Crafting a Mandate for Student Involvement

Richard Muhammad
December 26, 2006

When the Southern Human Rights Organizing Network (SHROC) recently met in Houston for its 10-year anniversary conference, the regional group held a student and youth summit as part of long-term efforts to strengthen the organization and keep young people involved.

Jaribu Hill, SHROC founder, called youth an integral part of the movement for human rights, and worker and racial justice in the South. Hill reminded students that the civil rights movement and other social change movements were spearheaded by young people. She noted that the first SHROC was held in Oxford, Miss., to commemorate desegregation of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith in 1962. The second SHROC gathering, in 1998, was held in Jackson, Miss., to commemorate the shooting deaths of students at Jackson State University by police, during a May 1970 protest calling for more Black Studies courses.

At this year's SHROC, young people were involved as conference staffers and participated in general sessions devoted to enhancing black-brown relationships, human rights organizing training, and Southern human rights issues like juvenile justice, the death penalty, racial profiling, worker rights, workplace violence, immigrant and migrant struggles, and justice for Hurricane Katrina survivors.

"As youth, we want to get involved with organizations, but these organizations don't provide a vehicle for youth to shape change," said Cory Glenn, a 17-year-old, a volunteer leader for Amnesty International U.S.A.'s National Youth-Student Program. Cory learned about Amnesty at debate camp a few years ago, started a youth chapter in middle school and worked his way up the leadership ladder. A former student area coordinator, Cory now represents the Southern region as Amnesty's youth point person. He has played a national role with Amnesty and helped create Amnesty's National Student Action Guide and High School Action Pack.

Cory co-facilitated the SHROC youth summit. "The goal of the summit was to craft a strategic plan with recommendations and next steps on how to make conferences in general more student-friendly, find ways young activists can support one another, and share ideas and tools," said Cory. An action plan for youth between SHROC's biannual conferences was created, and could be very important as SHROC builds its state-level organizations.

Southern states, like Mississippi, typically rank low in education spending and average income, and youth are not immune from deadly uses of force. In January of 2006, Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old arrested for riding his grandmother's car without permission, died at the hands of guards at a Florida boot camp that was supposed to help turn his life around. Anderson was the third young Black man to die in Florida state custody in the last three years.

Camisha Long, 18, attended the summit with De Von Hartley. They are with the Multicultural Youth Action Project in Houston. "Summit offers training, networking opportunity. ... I want to soak up as much information as I can so I can go teach my peers and the friends about SHROC," she said.

"I love to see that people give us the opportunity to speak. The youth have a big role in life, in this world. There is always the thought out there that the youth are our future. If youth are our future, then youth should have the opportunity to speak, should make decisions on what's going on in life," said 20-year-old De Von.

De Von's organization uses music to attract youth with its Voice of the Future performance group. "We go out and we write songs ourselves to represent the program; it's one way to get around making people read. People lose interest when they have to read a lot," he said.

Asked how more youth can be pulled in, De Von highlighted three things -- training, better communication and the opportunity to lead. "If we've been trained, it's our responsibility to go out and teach someone else," he said.

Camisha said youth have to be "lured into activism. ... It's not tricking them, you just have to lure them in, you have to hook them first like the cool cup lady or the person with all the cookies, and the candies and the gifts," she said.

"You have to give them something that's tangible," she said. "Theoretical lectures aren't enough," Camisha added.

Cleopatra Warren, a youthful 32-year-old high school teacher from Atlanta, was one of the first youth organizers for SHROC 10 years ago and a board member. She also worked with the U.S. Human Rights Network and Amnesty International as a field and youth organizer. She is a member of SHROC.

"The biggest positive change in organizing youth has been increased interest in attracting youth," Cleopatra said.

She believes new technology with the Internet, My Space-generation, and hip hop culture, have sparked more student and youth interest, but the movement hasn't kept pace with the technology to reach youth and communicate effectively.

Richard Muhammad is a Chicago-based writer.