Young People, the Global Climate Strike, and Protest

Will September's youth activism lead to lifelong political participation?

Posted Oct 08, 2019

September began and ended with two widely visible protests that involved young people: The Global Climate Strike—which occurred at multiple sites around the world—and the Straight Pride Parade in Boston. Both raise issues of youthful political participation and highlight the ingredients necessary for effective action. 

Given the extensive media attention directed to the Straight Pride Parade, there were strikingly few participants in it. Harvey (2019) estimates that despite months of organizing, the parade attracted only about 200 marchers. Our (JY) observations suggested that most of the marchers were mostly white men in their 20’s, many of whom wore kerchiefs covering their faces up to their eyes.  Although the goal of the parade, according to its organizing group, Super Fun Happy America, was to advocate for the straight community, marchers carried signs opposing immigration and supporting President Trump

Maverick Pictures/Shutterstock
Straight Pride Parade
Source: Maverick Pictures/Shutterstock

A question that we ask in our work is how youthful civic participation contributes to community and political life in later adulthood. Are the participants in the Straight Pride Parade likely to become lifelong advocates for their communities? 

Many of the qualities that prepare young people for a lifetime of political action were absent from the Straight Pride Parade. First, the messages expressed in the parade seem incoherent; what does immigration have to do with straight pride? One consequence is that marchers advocating for one of these messages may feel little commonality with those expressing support for another idea, and without common values, there is no sense of membership in the same group.  Group memberships, or group identities, propel into and sustain effort in political action. 

Second, the fact that many participants in the parade hid their faces suggests that some experienced shame and embarrassment. These two social emotions are powerfully aversive and result in the avoidance of similar situations. Parade participants who experienced shame and embarrassment are unlikely to participate in future events. 

In contrast, the Global Climate Strike was energized by shared values for the protection of the Earth’s air, water, land, and ecology.  Nearly every participant agreed that a necessary step is to diminish the use of fossil fuels, for example.  Moreover, participants were proud of their actions: in the thousands of pictures of the hundreds of thousands of participants, pride and determination are the most common facial expressions. 

4-life-2-b/Shutterstock
Youth at Global Climate Strike
Source: 4-life-2-b/Shutterstock

Are the participants in the Global Climate Strike likely to continue their activism into adulthood?  The coherence of their message combined with their pride in delivering it increases the likelihood of commitment to participation.  Yet the Global Climate Strike to date lacks a key element necessary to bind participants to a future of advocacy: an enduring group, organization, or association that incorporates the values, provides structure, and serves as a sense of identity.  Nancy Rosenblum (1999)  has written that “..individuals are powerless.  We can find many elements of happiness and virtue alone or in intimate relations, but not the capacity to influence social or political life.”

Participation in any form of public display is a political statement and a step beyond privately held ideas. If engagement is to be sustained, youth need encouragement from others and if a sense of political agency is to be developed, you need to become part of an organizational system. Whether youth’s activism in September foretells continued engagement remains unknown at this time. 

References

Harvey, J. (2019). The Boston Straight Pride Parade Actually Happened And People Were Not Happy. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from HuffPost website: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/boston-straight-pride-parade-counter-protests_n_5d6c4cfae4b0cdfe05720ca3

Rosenblum, N. L. (1999). “Membership and Morals”: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America. The Good Society, 9(1), 66–72.