Since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last summer, the media has been alive with stories of people creatively and courageously defending black lives. But often overlooked behind the headlines are the young people who have been key to building this movement, and who are driving it forward.
Take, for example, the murder of 22-year-old John Crawford III, who was shot and killed by a police officer in an Ohio Walmart last summer while holding a toy gun. Security camera video of the shooting went viral, thanks in large part to the efforts of young activists from the Ohio Student Association (OSA), who, upon learning that the Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine planned to withhold the footage, launched an online campaign, #ReleaseTheTape.
Less than 24 hours after OSA activists occupied DeWine’s office, he released the tape and announced that a grand jury would be convened to weigh evidence in the case against the officer who shot Crawford. Still not satisfied, OSA kept fighting, organizing a 12-mile march to the site of the trial and occupying the Beavercreek police station, where the offending officer was employed. These actions helped lead to the creation of a special state task force on community-police relations, and the resignation of the Beavercreek police chief. One of OSA’s lead organizers, James Hayes, was invited to meet with President Barack Obama as a representative of the Movement for Black Lives.
Earlier this month, OSA’s Stuart McIntyre told this story to a rapt audience of funders, organizers, and leaders at “The New Student Power,” a convening held at the Ford Foundation’s headquarters in New York City and hosted by foundation program officer Jee Kim and Billy Wimsatt of Gamechanger Labs. The event celebrated the critical but often invisible role student activism plays in social justice movements today. OSA’s victories are emblematic of the boundless energy and sophisticated strategy that define this generation of youth organizing. They are partly a result of growing recognition that young people can generate lasting political and social change. With that recognition comes new kinds of support for youth power.
At the event, dynamic youth organizers from eleven states presented their work as part of Student Power Projects, a nascent network of youth organizers invested in multi-racial, multi-issue organizing that builds political power on both a campus and statewide level. The Student Power model integrates a variety of forms and levels of civic engagement. It connects social movements to the electoral process, and helps student organizing efforts extend beyond campus politics and contribute to local and statewide policy wins, shifting the political landscape while building power in communities on and off campus.
Youth organizers in this network bring a truly intersectional lens to their work. They see little reason to parse out which elements of their activism are focused on, for example, racial justice versus LGBT justice—both are deeply embedded in their movements’ leadership, strategies, tactics, and analyses. These young leaders understand their own identities as the product of intersecting histories and experiences, and their activism offers a model for multi-issue progressive movements of all kinds.
At Ford, our support for the Student Power model and its movements is an investment in the future of social change. As Jee Kim explained to the young activists who gathered for the event, their power lies in their “incredible appetite for risk” and “unblinking ambition to resolve our society’s deepest contradictions.” With smart strategy and bold vision, they are showing us how change happens.
Holly Fetter is a Stanford University Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy working with Jee Kim on the foundation’s Increasing Civic and Political Participation initiative.