This is An Awakening: The Power of Youth Activism

On the one-month anniversary of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, students all across the country walked out of class. They stood in silence for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 students and faculty who died in what should be unimaginable circumstances.

Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons

Some had the support of their teachers and administrators; others risked disciplinary action, even school suspension. In my small Maine town, the superintendent stood before the School Board and clearly invoked students’ right to free speech, while just an hour away a school principal threatened 10-day suspensions.

This was an awakening. All those carefully designed plans, the drills, the directions to lay low, play dead were just adults grasping at straws. No one can prepare for the sound of bullets, the sudden chaos, immobilizing fear, the impulse to flee, the sight of dying classmates, friends, teachers. Students could not have been prepared, but they can refuse to accept that the solution is more drills, more guns, more loss.

This is a protest about gun violence. It’s also a repudiation of the barrage of toxicity young people face in the form of environmental threats, justified fear of a childish president with his finger on the button, a steady stream of sexual assault stories, a dramatic increase in racial harassment, threats of deportation, a battle waged on the poor and regular reminders that no place is safe—not clinics, not neighborhood streets, not schools.

Bodies close, arms linked, faces determined, tens of thousands of students walked out of their school buildings, physically experiencing strength in numbers. This is an awakening. Bodies carry memory. For many, this was their first foray into activism, their first close up view of democracy in action, an introduction to their collective power to reimagine and reshape this country.

In Maine, students trudged through a foot of new snow with the passion, perceptiveness, and justified outrage of a generation realizing just how profoundly inept and corrupt this country has become. They are fighting back by building community, listening to one another, sharing stories of loss and finding moments of joy. Their refusal to give in to hate and disillusionment is an act of healing. Their organized resistance to compliance and complicity is an act of defiance and courage. Their Twitter feeds are communions, calls for support and solidarity.

In this war, love wins.

People tend to underestimate us and our intelligence, said 16-year-old Parkland student Melanie Webber the day after the shootings. Never again will we underestimate the power of a well-organized group of very loving, very pissed off adolescents. This is our awakening, too. We cannot turn away from their disappointment and sense of betrayal or deny their righteous anger. We no longer get to say we care and not be called to task when we fail to do better. Our loyalty is being tested.

Youth are organizing because so many of us have failed them; they are organized because so many of us have served them well. We have taught their civics and history classes, advised Gay Straight Alliances, Civil Rights Teams, Environmental Groups, Feminist Clubs; we have created nonprofits with their critical consciousness and empowerment in mind. They know how to do this work because we have been doing a version of this work together in our families, schools, and communities. This is their moment to rage at the machine, to rise from the ashes; this is our time to listen, to support, to have faith.

This is an awakening. Our power lies in controlling how we are defined. Coalition is our best chance for change. Community is the secret to sustainability. Love is a battlefield.

Loyalty is showing up.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Beacon Press blog. Republished with author permission.

Lyn Mikel Brown is Professor of Education at Colby College, founder of SPARK Movement, and author of Powered By Girl: A Field Guide For Supporting Youth Activists.

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