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How public interest communicators can engage youth advocates to advance urgent causes

This blog was written by Ella Stern, intern at Spitfire Strategies


In 6th grade, I huddled around my family’s TV watching 1st graders running out of their elementary school on CNN. That night, I begged my parents to let me stay home from school. They told me that there was nothing to be afraid of. That the incident was the action of one person.  

In 11th grade, I watched kids who looked like me running out of a high school that looked like mine. Once again, I begged my parents to let me stay home from school. They seemed less certain than they did before that there was nothing to be afraid of. In the days after, I was awestruck by the students’ ability to transform their grief into action. It was my earliest realization that activism is often spurred by other’s inaction. 

With the rise of March for Our Lives and other youth-led organizations, I understood that there was no age restriction for being an advocate. Groups included United We Dream, which utilizes youth-led coalitions to advocate for immigrants’ rights, and Team ENOUGH – the youth-led subsidiary of the national gun violence organization the Brady Campaign, founded by gun violence survivor Aalayah Eastmond. The rise of other youth-led organizations continues to serve as inspiration for my own activism.

Just weeks ago – now a senior in college – I watched reporters talk with members of the predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York that had just been terrorized by an act of white supremacy. Moments like this remind us of the systemic nature of gun violence and its link to white supremacy in America. I understand now more than I did when I was 11 that gun violence incidents are not isolated and prevention requires solutions to cure America's gun problem as well as rampant acts of racism.   

A few weeks after Buffalo, I was scrolling through Twitter watching familiar scenes unfold of children running out of their elementary school. This time it was in Uvalde, Texas – a place I had never heard of but whose name soon evoked the same feeling of distress I felt when I was 11. 

In the following days, I watched as the members of March for Our Lives (MFOL) continued their work just as I saw happen years before. I watched with the same admiration I felt in high school. This time, however, I wondered how this lifestyle is sustainable. I felt a bit guilty that I had plans that weekend to do regular young adult things. 

It became apparent to me that being a young advocate and an effective political communicator is a uniquely challenging burden. That’s when I started to think about the role professional public interest communicators have to support young advocates in a thoughtful manner.

Youth led organizations provide a necessary perspective on combating social injustices. Therefore, they must feel supported and equipped to do the work that calls them. Public interest communicators should approach youth-led groups with dignity and a strong ethical framework that uplifts their leadership and doesn’t result in their burnout or disenfranchisement.

Provide context for youth’s experiences and follow-through

In her piece, “Communicators must wield the power of storytelling ethically” Spitfire Annabelle Gardner writes, “stories that solely focus on people’s trauma without offering additional context about the systems or social issues at play, often make young people who have experienced similar issues feel triggered and further stigmatized.” March For Our Lives (MFOL) was born after a traumatic event. However, their work is focused on enacting progressive policy initiatives so that no individual has to experience the same trauma. It’s imperative that the issue of control is reframed from focusing on the sheer trauma of school shootings to explaining why gun violence persists, and what people plan to do about it. Politicians campaigning to reduce gun violence have an ethical obligation to position stories, especially those of young people, in context. Context should include communication on why gun violence persists in America. Storytelling about young survivors of gun violence, especially school shootings, should not seek to describe them as a victim as a result of an isolated event. Rather, it should seek to describe their experiences in the context of a violent system designed to uplift wealthy gun lobbyists and disregard students’ lives in an environment where they believe they will be safe. 

When individuals attempt to use the stories of youth impacted by gun violence without following through on promised commitments to pass gun control legislation – young people notice. RuQuan Brown, DC native and survivor of gun violence, took the stage at the June MFOL protest in Washington and described a meeting two years prior with Mayor Muriel Bowser who said she would work to  “create safer spaces for residents.” With that promise unfulfilled, Brown asserted that “If that were true, I wouldn’t be on this stage.” His criticism speaks to the consequences of relying on the stories of those affected by gun violence for perceived political gain. 

George Orwell wrote that bad rhetoric was born from a “staleness of image and a lack of precision.” If rhetoric around gun control relies on unethical means of storytelling, communicators will only exacerbate the trauma of events such as school shootings and will not achieve effective solutions.

Respect young people’s authority and leverage the value of collaboration 

There is often a narrative that young people will change the world. However, with this narrative comes an undue burden on young advocates to fix every problem. A Teen Vogue article from last April describes the importance of intergenerational cooperation for social justice movements. The author wrote that the idea that only one generation can lead will “tokenize certain age groups, embolden those who aren’t embedded within a community to speak on their behalf, and gloss over the fact that America’s structural crises are harmful to people of all ages — and have been for centuries.” Any movement that looks to create progressive change in the future benefits from the lessons of the past. As an example, March For Our Lives describes being influenced by the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.

"Collective disappointment that we are still fighting for issues over the course of decades should serve as a catalyst to work together, not offload the work to those most recently impacted."

Therefore, seasoned public interest communicators should lend their expertise in whatever way supports young peoples’ work. Collective disappointment that we are still fighting for issues over the course of decades should serve as a catalyst to work together, not offload the work to those most recently impacted. Afterall, there is strength in numbers.

Professionals in the field should avoid positioning themselves as the sole experts so as to not discourage young advocates. It’s important to find a balance between being authoritative and protecting young people. The importance of collaboration is that there is always more to learn from each other. The March For Our Lives leadership is composed of younger folks who are recent graduates, and older individuals including lawyers who have worked in political organizing for decades. This mix serves to demonstrate the value of integrating seasoned experience with new ideas.

Approach issues with intersectionality – tell the whole story

Still, even seasoned public interest communicators have plenty to learn from youth led activist groups such as March for Our Lives. For example, it’s clear since the inception of MFOL that they are an exemplary case of advocacy organizations that approach an issue with intersectionality. MFOL has worked to ensure people understand that while horrific events like school shootings make the news,  gun violence is prevalent in communities that have been historically marginalized every single day. From its beginnings, the young activists of MFOL have worked to highlight gun violence of all kinds – including gun violence incidents such as intimate partner violence which often go overlooked. By operating from an intersectional lens, they have also worked to expand the dialogue around gun violence. 

Data has shown that women of color and trans women are more likely to be the victims of gun violence; therefore, by creating spaces and opportunity, the movement encourages and uplifts the experiences of those most affected. It is imperative, therefore, that public interest communicators prioritize working with individuals whose lived experiences inform their activism. 

Finally, public interest communicators can learn from MFOL’s continued effort to frame the problem of gun control in a way that fits the solution. As Spitfire Briahnna Brown wrote, “strategically positioning solutions to the problems that you are seeking to solve is a powerful way to influence audiences to act.” Speakers at the June March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. encouraged thinking about tackling gun control like activists did with big tobacco – making it clear that by taking away guns you create a more safe world. Just like taking away smoking meant a healthier environment. Leaders of MFOL understand that solutions like putting more armed police officers in schools will not solve the problem of too many guns in America. Additionally, MFOL has not shied away from deliberately attacking gun lobbyists whose profit-minded goals cost American lives. These youth activists are unafraid of the powerful influence of gun rights groups because they understand the importance of positioning solutions to the problems you want solved. In 2018, MFOL was influential in some of the highest percentages of youth voter turnout and almost 50 NRA-backed candidates lost their election that year.

Youth activists leading organizations across the country are working to create a brighter future for everyone. However, the task is burdensome and challenging. It cannot be up to them alone to solve any number of crises if they are going to preserve their own wellbeing. Professionals in the field of public interest communication have a responsibility to lend their support, ethically communicate their stories, and empower youth to continue the fight. The kids aren’t alright, but they shouldn’t be alone either.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 30, 2022 at 12:09 pm and is filed under Coalition, connection and network building and Ethical and visual storytelling. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.