A gaggle of young activists recently paid Dianne Feinstein a visit at the senator’s San Francisco office, imploring her to support the Green New Deal framework for confronting climate change. She responded by explaining the complicated legislative process, emphasizing her decades of experience and promising to pursue a considerably more modest approach to confronting climate change with a better shot at passage in the Senate.
The lawmaker tried to come across as sympathetic, yet sounded condescending in a short video clip that quickly went viral, eliciting a stream of criticism. A longer version told a more nuanced story, including why she believes her own “responsible resolution” has a better chance of passage.
It’s easy to understand why Feinstein’s confrontation went viral. Saying “no” to earnest children who see their futures in jeopardy makes politicians look callous.
Although the advent of social media has made it easier for millions to witness these awkward encounters, there is nothing new about kids engaging in grassroots activism. And based on my research about social movements, I find that today’s young activists have a lot in common with the leaders of earlier youth movements.
Young people often appear at the front lines of social change for three main reasons.
1. Passionate about causes
During the civil rights era, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed and seven other children known as the “Little Rock Nine” followed federal troops past jeering crowds of white teens to integrate Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.
More than 70 years later, the dean of students at a public high school less than an hour from Little Rock paddled three high school students for walking out of school to protest gun violence.
In both instances, young activists took risks that would scare off most adults.
2. Dramatic images
Second, politically engaged young people can create dramatic and appealing images to dramatize their cause. That’s what happened when Martin Luther King Jr. put schoolchildren at the front of a march for civil rights through Birmingham, Alabama. He surely knew they were likely to face police willing to use firehoses and dogs to disperse the crowds.
The visuals horrified the nation and inspired more action not only in the streets but in Congress – which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 soon after that showdown.
Similarly, Jefferson County, Colorado high school students walked out of school in 2014 to campaign against their new school board’s promise to stop offering an advanced placement course in American history because these officials said its curriculum undermined patriotism. Some of the students must have read ahead in the text, for they carried placards with slogans like “There is nothing more patriotic than protest.”
3. Dilemmas for authorities
Third, dismissing or attacking young activists who appear earnest and sincere can prove perilous.