesting, is ultimately an incomplete story of the activism of this generation.
The book is set in 2002, as the second Bush administration prepares for a second war in Iraq. Gordon embeds herself with two student activist groups that work with young people under the age of 18: Youth Power, an organization working in the poor and dilapidated neighborhoods of Oakland, Calif., and Students Rise Up, a more affluent collective of white high school and middle school students in Portland, Ore. The author chronicles a year of difficulties faced by these students as they struggle to make sense of the politics that govern their schools and communities.
“I’ve tried to look for stuff about youth activism … I found a little on college student movements of the sixties, but nothing younger than that. It’s frustrating. There’s no road map for this stuff,” said 15-year-old student Alana, a member of Students Rise Up, in the book.
Unsurprisingly, members of Youth Power, the more diverse of the two groups Gordon examined, are concerned with their crumbling public school system, where faculty turnover and failing grades are high. On the other hand, Students Rise Up protests against problems slightly further away. They took collective action against the military action in Iraq, and protested military recruitment in school. To their credit, Students Rise Up was also concerned with dramatic budget cuts that threatened to close district schools.
Although the book is titled We Fight To Win, it captures only a few actual victories. True, Youth Power successfully lobbies administrators to develop a more culturally sensitive curriculum, and another student in Portland creates a club to tackle discrimination against gays and lesbians even though school authorities prohibit her from actually calling it a “Gay-Straight Alliance.” But before the book is even finished, one of the groups, Students Rise Up, is disbanded.
It’s not necessarily the fault of the students. As the author correctly notes, the proverbial deck is stacked against young activists in high school. Power is skewed against a minor at home and in the classroom, never mind the fact that students are continuously at odds with adult superiority complexes and presumptions, even in older activist groups that are supposed to be open and affirming. There really is no road map on how to make an impact as a young person.
Unfortunately, the text is tedious and hard to read, mottled with academic jargon. Working through Gordon’s dry narrative is only rewarding insofar as she directly quotes the students who are the subject of her book.
The greatest disservice committed by Gordon is her academic disassociation from the students she follows. Instead of living, breathing people, the youths are portrayed more as curious animals in a testing lab, forever confined to a maze of listless text while Gordon speculates on their movements. Truly it would have been more insightful if the author would have just published the full transcripts of her interviews with the students. That would have at least made the text interesting to those who aren’t a part of the intelligentsia the book is clearly written for. Gordon concludes that both student groups became active because of youth “subordination” that is “drawn from larger neoliberal developments at the turn of the millennium,” like the privatization of classrooms witnessed by Students Rise Up or the policing and security measures used in schools attended by Youth Power.
We Fight To Win fails to understand that young people become activists for countless reasons, in what is often a long and jumbled process towards conciseness. There are just too many motives, fueled by the generational robbery of the last decade, to clearly articulate in any book. The reader is left hungry, wondering what became of Gordon’s subjects, the ones she calls “voiceless caretakers of an uncertain future.” In a modern era where young people are more engaged than ever, the echoes of anti-war activism seem far away. Gordon ends her study in 2002, and doesn’t follow up to see if they continued their activism work in today’s renewed era of youth attraction to politics and community organizing. Since the author set out to study the student groups, the Millennials, a generation usually classified as those born from 1981 to 2000, voted overwhelmingly for Obama—at 66 percent—much higher than any other age group. Yeah, the generation may be lost, but we’re certainly not voiceless or helpless.
Erin Rosa is an associate editor for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter.
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