Sociologist Roger Hart developed the idea of the Ladder of Young People’s Participation in his book, Children’s Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens In Community Development and Environmental Care. This ladder describes the eight degrees of youth participation and offers guidance as to how youth can achieve each of these levels. The seventh degree embodies the idea of youth-led activism — an aspect that is becoming more prominent in society today.
Generation Z has become increasingly vocal about political and social matters, such as civil justice and human rights. The results of a poll by Tufts University reported that 27% of youth reported they have attended a march or social protest. This differs greatly from the 5% total in 2016 and even the 16% finding in 2018. In that same poll, 84% of youth also reported that they believed they had the power to change this country.
The summer of 2020 could perhaps be coined in one term: Activism. In an interview with NBC News, Lydia Kelow-Bennett, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan said “2020 is this really intense year with all of these things happening. We have these social uprisings and one thing I don’t really know if people realize the pandemic is doing is revealing all of the social cracks in our country.”
Generation Z, in particular, has risen to become a significantly socially active population during these times of uncertainty.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, around two-thirds of Generation Z individuals feel that African Americans are treated less fairly than white people. This year, following the death of George Floyd and other cases where police procedures came under intense scrutiny and highly charged criticism, Black Lives Matter activism became a highly regarded movement. People stood in solidarity with this movement all around the world, with protests erupting in the United States, Australia, Korea, and more.
Various social and political coalitions, such as Melanated Youth, have also pushed this narrative. Melanated Youth is a coalition co-founded by 15-year-old high school sophomores Chloe Serrano and Ahsha Jones. Serrano says she co-founded this coalition to give teens the ability to use their voices, even if they couldn’t vote. Currently, their main plan involves fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. “We notice a lot of people aren’t active anymore, and we want to make sure it’s still alive, especially in our county,” Serrano said.
Following the rise of TikTok, a social network of user-generated videos, several Generation Zers have also shared educational resources on this platform. They aim to inform the public about the Black Lives Matter movement. This group includes Ziad Ahmed, a 21-year-old Yale student.
He is notably active on TikTok, regularly making videos about organizations to which people can donate, about petitions people can sign, and about motivational ideas for those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an interview with CBS News, Ahmed said, “We’re looking at a world where there is so much injustice and brutality and unfairness and bias, and we’re saying, damn it, we can’t just let this keep going.”
A Pew Research Center survey found that 48% of Generation Z individuals believe that same-sex marriage is good for society and 15% believe it is bad. Same-sex marriage has been a long-debated topic in America. In 2015, the Obergefell v. Hodges case led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal, societal pressures continue to burden some individuals in their endeavors to love whom they choose. Sean Gallagher, a 16-year-old junior, expressed frustrations over the discussion of politics in LGBTQ+ rights. “There should be bipartisan support for all social justice issues. LGBTQ+ people having rights shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Rights for transgender people shouldn’t be an issue that is politically debated,” Gallagher said.
The presidential election brought with it a suggestion for some uncertainty on same-sex marriage, based on perceived differences in the candidates’ views. Serrano shared how her sister is a queer woman in a committed relationship. In the approach to the presidential election, Serrano feared how the right of her sister to marry her girlfriend might be taken away.
“I see how she and her girlfriend interact, and I see that love is not defined by any type of binary. Even in 2020, when we think we’re progressive, America still has people worrying about whom they can marry. That just seems ludicrous to me,” Serrano said.
As defined by the Pew Research Center, Generation Z-ers are individuals born after 1997 and before 2009. This means most Generation Z individuals are in their middle to late teenage years. According to a study on adolescents’ stress responses to social evaluation and public speaking, adolescents are less likely to speak out in public than older individuals due to their fear of social criticism (Sumter, et al.). This generation of teenagers challenges that claim.
“I always believe that service, in the political realm, is working for something bigger than you,” Gallagher said. “For me, I have white privileges and male privileges. I think of it as a personal mission to make sure these privileges aren’t exclusive for some, but are a right for all.”
“I think that what Gen Z and high schoolers have to say is still incredibly valuable. I don’t want to say that it’s our job, but this is our future,” said Heather Chen, a 16-year-old junior.
2020 Presidential Election
With the 2020 presidential election gaining much attention this year, American politics have been a primary current events discussion point. Generation Z has been in the mix, with many aiming to raise their voice through volunteering for presidential or congressional campaigns. Due to all the discussions surrounding politics, many Gen Zers have noticed problems that have arisen over the years.
Katrine Lee, a 17-year-old high school senior, believes the most pressing issue of American politics comes down to one thing: The lack of civil discourse.
“In politics, everyone is generally trying to reach the same end goal, but we disagree in our approaches,” Lee said. “The real solution is to discuss and compromise in order to reach a solution that is beneficial to the American people. But right now, that isn’t the case — a lot of people are more focused on smearing the other side and painting themselves out to be better even though each side has its own costs and benefits.”
Serrano agreed with Lee, saying that the real problem lies in the division between the Democratic and Republican parties. “What’s most pressing to me is how both the Democratic and Republican party constantly blame each other. But really, neither of their perspectives are providing justice,” Serrano said.
On November 3, millions of Americans — youth included — across the country awaited the results of what might one day hold the label as the most influential presidential election in American history. Election anxiety was a common sight among individuals. The uncertainty of the future of America loomed over individuals as Election Day played out.
“It was disheartening to see how scared [my friends] were,” said Chloe Serrano, a 15-year-old high school sophomore. “Some of them couldn’t sleep; some weren’t eating. I had a hard time sleeping, too, and it was really rough.”
Despite the fact that a majority of Generation Z members are not of voting age, that didn’t stop them from using their voices in the 2020 presidential election. Gallagher was one of the individuals not able to vote during this election due to his young age. Because of this, he felt it was his civic duty to volunteer in other ways to influence the election. Gallagher volunteered as the District Coordinator for the Students for Biden campaign in Burlington, Massachusetts, and contributed as a poll worker during Election Day.
“Elected officials are getting put into power to make decisions about my generation, my grade, my friends, and me,” Gallagher said. “So, if I couldn’t exercise that right of electing officials that have beliefs that align with mine, I felt it was my duty to find other ways that I can influence the election.”
In his role as the District Coordinator, Gallagher led student phone banks, organized a discussion forum, and participated in canvassing in different neighborhoods.
“The few student phone banks that we were able to run were really my passion in this election,” he said. “Because I find uplifting youth voices in politics so important and something that not enough people work towards.”
Like Gallagher, Lee was an election worker at her local polling center where she checked voters in and ensured that election security measures were upheld.
“I have a pretty strong sense of civic duty,” Lee said. “Working at the vote center was a good opportunity to see American democracy up close.”
Through community organizations, many other individuals also played a part in the election. Chen worked with the Sunrise Movement, an organization advocating for an end to climate change, to do her part in the election. Her work mostly consisted of texting and calling voters. “I felt that I had to be as politically active as possible in any way to make sure that those who could vote got out to vote,” she explained. “We were doing electoral work to bring in Green New Deal champions across the country.”
Although the future of America still remains unclear, Generation Z does not show any plans of slowing its political and social activism. Individuals have strong hopes and expectations for the next president of the United States.
“I hope the president listens to what we have to say and gives American youth an opportunity to have our voices not only heard, but uplifted,” Gallagher said.
Serrano mirrored Gallagher’s hopes.
“I want to see the president’s actions and words line up,” Serrano said. “I want to keep that president accountable.”
Like many, Chen encouraged Generation Z members to keep fighting for their beliefs and to continue trying to further causes about which they’re passionate.
“I know that it’s important to celebrate our victories, but we can’t settle, and we need to ask for more. We need to continue this progressive wave of action,” she said.