Top Youth Activism Victories of 2008
Jamilah King, Kristina Rizga and Tomas Palermo
December 27, 2008
Election Victory: Yes We Did!
Concerned with the declining economy and inspired by the positive rhetoric of President-elect Obama, 23 million young people came out to vote on November 4th -- the largest number since 1972 and 3.4 million more than in 2004. While youth turnout has been increasing for the past three election cycles, this year, the epithet of youth apathy was finally laid to rest. The vast majority of pundits and mainstream media outlets recognized the power of the youth vote, thanks in part to the unprecedented volunteering among first-time voters. Hundreds of youth groups like Power Vote, Generation Vote, Rock the Vote and the Bus Federation worked behind the scenes to help organize and channel youth energy. (Credo Mobile team -- though not youth-led -- deserves top prize this year for designing an easy-to-use voter registration widget for Rock the Vote that made the needlessly cumbersome voter registration process as quick as buying music online.)
Labor Victory: Young People Protect Farmworker Rights
Every year, between one and three million migrant workers tend American farms, moving across the country to follow seasonal crops (PDF). In Florida, farmworkers labor 10 to 12 hours a day, collecting some 4,000 pounds of tomatoes to earn Florida's minimum wage. What's worse, some of these impoverished workers are forced into involuntary servitude. The Florida-based immigrant-laborer-led Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been organizing and fighting since 1993 for fairer wages and to put an end to what Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy has called the "biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever." Fast-food chains are the biggest buyers of fresh produce in Florida and they often use legal loopholes to buy products supplied by uncertified suppliers.
Recognizing that fast-food chains concentrate their marketing efforts on young people, CIW is effectively collaborating with the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Last year, they got McDonald's and Taco Bell to pay an extra penny per pound to tomato suppliers, nearly doubling the wages of the impoverished pickers in Florida. This year, thanks to the relentless marches, boycotts and "Fair Food Tours," Burger King and Subway (the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes) also agreed to help improve wages and working conditions for the laborers who pick their tomatoes.
Environmental Victory: Blue Collar Jobs Become Green Opportunities
In an election year that saw unprecedented numbers of new voters and activists, the campaign for green collar jobs became much more than just a well-intentioned campaign promise. The goal of the green collar job movement is to train traditionally blue collar workers in renewable energy skills such as home weatherization and solar panel installation. Activists argue that making an investment in green jobs can help solve two of America's biggest problems: poverty and global warming. Traditional blue-collar labor is disappearing and, according to the National Poverty Center, 12.5 percent of US citizens live in poverty. Green for All has helped turn the idea of green collar jobs into a national priority that would equip young workers with the skills to work in renewable energy industries.
In San Francisco, young artists and activist staged Grind for the Green, the first solar-powered hip hop show. Across the bay, the city of Oakland launched its inaugural Green Jobs Corps. On September 27th, more than 50,000 people across the nation participated in a national day of action, calling on politicians to invest in green jobs. Adding to the green momentum, Energy Action Coalition's youth-led Power Shift initiative (including nearly 50 environmental groups) led a national campaign calling for collective action on energy efficiency. Power Shift was active on over 300 campuses, with some 300,000 young people participating across the country.
Immigration Victory: Action Keeps Families Together
There are 4.9 million American children with at least one parent who is undocumented. When undocumented parents are deported, children are often put into foster care or left to fend for themselves. On March 26th, Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic justice organization, was successful in convincing the New York City Council to pass a resolution to help keep immigrant families together. The bill, Resolution 1250, will allow immigration judges to consider whether deporting an undocumented parent is in the best interest of citizen children. The resolution also urges support of the Child Citizen Protection Act, a national version of Resolution 1250 that is still being discussed in Congress. The New York City resolution is one small step in a much larger battle to help keep immigrant families together and pass legislation like the DREAM Act that provides increased access to educational opportunities for immigrant children.
Juvenile Justice Victory: Closing Prisons, Creating Opportunities
In 2004, an estimated 5,000 young people were languishing in California's juvenile justice facilities. That same year, Books Not Bars, a project of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, began their campaign to end the harsh treatment of young people behind bars and find alternatives to expensive, sometimes traumatic prison stays. In 2008, they succeeded in pressuring the California Division of Juvenile Justice to close two youth detention centers. The El Paso de Robles and DeWitt Nelson Youth Correctional facilities closed this past summer. El Paso de Robles was one of the most remote youth detention centers in the state, making it difficult for many families to visit their incarcerated youth. Late last year, El Paso de Robles made headlines when guards used a potent type of tear gas on detained youth. Together, both prisons held over 400 young people.
Another victory came to Oakland on November 4th with the passage of local ballot initiative Proposition OO. The measure increased mandatory funding for youth programs by $16 million a year. Such programming can aid the fight to keep young people off the streets and decrease violence in the city. Many groups were pivotal in rallying community support for the initiative, including Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ) and Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL).
Education Victory: Students Keep Their Peers in School
Combating school dropout rates is a challenge for education officials. But cracking down on school absences with a phalanx of truant officers rarely results in better school participation or graduation rates. In most cases, at-risk youth feel their reasons for disconnecting from education are not addressed. So who better to ask for dropout prevention solutions than young people themselves?
Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) was formed to address the high dropout and low college enrollment rates in Chicago public schools. VOYCE's leadership includes student organizers from seven community-based organizations and 12 Chicago high schools. 52 students conducted a yearlong survey of peers, teachers and school officials to determine what was causing Chicago's high dropout numbers. Students' reasons for leaving varied, but according to a Chicago Tribune article, a quarter cited a lack of motivation or laziness. Others cited teenage pregnancy, lack of engagement or motivation by teachers and safety concerns.
VOYCE presented their survey findings in a report, "Student-Led Solutions to the Nation's Dropout Crisis" (PDF). The report found that 55 percent of high school freshman will make it to graduation, meaning nearly half will not receive their diploma. According to Carmita Vaughn, a Chicago public high school program official, dropouts earn $35,000 dollars less per year than college graduates with a bachelor's degree. VOYCE's report also offered solutions to the dropout problem, including having schools develop joint adult/student leadership teams in order to work together to address the issues. They also encouraged schools to review curriculum and textbooks to make them more relevant. Finally, the report notes the importance of offering students one-on-one counseling with teachers, counselors and upperclassmen to help develop four-year plans with the goal of graduating high school.
VOYCE student organizer Martre Walker says, "VOYCE is a way to change education. It's education reform."
Watch more about VOYCE:
Anti-Violence Victory: Marching for Justice
2008 was a terribly violent year in San Francisco. By November 20th there were 98 homicides, including a number of victims under the age of 20. That's more than the previous year, with the majority of deaths occurring in the city's southeastern sector. Sadly, two 18-year-old high school students -- Joshua Cameron and Jorge Hurtado, from San Francisco's June Jordan School for Equity -- were killed in August and September 2008, respectively. Their classmates at Jordan, which has a social justice curriculum focus, didn't sit down and take the news quietly. Instead, on September 12th, they stood up, organized a march and took their message straight to City Hall.
Holding graffiti-inscribed banners that said "Black and Brown Unite," beating drums and chanting, "The power of the youth don't stop!" students marched several miles from their campus to the mayor's office (VIDEO). SF Weekly blogger Scott James observed, "500 students and supporters gathered to bring attention to San Francisco's recent surge in violent murders... calling for dialogue, solutions and peace."
Local activist MK Nguyen from Coleman Advocates and Youth Making A Change (YMAC) attended the rally and felt it brought awareness to health and safety issues in the Excelsior District, where Jordan is based. Nguyen thinks school-based solutions like Balboa High School's "Healthy Communities" initiative, which provides fruits and vegetables on the school site and holds violence preventions trainings by United Playaz, are critical to preventing youth violence.
The City Hall rally inspired a wave of youth-led activities including a October 24th peace march organized by 17-year-old Victoria Kupu, a district supervisor candidate's forum before the November election and a youth summit at the Excelsior Boys and Girls Clubhouse sponsored by the San Francisco Youth Commission and several community-based organizations (Excelsior Teen Center, Youth Outlook, YMAC, HOMEY, PODER, Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, the Filipino Community Center and more). The summit is the first of six proposed events scheduled through 2009. The march honoring Cameron and Hurtado and the events it spawned prove that young people are making the right moves to bring life and safety back to their streets.
View HOMEY's moving slideshow of the march.
Hear young people speak about San Francisco's violence and how to stop it.
Thanks for your help!
WireTap gives special thanks to our supporters and those who helped with research and contacts including The League's Sam Patton, activist Jen Angel, researcher and writer Karlo Barrios Marcelo, CIW organizer Jordan Buckley, author Jeff Chang and activists Manisha Vaze, Vay Hoang and Joy Yanga.