BY: ANDRÉ SOLOMON
What does leadership look like? Who is deemed a leader? How do leaders use their platforms? These thoughts were percolating at the fourth installment of the Teaching Artists Guild’s (TAG) program Youth Right Now = Truth Right Now, a series of BIPOC Youth Led Professional Development Workshops that give insight into what helps build creative, nurturing and thriving environments for young artists.
As there are very few opportunities for teaching artists to learn from young people, showcasing BIPOC youth leaders demonstrates that centering the work means recognizing the injustices that have been built into our system.
Now, name your social justice leaders — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X., Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Dolores Huerta, Yuri Kochiyama — and the list continues. But what is the commonality between these individuals? They happen to be adults. When reflecting on the voices of the people, our society is dominated by the rhetoric of older generations. Ideals that construct forms of adultism where strong associations lead to the assumption that adults are deemed leaders compared to their younger counterparts.
This particular workshop examined a sample of movements being led by youth, which included the efforts of Youth vs. Apocalypse (Isha Clarke), Butterfly Effect (Kaia Marbin) and Blacktivists (Keyssh Datts and Summer Blake). Each conveyed the notion that negative assumptions ultimately deconstruct power amongst the marginalized. Experience shows that assumptions are often formed on the basis of one’s development where our communities have impact. For example, white supremacist assumptions have built barriers to prevent BIPOC from changing the narrative because power differentials are unbalanced. While older social norms encouraged staying stagnant in homogeneous communities, which can produce narrow-minded individuals, newer generations are more willing to break comfortability towards meaningful intersectionality.
Let us remember that these monumental leaders, briefly discussed at the beginning, were young once — their passions did not suddenly activate at 18. However, a crucial component of leadership is mentorship. As our youth leads reflected on the adults in their lives, a consensus was made: A mentor amplifies a mentee’s voice by demonstrating that possibilities are endless if one is willing to do the work. As social creatures we all seek understanding in our relationships, therefore, humans require spaces that promote empathy, authenticity and truth.
The digital age is debunking old principles of what leadership looks like by providing integrated connectivity and access to resources that can be searched in milliseconds. Especially in recent years, youth have risen to the occasion. Examples include:
Free Speech Movement (1964-65)
The Free Speech Movement was a massive, long-lasting student protest which took place during the 1964–65 academic year on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. The Movement was informally under the central leadership of Berkeley graduate student Mario Savio.
United We Dream (2008)
United We Dream supports permanent protections for all immigrants, regardless of immigration status, using youth-led coalitions across the United States. It pushed for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) to prevent deportation of young people brought to the United States as children. The group also places a high value on diversity, being inclusive of everyone regardless of immigration status, gender, race and sexual orientation. “At UWD we believe that those closest to the pain are closest to the solution,” says group spokesman Jose Munoz.
Black Lives Matter (2013)
Countless young people of color across the United States learned about the power of protest firsthand following Trayvon Martin murder. On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking home from a convenience store when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. In 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and acquitted on manslaughter charges. This acquittal led Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors to create the #BlackLivesMatter movement where they organized marches, vigils, sit-ins, and, yes, occupations of government property — doing so at great personal risk.
Standing Rock and NoDAPL (2016)
The #NoDAPL movement was launched by a group of young Native Americans who claimed the title of water protectors in response to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline considered a threat to the Indigenous community at the Standing Rock reservation. It began when Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, started a Change.org petition titled, “Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.” From there, young activists began using the hashtags #StandWithStandingRock and #NoDAPL to spread the word, garnering the support of hundreds of thousands of people.
On February 14, 2018, one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when a former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on the school campus, killing 17 people. Student survivors from Parkland immediately took action, becoming well-known activists with a clear message: #NeverAgain. They wanted gun reform now.
There have always been youth leaders initiating justice movements but with the help of technology and more progressive mindsets, they are reclaiming power and challenging the status quo. These youth fight for justice because there is worth in advocating for collective benefit.
Isha Clarke, (18 years old, Oakland CA) is co-founder and activist with Youth Vs Apocalypse, is a recent high school graduate born, raised, and educated in Oakland, CA. Isha recognizes that climate change is the consequence of fundamental systems of oppression like white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Because of this, people of color, indigenous communities, and working-class people are disproportionately burdened by impacts of climate catastrophe. Knowing this, Isha’s work is focused on building a movement that follows the leadership of frontline communities, creates solidarity between other fights for justice, and works to dismantle the systems of oppression that fuel climate change. As a result of this work, Isha was awarded the 2019 Brower Youth Award, 2020 Diller Tikkun Olam Award, and has become a nationally recognized speaker, presenter, and writer. Youth Vs Apocalypse
Kaia Marbin (13 years old, Alameda, CA), co-organized and led “The Butterfly Effect: Migration is Beautiful” art project with the goal of making 15,000 paper butterflies as a visual representation of the migrant children in detention in order to raise awareness and inspire action to end child detention. She is working to create butterflies to represent the 76,020 children who were detained at the border last year. Last year Kaia and other youth led a rally with 1,000 people at Lake Merritt in Oakland in solidarity with migrant children, and then brought 15,000 butterflies to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. They delivered butterflies to every U.S. Senator’s offices with a request to end child detention.
Keyssh Datts (19 years old, Philadelphia, PA) is a community organizer, photographer and multimedia creator and producer. They use their love of history black studies, and hiphop to create art that uplifts. Their work has been centered around gender identity, gentrification and gun violence.
Summer Blake, (19 years old, Philadelphia, PA) Summer is a first year film & television major at Drexel University. Her goal is to be a director/producer and work with other passionate creators. She deeply believes in representation.
Teaching Artists Guild
Teaching Artists Guild (TAG), is a member-driven organization committed to the professionalization and visibility of artists who teach. We are the voice of the teaching artist, communicating the depth and breadth of work that teaching artists provide our educational systems and communities.