Personal Voices: From Anger To Activism

Teresa Tomassoni
September 11, 2007

Teen rebellion and anger stemming from a desire to belong, a need for personal safety and as means to voice opinions has been a topic of discussion for many years.

Often the consequences of these desires and actions are talked about in a negative light. With an increase in gang activity and random acts of violence committed by and victimizing some youth, questions arise as to how to deal with this "angry" out of control generation.

However, there's an equally important discussion emerging about how young people, motivated by a different type of anger -- an intolerance for injustice -- are taking control of the chaos surrounding them and organizing themselves and their communities to make positive change.

Over the last three years of studying abroad in Latin America and Asia, I have witnessed the powerful impact young organizers have had on implementing progressive change among extremely marginalized populations.

From a group of adolescent male child-laborers-turned-musicians that journeyed from the jungles of Peru to their country's capital, playing their bamboo zamponas as they demanded legislation to protect child rights, to young Nepali women trafficked to India's holiest city for prostitution, who organized artistic public awareness campaigns to combat severe culture stigmas that prevent their children from attending community schools, I've had the honor to engage with and learn from young activists around the world committed to paving the way towards a better future.

Upon returning to the U.S., I've been heartened to discover youth in my own country with a similar passion for social justice, as well as an increased public interest in mentoring and training this new generation of leaders.

Last month, for example, driven by the desire to achieve immigrant rights, university students from across California staged a seven-day hunger strike that culminated with a rally at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco office. The students demonstrated their commitment to the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant children raised in America and allow them to attend college while paying in-state tuition.

The demonstration's impact and other organized efforts led by young people across the country today cannot be disregarded. Instead, they warrant the media and society's attention and encouragement.

Experts predict at least 640,000 new non-profit managers will be needed over the next decade. As civil rights leaders grow older, empty slots for community organizers are simultaneously accumulating. Therefore, it's more crucial than ever to foster this young generation's yearning to participate in politics and affect social change.

By creating opportunities that develop promising young leadership, particularly among communities of color, experienced educators and organizers and established non-profit organizations can ensure that America's struggle for social justice will carry on.

Generation Change, led by national social justice non profit, Center for Community Change, is one such program committed to training and mentoring future generations of community organizers.

The program offers college-age youth and older aspiring leaders the opportunity to explore community organizing as a professional career path while working with some of the nation's top grassroots organizations. Unlike many internship programs where youth are kept on the sidelines to file papers, make copies, and observe the organization's activities, Generation Change's interns have played instrumental roles in leading campaigns for comprehensive immigration reform, affordable housing in East Harlem, more efficient sex education programs in New York City public schools, fair taxation in Tennessee, and protection against predatory lending in rural Virginia.

Many of these interns, selected for their promising leadership qualities and commitment to social change, are fired up by the rampant social injustice they have experienced personally or witnessed around them. Intimate experience with issues of homelessness, violence, and unjust immigration polices have prompted Generation Change interns like Shawna Murray from Baltimore and Eric Brown from Nashville to organize political actions for affordable housing and reconstruction of African American neighborhoods in their home communities.

This summer Murray coordinated a meeting between five hundred Washington Interfaith Network members during which DC Mayor Adrian Fenty presented his city-wide affordable housing plan, allocating $117 million per year to protecting and creating affordable housing in the District. Similarly, Bown has been a key organizer of various housing forums hosted by nonprofits like Tying Nashville Together, with whom he is interning for the summer, where the city's mayoral candidates were asked to speak about their plans for increasing affordable housing for low-income families. Both Murray and Brown made daily door-to-door rounds in public housing complexes to communicate with tenants about their rights and encourage them to participate in communitywide.

This motivation to transform one's own environment is what Martin Trimble, lead organizer of Washington Interfaith Network, described in a lecture (Making Change Last: Strategic Implications of Community Dynamics), as "good anger." That inner fire to act is what inspired some of our history's most courageous leaders -- Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker -- to organize for social change at a young age.

The secret is how to harness that frustration with injustice and use it effectively to initiate positive and permanent change.

"One of the biggest mistakes we make is deciding what we're going to do with people," Trimble said. "People must decide for themselves what they want and what they are capable of doing." Youth are not exempt from this category of people who should not be told what to do. Too often our younger generations have their hands held through life, lectured on what to do and what not to do instead of being asked 'What do you see?' 'What needs to change? 'How do you propose to do it?'

Programs like Generation Change encourage young people to explore these questions and use their creativity to develop innovative plans for sparking change in their communities and practice implementing their ideas through concrete campaign organizing over the summer months.

As the need for new leaders becomes increasingly pertinent to today's society, it is important to remember it is never too early to introduce young people to community organizing. In fact, educators are in a great position to introduce their elementary, middle, and high school students to this field. Dissatisfaction with cafeteria food, dirty bathrooms, a dilapidating gym or simply anything that provokes complaints amongst the student body can be turned into a cause for action.

The sense of collective power students gain by transforming their school environment can also subtly introduce them to the art of politics and help them realize their influence on this abstract concept typically discussed only by adults.

Trimble believes people disenfranchise themselves when they expect too little. Too often, we expect today's youth to let us down, live irresponsibly, and contribute to this nation's shameful violent statistics.

If we intend to battle the injustices committed against so many marginalized and economically deprived families in this country, higher expectations must be made for our youth. They must be encouraged to actively engage in decision making processes of governmental polices which directly affects them. If such responsibility is not endowed upon the shoulders of this generation, we limit our nation's capability for positive transformation, and therefore that of our world.

Teresa Tomassoni is a communications intern at the Center for Community Change. Terese has worked in the non-profit sector in Latin America, Aisa and United States for the past three years around issues of immigration, human trafficking, and child exploitation.