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youth activism

How Kids Are Challenging the System With Actions Across America

[dc]“W[/dc]e would love to let grown-ups solve the problem, but the issue is that you guys are not solving the problem,” says high school senior Lennox Thomas, in an interview for a short documentary film “Teens Take Charge.”

Thomas is among a group of young activists in New York City who are working to end ongoing racial segregation in public schools, 65 years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that such segregation is unconstitutional. As Thomas and fellow young organizers explain throughout the 4-minute film, New York City’s public schools remain some of the most racially segregated in the nation.

Out of the increased coverage of specific young organizers—in particular Thunberg—has sprung a conversation about the necessity to showcase other youth activists, particularly movements led by kids of color.

“Teens Take Charge” is part of the new, 14-part short film series “Following Their Lead: Youth in Action,” produced and organized by Brave New Films. The series explores youth-led efforts across the country as passionate kids challenge the systems-that-be in the name of their own futures.

Youth activism has been gaining momentum in recent years, with mainstream media attention on young organizers like Greta Thunberg and mass school walkouts to protest climate change inaction; as well as the students of Parkland High School who helped launch the historic March for Our Lives youth movement for gun reform.

Out of the increased coverage of specific young organizers—in particular Thunberg—has sprung a conversation about the necessity to showcase other youth activists, and in particular movements led by kids of color, which often don’t get as much press. The new film series appears to have taken note, as teen organizers featured in the new film series are largely young people of color, working with the major issues of racial and economic injustice facing the U.S. today. They tackle problems like the school-to-prison pipeline and the school-to-deportation pipeline; racism and inequity; the marginalization of Indigenous peoples; voter suppression; reproductive rights; mental health; gun reform and climate change. Refreshingly, many of the films in the series offer success stories, as teens reshape their local communities, policies and structures.

Noely Mendoza, a documentary filmmaker and assistant editor at Brave New Films who shot several of the shorts on location, says in the last couple of years, as there has been an increase in youth activism, the filmmakers wanted to amplify those voices.

“We wanted to highlight the personal stories of the youth and their perspectives,” she says. “A common critique that young people get is that they aren’t serious about the issues, and are just using it as an excuse to skip class or avoid other responsibilities. Therefore, it was important for us to show how youth activism is uniquely effective.”

Several of the shorts in the series depict noticeable shifts that have occurred throughout the nation because of youth activism. For example, the second film in the series, “RISE for Youth,” shows how, in 2017, teens organizing to end youth incarceration in Virginia successfully shut down the Beaumont Correctional Facility, a juvenile detention center. The facility had been operating since 1890 and the young activists successfully encouraged the reinvestment of the millions of dollars spent on the facility into community services. Later that same year, as the film shows, RISE was key in preventing the construction of a new youth prison in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Regarding the group’s successful effort to close the longstanding juvenile detention facility in 2017, 18-year-old Douglass Johnson says in an interview in the film, “We talked to legislators, we showed them the statistics that prove that when a youth gets incarcerated and gets ready to be released, he’s most likely to come back. That’s how we were able to close Beaumont Correctional Facility.”

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Teens in this short worked with RISE (Reinvesting In Supportive Environments) for Youth, a nonpartisan campaign that works to dismantle the imprisonment of kids in the U.S., which has been shown to be ineffective and tends to result in recidivism. They also work to promote community-based alternatives to locking young people up.

“The youth that are in these youth prisons are typically black, and they’re brown, and they’re young, coming from broken families,”says Brianna Scott, a 21-year-old youth leader at RISE, in the film. “Youth are the ones that are actually going to make the changes. You can’t really have a community without youth.”

Jim Miller, executive director of Brave New Films, says their staff decided to focus on organizations run by and for youth three years ago.

“Brave New Films staff consists of primarily younger folks who are all passionate about social justice issues,” he says.

Brave New Films has offered the series, which was funded and sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, for free to stream online, in the hopes that schools, community centers and private parties will host educational screenings. The idea is to inspire youth in all communities to organize and act for change.

Along with the option to stream the film series for free, anyone who requests to host a screening can receive a lesson plan pamphlet complete with a toolkit, questions and educational activities designed to help integrate the film’s themes with its audiences, get people thinking and spur conversation.

[dc]“O[/dc]ur goal was to let our audience know that it is essential that youth be at the decision-making table on all social justice issues because they can contribute substantially to the conversation,” says Miller. “The second goal was to show other youth what was being done so that they could be inspired to create organizations that make a difference in their communities.”

April M. Short
Independent Media Institute


April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.