Engaging Youth in Nonviolent Activism

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 to Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the Women Peacemakers Program (WPP) and the New Tactics community for an online dialogue on Engaging Youth in Nonviolent Activism. The role of youth in starting and leading nonviolent uprisings has received a lot of attention in recent months, sparked by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. As history has shown before, the energy of young people is crucial to create the spark that can ignite into a vibrant movement for change. It is WPP’s experience that all over the world, young people are working to make a difference. These young women and men not only question the world around them, they are also creative in formulating new and daring responses. They do so, using their own language and strategies as to reach out to as many people as possible.<--break->Activism is often presented as age-neutral. However, it is important to explore further who is actually ‘doing’ the activism. Often, an important proportion of social change movements is made up by young people.  What motivates youth to go out on the streets?  What obstacles do they face?  Where do they go after the change is achieved? This dialogue was an opportunity for youth and activists of all ages to explore the powerful role of youth in nonviolent activism. 

Tactics shared:

What role do the youth play in effecting nonviolent social change and why?

Most participants agree that young people lead social change movements because of their courageous spirits and desire to take control of and shape their future. Often suffering disproportionately from economic crisis and a lack of education and employment opportunities, youth may have to choose between a life of crime or demand for change. As a result, many young people are motivated to confront fraudulent, outdated political systems and implement change that will benefit their generation. With knowledge of rapidly evolving technologies, youth adapt to and use social medias to their advantage more creatively and effectively than older generations of activists. Simply put, their youth is their greatest advantage; young activists bring fresh ideas and have “less to lose” than their elder counterparts, who may not be able to overcome feelings of despair or outdated tactics. Several participants suggested that Israeli-Palestinian activists fed up with the militarization of the area and their grim economic situations lead to increased activism. In Chile, limited access to education due to neoliberal policies drove students to the streets to protest non-violently and creatively, even integrating pop culture phenomenon such as flash mobs into their demonstrations.

Support and equal representation is important for young activists in realizing their goals. Both stable and tumultuous societies can facilitate young people’s non-violent activism, although practitioners advocate for the overarching importance of active citizenship education.

After realizing their goals, some young activists have moved on to politics. While some have succeeded in reforming problematic policies, others struggle to uphold their values, follow through with their commitments, and maintain equal and meaningful participation in the political processes compared to older politicians. Some participants expressed that such unequal representation results from the narrowness of young activist’s agendas and their inability to apply their tactics and visions to broader political contexts. To overcome such limitations, young politicians should work to establish multi-faceted, long-term, and sustainable models and solutions. Also, as seen in Chile, television broadcasts of student-activists appealing to government officials can increase young people’s exposure and in turn build the wider population’s support and confidence in them.  

What are the tools for nonviolent organizing and how are they used?

Conversation participants shared that young activists use a number of tactics to protest and promote their causes non-violently: education and training on nonviolence and recognizing, reporting, and monitoring human rights abuses; cross-cultural engagement in sports teams; art, music, and film; dialogue processes; and social media networking. By studying media courses and undergoing “conflict-sensitive journalism” trainings, young activists and journalists are able to spread important information that the mass media may otherwise ignore while establishing sustainable incomes and building confidence in the issue or social movement.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been pivotal in social movements and revolutions around the world, but especially in the MENA region. Activists that utilize social media are able to connect with others who stand in solidarity, raise awareness of issues that mainstream media either overlooks or intentionally avoids, and express controversial opinions about corruption or injustice.  One participant shared that activists have used Twitter and Facebook to send messages, photos, and film to their friends throughout the processes of arrest and imprisonment. Although many people can and do post information to such websites anonymously and safely, participants warned that using sites such as Facebook and Twitter for activist purposes run the risk of censorship, threats, and even harassment or arrests, depending on the social and political climate. Furthermore, some participants worry that the fast-paced nature of the internet allows people to participate in online activism without actually committing to said social movement.

One participant also expressed that women face more challenges and risks to using technologies and computers than men; he shared a document entitled “Because I’m a girl” that describes ten reasons how and why such obstacles persist. Despite the risks and challenges, however, many women continue to use popular and powerful sites such as Harassmap and “The Uprising of Arab Women.” Ultimately, while opponents continue to threaten activists and shut down websites, young activists have proven their ability to bounce back both on the Internet and the ground.

How can defenders and movements successfully engage youth as allies?

In engaging young activists in a specific non-violent context, participants stressed the importance of peer organizing and communication for both non-violent trainings and creative expressions and explorations of their interests. For example, one participant shared his organization’s success in engaging youth by establishing leadership workshops and a space for progressive rap music. It is important that youth feel connected to their cause and the ways they advocate. One participant stated that trainings are also more effective when they are conducted in a culturally-relative context.

Some activists have struggled to define “non-violence activism” and make it appealing to young people. While some organizers view non-violent activism as “strategic” and an ideal tool for a specific moment, others view nonviolence as “principled” and as “a way of life.”

While youthfulness enhances activism in many ways, it can also impede concrete organization due to the very nature of human life young people rapidly “outgrow” their status as youth activists and new generations fill in. Participants expressed that such quick turnover prevents lasting “institutional memory.” Organizers can overcome the loss of skills and memory by instating alumni who provide organizational guidance but still allow considerable  independence. Alliances and collaborations with adult and multi-generational organizations can foster greater potential for change. While older activists can share experience and advise younger activists, youth can introduce new ideas that replace outdated tactics and philosophies from the 60s and 70s. One participant suggested that activists today must update their discourse and practices and align them with current theories, especially in women’s movements. Although the UN and international policies have supported youth significantly, a jarring gap remains between policy and implementation.

What are the challenges, opportunities, and next steps?

Obstacles to youth engagement in non-violence can include censorship and risks associated with government control over the internet and social medias, despair and disillusionment with politics and institutions, public education systems, and lack of serious consideration and incorporation of young people’s ideas in national policies. One participant warned that activists’ personal information may not be secure due to the power shareholders have over sites such as Facebook and Google. However, conversation participants agreed that young activists are often a step ahead of authorities on the internet and are discovering mechanisms for working around issues of censorship or internet security.

Organizers have attempted to restore young people’s faith and energy behind a movement by  highlighting the institutionalization of issues they face such as discrimination, sexism, and militarization,  and by emphasizing the power activism has to change such structural issues. The Israeli organization New Profile and Miriam College from the Philippines have coordinated alternative education programs to promote critical thinking and discussions about structural problems and conflict.  One participant brought up, however, that youth who participate in such dialogue and alternative education programs often must choose between participating in secrecy or negative consequences and risks of participating openly.

Participants also explored the dilemma of youth whose ideas and goals differ from those of adult leaders and the organization’s mission. Proposed solutions included a selection process for young activists and welcoming youth who are against nonviolence in hopes of altering their perspective through training and peace education. Varying understandings and values of non-violence activism and its purposes can also complicate an organization’s mission and activities. While some peace-keepers and activists view nonviolence as an essential way of life, many others must choose to financially support their families over activism, which they may perceive as a luxury. Organizations have attempted to overcome such obstacles by providing stipends, financially supporting trainings, and encouraging the incorporation of the organization’s messages into daily work. Finally, routine evaluations, peace education, and recognizing the diversity within an organization and activist populations at large are crucial in building successful, united movements.

Resources shared:

Conversation Leaders

Ruben Reyes Jiron's picture
Ruben Reyes Jiron
Puntos de Encuentro and Red de Masculinidad (REDMAS)
Linda Macktaby's picture
Linda Macktaby
Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue
Isabelle Geuskens's picture
Isabelle Geuskens
Women Peacemakers Program (WPP)
Merle Gosewinkel IFOR Women Peacemakers Program's picture
Merle Gosewinkel
Women Peacemakers Program
Jose de Vries's picture
Jose de Vries
Women Peacemakers Program
Oluoch Dola's picture
Oluoch Dola
Chemchemi Ya Ukweli
Javier Garate's picture
Javier Gárate
War Resisters' International
Nixon Nembaware's picture
Nixon Nembaware
Ghadeer Malek's picture
Ghadeer Malek
Association for Womens Rights in Development
samihlt's picture
Holy Land Trust
Albert Gomes Mugumya's picture
Albert Gomes-Mugumya
Center for Conflict Resolution
Fabienne van Eck's picture
Fabienne van Eck
Musicians Without Borders
Seconde Nyanzobe
Ngendahimana Christian's picture
Christian Ngendahimana
Fountain-ISOKO for Good Governance and Integrated Development
Iulia Socea's picture
Iulia Socea
Peace Action Training and Research Institute of Romania
GhidaAnani's picture
Ghida Anani
ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality
Melrobbins's picture
Melanie Robbins
Windows for Peace
rabbilynn's picture
Lynn Gottlieb
FOR Interfaith Peacewalks
Meena Sharma's picture
Meena Sharma
Search for Common Ground
Melaina's picture
Melaina Spitzer
Guayakí Sustainable Rainforest Products - Guayaki Foundation