by Casey Keene, Director of Programs & Prevention for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
When you’re the only woman in a room of male executives.
So many of us can identify with this feeling – the power imbalance, the intimidation or discomfort, the unfamiliarity with unspoken rules, the guarded defensiveness, the insecurity around being seen as credible, valuable, or even heard at all. In this situation, there is a sharp contrast that puts a spotlight on your otherness. It can silence you, cause you to disengage, and literally push you to the margin.
This is the analogy Annika Leonard, ACE-DV Steering Committee member and long-time youth advocate, used to describe what it’s like for young people to sit at the table with adult advocates. While we may see ourselves as welcoming and inclusive by inviting young people to the table, we need to be aware of what we’re communicating – regardless of intention – when we come together.
Annika developed a unique culturally specific curriculum for Black teen girls that cultivate their leadership, survivorship and wellness to bring about deep, radical, and cultural solutions to ending violence. At her core, she believes that answers must come from survivors and she has committed to the empowerment of Black teens to lead the solutions. She teaches this curriculum weekly in Milwaukee high schools, training a new generation of anti-violence movement leaders.
One of the things she learned in the process is the importance of intergenerational activism to realize real social transformation. She recognizes the power of providing youth with access to the wisdom gained by the generations before them who have been doing this work in the domestic violence movement. She values the unique and important contributions that youth activists make to this and intersecting social justice movements. But creating a successful intergenerational model is about coming to a place where both of these pieces are weighed equally.
We are not their mothers or teachers or coaches. We are working in partnership with youth to support their organizing.
SPARK Movement defines themselves as a “girl-fueled, intergenerational activist organization working to ignite and foster an antiracist gender justice movement to end violence against women and girls and promote girls’ healthy sexuality, self-empowerment and well-being.”
As youth activists with SPARK Movement, Celeste Montano and Melissa Campbell informed the development of Lyn Mikel Brown’s Powered By Girl field guide. Inside, Brown argues that “adults shouldn’t encourage girls to ‘lean in.’ Rather, girls should be supported in creating their own movements—disrupting the narrative, developing their own ideas—on their own terms.”
Upon the guide’s release, Celeste and Melissa reflected on the experience: “First and foremost, intergenerational activism gave us new ideas about what it meant to be a leader—and taught us how to see ourselves as leaders and authorities on our own experiences” (Ms. Magazine, 2016).
But we know that working in partnership is much more than what you can teach. It’s about what you can learn. When working together with youth, it’s about recognizing young people’s autonomy and showing them respect by truly listening. “Listening to one another offers openings, new possibilities for involvement in the process of political change” (Lyn Mikel Brown, 2016).
In her piece Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies, Sasha Costanza-Chock suggests that we “Start from a place of respect for young people's autonomy, opinions, desires, and actual capacity to take part in and lead powerful social movements that can truly transform the world… Instead of shutting down youth activists, adult allies can engage in open dialogue about strategy and tactics and take youth opinions seriously.”
If we want to bring the margins to the center, we have to examine and challenge the ways our own movement spaces can marginalize youth, especially those who experience multiple layers of oppression.
Ageism is a quiet and powerful force in our lives. For many of us, generational diversity is an afterthought. Creating spaces with generational diversity in mind requires us to consider the physical meeting places we choose (perhaps something that feels more like a school?) and the ways we behave in those spaces. How do we respond to youth, or older generations for that matter, who use language that makes us feel uncomfortable? How do we respond to their physical presentation? There are many ways to shut people down through both verbal and nonverbal cues that can create roadblocks to open participation, and can mimic the very systems of oppression we are working to dismantle.
We don’t always have to know where we’re going to get someplace great.
If we want to encourage youth to step into leadership roles, we must respect the knowledge and perspective they bring in whatever form it takes. We must create space for young activists to explore their own passions and move in the direction that it compels them to go. If we want young people to steer the ship, we can’t have a destination already in mind. We have to remain open to the possibility that there is uncharted territory out there to be discovered.
Annika believes in the power of youth activism, always striving to “keep herself in check” by allowing the young people she works alongside to be who they are and not who she wants them to be. Because who they are is more than enough to change the world.
Learn and engage with us!
To learn more, read Lyn Mikel Brown’s piece on The Transformative Power of Intergenerational Activism in which she offers eight lessons she has learned from working in partnership with youth to create a world that’s more sustainable, equitable, and just. She explores key strategies like learning to improvise, leaving the bubble, and staying emotionally present.
Additionally, the Freechild Project offers The Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People, which includes a helpful cycle of youth engagement.
For Teen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention Month, the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence is exploring models of successful youth activism in our movement to end gender-based violence. Click here to learn more about our initiatives and events.