Student Activism

We provide young people with training and tools to build coalitions, call out injustice, and actively work for positive social change.

Defining Terms

  • Activism: an intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change. (Amherst College)
  • Activist: a person who diligently and repeatedly tries to achieve some social, economic, or political objective, especially by participation in protest, pressure, organizing, or resistance. (Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts)
  • Advocacy (or lobbying): organized initiatives that seek to change laws or rules, often by talking to or influencing decision-makers such as elected officials, or in the case of education, a principal or school board.
  • Saviorism: a character (in books or film) or person that “rescues” the marginalized from their oppression (learn more about saviorism in this video from OnlyBlackGirl)
  • Coalition: a group of individuals and/or organizations with a common interest who agree to work together toward a common goal. (Community Tool Box)

Keys to Becoming and Being an Activist

Anyone can be an activist — you don’t need to pass a test or get a membership card! However, there are some important guidelines and distinctions to remember about what makes an effective activist. We feel Lindy’s article on Medium makes some good points:

  • An activist tries to directly influence social change by taking action, beyond raising awareness.
  • An activist is educated on their cause.
  • An activist is open to discussion and dialogue.
  • An activist doesn’t have to advocate for a big cause to be an activist.

These are just the highlights, so read Lindy’s full article before you dive in.

A word of caution: being an effective activist includes learning about the other groups who have already been working on the issue you care about, and finding ways to support or integrate your work where possible. Don’t be the new person who joins the movement, steals the limelight and disregards the work of those who have already been there. If you truly care about your cause, you will find ways to collaborate with and support others who have the same passion and mission.

Long story short: identify a cause or injustice you care about; become educated on that issue; find allies and accomplices in the community; and take action! It’s that simple.

Local Actions for Students to Engage in Activism

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a good list of methods for how students can engage in activism, which we’ve reprinted here in bullet form with some additional commentary. Whatever campaign or cause you are pursuing, you will probably want to use several of these methods at different times, rather than focusing on just one method.

  1. Educate others. Actually, first educate yourself. This step is critical! Once you’re ready to educate others, make sure you are centering the voices of the people most affected by the issue. Allies and accomplices can support but should not take the mic, so to speak, from those affected. Above all, make sure you are not engaging in saviorism.
  2. Advocate for legislation. Get advice and help from those who have lobbied before, if possible. Legislative changes generally must take place during specific times of the year, and depending on the issue, may require significant coalition-building. Also remember laws can be changed at the local and state level, not just the federal level.
  3. Run for office. Need some inspiration? Learn about the journey of Tay Anderson, who ran for the Denver School Board of Education when he was still in high school; while unsuccessful at first, he has since won election to the Board at just 21 years old and is a leading voice of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Denver.
  4. Protest. This is often the most common vision we have when someone says activist. Protests can be powerful displays against injustice, but also can be dangerous in certain situations. Here’s an article from Wired with some good tips on what to bring and not bring to a protest, and what you should do before, during and after the event.
  5. Create a public awareness campaign that includes social media. Note the word campaign which signifies a long-term, repeated effort with a defined goal, not just a single or casual post.
  6. Do a survey about the issue and share the results. Data is a very compelling way to convince stubborn policymakers and those in power to change their mind!
  7. Raise money. All causes need funds to feed people, buy supplies, or pay salaries. Doing a fundraiser for a non-profit that has 501(c)(3) status with the IRS can be a powerful way to support activism even if you’re not “on the front lines.”
  8. Write a letter to a company. This method is useful if you are protesting against the actions of a specific company or organization, or if you want to invite a company to join a coalition you are building.
  9. Engage in community service. This is in addition to other methods; community service is not generally viewed as activism by itself.
  10. Get the press involved. Creating publicity (positive or negative) for your cause can be one of the best ways to shift public opinion and create the atmosphere for change. Make sure to prepare adequately so that when the press shows up with interview questions, you’re ready with the answers.

YCD Workshops on Student Activism

Below are example workshops YCD has hosted in the past through our conferences for students and educators; contact us to request more information or connect with a presenter.

Disability, Advocacy, and Building Power

Join two advocates from the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition in exploring how to become an advocate for disability rights or an ally for students with disabilities. We’ll explore the intersection of disability and white privilege. We will give you concrete ideas on how to disrupt disability oppression.

Presented by the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Denver, CO

Fight for Your Rights: Examples of Youth-Led Change

How do we create change to help our communities? How can young people come together to fight for their rights?  In this workshop, we’ll look at examples of youth-led change by AJUA (Asociación de Jovenes Unidos en Acción), a youth-led immigrant rights and social justice advocacy organization in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Presented by Asociación de Jovenes Unidos en Acción, Gypsum, CO

From Slacktivism to Activism

Student leaders will engage with each other about leadership, social media activism and traditional activism, how they work together and what has been the most impactful. Students attendees will share their experiences, gain ideas from others and identify ways they can engage in activism to challenge issues and promote social justice in their communities.

Presented by the Anti-Defamation League, Denver, CO

Know Your Rights: Students’ Rights

All people in the United States enjoy the same constitutional protections, regardless of nationality, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, disability and gender. The best way to protect your rights is to know your rights. In this workshop, the ACLU of Colorado will share information on students’ rights related to free speech, dress codes, privacy, LGBTQ rights, and immigrants’ rights. We’ll also cover what to do if your school violates these protections.

Presented in various iterations and locations by the ACLU of Colorado

Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Victory

Many people don’t know that, for the first time in Colorado’s history, eligible 17-year-olds will be able to vote in 2020! Join us for a collaborative, exciting workshop during which we’ll explore: why voting matters, barriers to voting, how to become the vote captain of your community and build a powerful movement, and the crucial role 17-year-olds will play in the 2020 elections.

Presented by Colorado Democracy Challenge, Denver, CO

Youth Activism 101

Youth are not only our future, they are actively shaping our world today. Young people have a long history of being on the vanguard of social change movements. Our democracy is broken, and young people are leading the fight to transform it. If we want to achieve equity in our lifetime, youth must know how to change the corrupt and unjust systems that we already operate in. In this workshop we’ll be providing the proper tools and language to learn what it takes to create long lasting change in systems and organizations that are built on prejudice.

Presented in various iterations by: Colorado Youth Congress, Denver, CO; and activist Nikki Archuleta, Albuquerque, NM

Youth Activists Who Inspire Us

Here’s a list of students and youth (age 22 and younger) who are leading activism today, whether on the local or national level. They inspire and inform our work. Follow them on social media, or seek out opportunities to hear them speak to dig deeper on these issues.

Who inspires your activism? Share your points of inspiration with us on Twitter:

.@ycdiversity My activism is inspired by

Activism Books for Students

Here is a list of recommended books for students and teens that explore and address activism — past, present, or future. You can find free e-books or your local library using OverDrive.com.

Activism Books for Educators and Parents

And this list is for educators, parents and adults looking for guidance on how to support student activism.

Movies Featuring Activism

Below are movies that address or inspire activism in meaningful and compelling ways.

Podcasts on Activism

Here is a list of recommended podcasts you can download and follow to explore activism in more detail.

Organizations Supporting Student Activism

YCD partners with numerous organizations to offer education and trainings for students on activism. Below are some of these groups; we encourage you to look into what services, resources and information they can offer for a deeper exploration of these topics.

Jump to: Arizona | Colorado | New Mexico | Washington

DoSomething.org is mobilizing young people in every US area code and in 131 countries across the globe, who sign up for a volunteer, social change, or civic action campaign to make real-world impact on a cause they care about.

One Arizona works to improve the lives of Arizonans, especially people of color and young people, by building a culture of civic participation. The group focuses on voting rights, immigration, education and economic justice issues.

The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, working to protect, defend and extend the civil rights and civil liberties of all people in Colorado through litigation, education and advocacy. The group focuses its efforts on criminal justice, freedom of expression and religion, government transparency, immigrants’ rights, LGBT equality, privacy and technology, racial justice, reproductive freedom, student and youth rights, voting rights, and women’s rights.

Colorado Youth Congress organizes high school students across the state to build community, knowledge and solutions through policy and advocacy efforts supported by mentors.  Groups meet monthly to advance a shared agenda or goal toward policy changes.

DPS Student Voice and Leadership’s 5280 Challenge is a student leadership competition through their Student Board of Education. Students develop innovative policy arguments to make their school communities more equitable, and, in turn, to advocate for social justice.

The Eagle River Youth Coalition (ERYC) is a prevention organization serving youth and families in the Eagle River Valley. ERYC strives to increase youth leadership opportunities and raise the youth voice, aiming to build a safer, healthier environment where all young people thrive.

Started by YCD alumni at Columbine High School, #MyLastShot is a student-created and student-led gun violence prevention campaign working to save lives with images of lives lost.

Project VOYCE, based in Denver, partners with youth to cultivate transformational leadership that addresses the root causes of inequity in underrepresented communities by training, employing, organizing, and building equitable youth-adult partnerships.

Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action, working across several of Colorado’s Western counties, brings people together to build grassroots power through community organizing and leadership development. They believe that right now, today, we have the ability and opportunity to create a future where engaged local voices are leading communities across Western Colorado that are healthy, just and self-reliant.

Based in Aurora, YAASPA (Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism) endeavors to build the self-efficacy of youth who desire to make change in our communities, pursue social science degrees, and social justice careers.

The ACLU of New Mexico is dedicated to preserving and advancing the civil rights and legal freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Their primary focus is on LGBT equality, freedom of speech, reproductive freedom, immigrants’ rights, privacy concerns, police abuses, fair treatment of prisoners, and more.

The New Mexico Dream Team is a  statewide network committed to create power for multigenerational, undocumented, LGBTQ+, and mixed status families towards liberation. Through trainings and leadership development, they work to engage community and allies in becoming leaders using an intersectional, gender, and racial justice lens—to develop and implement an organizing and advocacy infrastructure for policy change fighting to dismantle systematic oppression.

Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) is a statewide multi-racial, multi-issue, community based membership organization. SWOP youth work to empower communities in the Southwest to realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice.

Young Activists of Whatcom County (YAWC) is a community with open hearts, open minds, and open doors. Their community welcomes no boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, economic condition, immigration status, mental or physical ability. They spread educational and informative links, stories and voices.

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