Dear young people, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it really make a sound?
On Wednesday June 1, students at Amistad High School in New Haven organized a protest to voice their concerns regarding the absence of minority teachers, using their collective power to question the lack of diversity in the teaching faculty at this predominately African-American and Latino high school. This youth-led action not only highlighted the issue of diversity, or the lack thereof, within the educational system, but also shined a beaming light on the power of youth-led activism.
The City of New Haven has a history of standing at the forefront of progressive change that is orchestrated and led by the passion of youth. Young people here are born into a culture that has thrived on the spirit of community and activism, so it’s no wonder that so many young leaders across the city are organizing demonstrations protesting injustice and highlighting issues they wish to address in their communities.
Last fall, students at the New Haven Job Corp Center, in conjunction with the Youth 2 Youth Initiative, organized a silent march around their campus in support of ending gun violence. Across town, students working with New Haven Academy’s Future Project launched a campaign to end cyber-bullying. Students at High School in the Community organized and staged silent protests during their lunch period to honor Trayvon Martin. Students at Yale University and the University of New Haven staged “die-ins” to protest police brutality and community violence. All of these youth led actions have one pronounced commonality: they were done in isolation, independent of each other, with a lack of media coverage or broad audience.
This brings us back to the original question of whether a tree falling in the forest, without witness, really makes a sound. In this case, if youth organizing efforts and actions are not coordinated, and happen in silos, isolated from one another, do they really make a true impact? The individual efforts of our fearless and tenacious young leaders are a driving force for revolution and change. However, in order to maximize the impact of such efforts, it is equally important for individuals engaged in youth organizing and youth-led activism to work collectively.
We often hear “youth voice” referenced by politicians, community providers, and civic leaders. This “youth voice” is often portrayed as a collective force of young people, when it is actually the voice of selected youth groups or individuals voicing their individual concerns related to policy and practices. The problem with adhering to this form of “youth voice” is that it becomes more of an educational tool than a tool for direct action and advocacy. Youth continuously tell adults what they want and need in order to thrive, and yet seldom is there a collective and organized movement towards meeting those needs or addressing those concerns.
Collective impact is essential in order to achieve the results our young people want to see. To achieve the change needed in our communities there MUST be true collaboration and partnership between our young community organizers currently working in isolation. In order for our young social justice leaders to be effective and have impact they must build bridges between their solitary silos and create youth-led activism networks.
Efforts are underway to connect youth-led activists and organizations to work together towards collective impact beyond local demonstrations. In New London, Hearing Youth Voices continues to lead efforts in transforming education policy; in Norwalk, the Youth Council 4 Justice is creating a community led agenda for change with youth and young adults; and, in New Haven, the Citywide Youth Coalition, Inc. is working with young activists, youth led groups, and community based organizations to create a network that will connect advocacy and activism efforts of young organizers across the state. Today, young organizers are superseding traditional community organizing practices by utilizing digital and social media to communicate beyond the construct of their neighborhoods and communities in order to create change.
Youth voice is alive and well, but through coordination and collaboration, these actions can become more than just isolated statements and moments of leadership. A network of youth leaders can coordinate actions to coincide with a strategy and policy agenda that will truly drive change. So, to the young organizers at Amistad, and all over the state of Connecticut, there are adults that are ready to support your work, build the platform you desire, and hand over the proverbial bullhorn to you so that your leadership not only makes a sound, but also leaves a mark.
All power to the future!
Addys Castillo is Executive Director of the Citywide Youth Coalition, Inc.