Youth Organization Today is the Future of Social Movements

Across the U.S. and around the world, youth organizing continues to be an integral part of creating meaningful social change. WhyHunger is committed to working with and assisting the organizing efforts of youth movements. Not only do the youth represent the next generation of a social movement leaders, but a they are drivers of new ideas and organizing tactics that are relevant to the contemporary cultural moment.

Betty Fermin is the Global Movements Program Coordinator at WhyHunger and has been involved in numerous youth organizing efforts over the years. She is one of the facilitators of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance’s Youth Process, a space for young adults to build relationships and engage in political education. After formally being recognized as a collective at the Alliance’s IV Assembly in October 2018, the Youth Process has continued to function as a space for peer-to-peer learning, building leadership and political analysis, and for strengthening organizing skills such as facilitation, note-taking, and collective decision-making.

Betty has also accompanied various youth learning exchanges, such as bringing together the Youth Uprising Movement from Brazil and several U.S.-based youth organizations. In November 2019, she attended the La Via Campesina North America Youth Encounter, where youth from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico & the U.S had conversations about climate justice, land and agrarian reform, popular peasant feminism and the UN Declaration on Peasant Rights. We sat down with Betty to get her thoughts about the state of youth organizing in social movements today.

Q: What is the importance of youth organizing for social movements and what kind of strategies are we seeing from youth in particular?

What everyone is seeing right now in social media and mainstream media is that youth protagonists have really become front and center, especially within climate justice movements. All this is being marked by the political moment that we’re in right now and the different crises that have been happening, which I believe youth are experiencing more heavily. So, much of the sentiment of the politically active youth is that the time is up – we need real solutions to hunger and climate change and they’ve had enough of empty promises.

The Youth Uprising Movement, a Brazilian ally, has been organizing in rural villages, slums and schools in 27 states in Brazil. They have set up programs that address the needs of youth from working families. And now with the pandemic, Levante’s mutual aid initiative called “Us for Us” is being spread in different communities bringing food, supplies (gloves and masks) and information to thousands of families in the country.

It’s not about just staying within your community anymore. While I think the first step is organizing within the community and seeing what conversations have happened there, it’s also important to connect with other movements both nationally and internationally. There’s a whole history of organizing that has already come before, but with youth coming forth and centering themselves, there’s a reckoning of the past and challenging of the status quo. Especially within social movements, the youth voice is the one that’s bringing all the new ideas.

Youth bring up themes and topics that are often missing from organizing spaces. That’s why youth social movements are really important. Youth are the “shakers” in a movement. They’re like, “we’re going to stir stuff up and bring up themes that you might have already been talking about, but we’re going to have you talking about them in a different way or think of a perspective that you might have not thought of before.”

In the U.S. and globally, I’ve been seeing that youth are not afraid to “go there”. We’re like, “alright, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but we should talk about feminism and all of these other topics that have perhaps been mentioned but never meaningfully discussed.”

Q: Is there a feeling that youth should be the next generation of a social movement or are youth right now trying to do something radically different?

I think there’s a bit of both. The youth understand that they have to learn from folks that have been doing the work for much longer, so it’s about listening and being respectful, but also understanding that maybe what folks have been doing isn’t enough. So how do we still respect that generational knowledge while carving out our own path? Youth organizers are like, “this has been the way and you guys have been pushing. There’s been all these small wins and gains but, especially with the climate justice movement, this is about our survival.” That might be a little dramatic for some people, but our lives and future are on the line, especially for folks that are on the frontlines dealing with all of the harm that’s happening in their communities.

Q: Can you think of any specific ways of organizing that are particular to this generation? How is organizing changing?

I think mixing protest and art and amplifying that through social media has really been the biggest shift that I’ve seen. Just thinking of Puerto Rico and how, not just youth, but everyone organized to try to change their government because they had had enough. A lot of what you saw was folks getting together and being very creative about how they were going to call out the government that has done them so much harm. I think using art, music and all of these things that are such a big part of people’s culture, and using them in a radical way, is the biggest difference.

One example that comes to mind is the last protest in Philadelphia by Uprooted and Rising, which involved blocking off the street in front of Aramark’s Philadelphia headquarters and using art to express the youth’s perspective about the harm of not paying their workers. Their big message was: this is one corporation, but they’re all connected at the end of the day.

So, I feel like there’s a lot of analysis going on, in collaboration with many folks that have already been doing this work. But how can we use our bodies and art in this way and make it public to folks that might not have known? Especially with the Aramark action, they were blocking traffic, so folks that are walking by or inconvenienced by the redirecting of traffic are like “what’s going on?” So, you’re putting it literally in the public eye. Many people in Philly had no idea what was happening, so after seeing the protest, they might go do more research. And that’s what it’s about: making people that would have otherwise had no idea aware that this is a problem.

With new media, it’s no longer just about showing up to protest. You need some sort of spectacle to get people’s attention. At the Aramark protest, they used dance and a big banner and a drone to document it all. They were very intentional about everything. So, the protest itself was the focus but then they also tried to see how to spread the message even further. It’s about making people understand that this isn’t just a one-off; we’re done, we did it, the change happened. No. This is just the beginning and has more ramifications than people know.

Q: What is the role of youth in reforming the food system and how do environmental concerns, Indigenous rights and food justice play into this?

I think what’s coming to mind is the intention that folks are having around going back to Indigenous ways like agroecology. It’s not just about the big picture. We must get land access and amplify the need for folks to own their land while also looking at how things like pesticides change the way that farming has been done in this country for so long.

Youth collectives are really being intentional about understanding that folks that were here before colonization have knowledge on how the land is to be farmed. Within food justice and food sovereignty movements, there’s been a lot of focus on how we go back to the way things were but also respect that we’re in this current time where folks might be feeling forced to do things in a corporate way.

The food system, especially in the U.S., has been held up by white supremacy. That’s the reason that there’s so many white farmers that have land and it’s been such a battle for farmers of Color to get land. There are so many different groups that are seeming to forge that battle. A lot of this struggle still feels underground, but it’s not. If you just do the research, you’ll know that this work has been happening for years.  The intentionality around learning and then doing things differently is, I think the biggest key to reforming of the food system.

I think it’s interesting because in the U.S. there are groups that may seem like outliers, but they’re connected to a bigger movement that’s composed of all different people of different ages. The North American region of La Via Campesina, for example, is very intentional about connecting with folks around the world. There is also a strong youth presence within the Latin American Agroecology Schools, where youth are going to practice agroecology and engage in political education.

In the U.S., organizing seems a little bit more disparate and can feel disconnected. Folks don’t always know about one another. It can feel like there’s so much work to do. I feel like a big part of the work is connecting people and organizations with one another. It’s important in this time to connect to local actions happening around climate, environment, food system and especially now with the People’s Bailout. We can join and amplify this call to action around healthcare for all, direct relief to undocumented workers, food chain workers and farmers and pushing for safe elections for all. The need for collectivism, and not individualistic action, is key.


Alex Roth