Much is made today of the lack of involvement by people in their communities, the failure to be aware of issues directly affecting their lives. For many, social media as an unreliable source is their only connection with information.
Young people are a particular focus of concern regarding engagement in civic matters, though in fairness worry about young people and their futures is as old as humankind.
Recent times have seen youth involved in movements such as Black Lives Matter and now with the high-profile effort to stop school violence in the wake of the latest U.S. mass shooting at a Florida school. The common denominator is that most such efforts have protest at their root.
At least for a short time, it is not hard to get people interested in protesting. When an issue hits close to home, as is the case with school shootings and young people, they are motivated.
Even so, the movement to convince lawmakers on the national and state levels to limit assault-style weapons, expand background checks for buying guns and allow for seizure of weapons is surprisingly large and vocal.
Those believing that today’s young people are not involved and are unwilling to get involved can be pleased by the engagement. Wednesday was the National School Walkout. Around the county, students walked out of school in a mass movement designed to last for 17 minutes in memory of the 17 students killed in Florida on Feb. 14.
In some locations, the effort enjoyed the support of educators. In others, there were threats to punish students for disobeying school rules. In still others, students and administrators cooperated in efforts to remember what happened in Florida – and elsewhere around the country far too many times in recent years.
But can the student movement effect change? The key is sustainability and moving beyond the protest phase.
Moises Naim, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a distinguished fellow in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is the author of an article titled “Why street protests don’t work.”
“How can so many extremely motivated people achieve so little?” he writes.
“In today’s world, an appeal to protest via Twitter, Facebook or text message is sure to attract a crowd, especially if it is to demonstrate against something — anything, really — that outrages us. The problem is what happens after the march. Sometimes it ends in violent confrontation with the police, and more often than not it simply fizzles out. Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government. …
“What we’ve witnessed in recent years is the popularization of street marches without a plan for what happens next and how to keep protesters engaged and integrated in the political process. It’s just the latest manifestation of the dangerous illusion that it is possible to have democracy without political parties — and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society,” Naim writes.
Students are due credit for not remaining silent on the issue of violence in schools. But whether their movement can have real impact depends on their efforts being co-opted by others including elected officials, political parties, community leaders, churches, civic organizations – and parents.
Yet even if the efforts fizzle as trending social media moves on and the national spotlight fades, the involvement of young people in making their voices heard is a positive. After all, they are the leaders of the coming years.