Recruiting & Community Organizing Secrets by Young Activists

I had the terrific opportunity to moderate the inaugural Youth Ideas panel with the overarching theme of “Interrupting Injustice” at the International Arts & Ideas Festival. It seems only fair for me to pass along some key points shared by four local activists in New Haven, Connecticut. Click here for brief bios of these inspiring change agents.

  • “Just start…People are waiting for someone to take a stand.” Jeremy Cajigas, now 16, launched Eliminate Racial Profiling because “Fear is what caused me to make my voice heard. Trayvon Martin could have been me.” Jeremy cold-called the Mayor and got her and the Police Chief to come to a youth-organized summit. One outcome: students now are teaching cops how to interact with teens.
  • “Relationships are the foundation…Emotional community building is at the heart.” Isabel Bate, now 18, has been “co-leading” LBGTQ +Kickback for nearly three years. This youth-led organization really knows how to provide “a safe, inclusive space” which is captured in this video.
  • Youth organizing work is multi-faceted…“focusing on restorative justice which includes probation, mentoring, community service rather than the punitive system,” explains Montrel Morrison. He co-founded the annual NAACP Juvenile Justice Expo at Southern Connecticut State University and currently mentors and coaches young people.
  • “Personal outreach is what builds a movement rather than relying only on flyers and social media,” explains Carolina Bortolleto, co-founder of CT Students for a Dream. Sharing stories about being “undocumented and unafraid” gives courage to others and now immigrant youth–not only adults–are testifying and meeting with state legislators.
  • Invite and include individual youth by encouraging them to contribute their artistic talents like creating spoken word, chants or banners.
  • “The rising of a powerful generation,” Jeremy’s tag line, means adult allies need to listen more rather than always lead.

To draw further inspiration and ideas on community organizing, I recommend When We Fight We Win! Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World by Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte.

Girls Win Changes Juvenile Detention Conditions & Policies

The cover of “Caged Birds Sing” contains bold brown brush strokes that could represent bars. http://www.aclu-md.org/uploaded_files/0000/0043/caged_birds_sing.pdf  This compelling 18-page booklet published by the Maryland ACLU, written entirely by girls at a juvenile justice facility near Baltimore, explodes with their artwork. The gifted adult ally, a brilliant young attorney, writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”

One painting accompanies the commentary: “The Waxter building feels like a cage–not a place to help girls learn to do better.” Their heart wrenching poems pack real punch:

Rescue Me (by T.)
Take me away from this world
full of hatred.
Give me the oxygen to breathe
before I don’t make it.
Rescue my heart before the
beating stops.
Wipe away every single tear
before it drops.
Give me the confidence I need
to feel good about myself.
Help me even when I say I don’t need help.
Tell me all the things I do best,
Before it’s too late and I live
my life full of regrets.

Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to break up the dense content, every page of “Caged Birds Sing” makes a splash with artwork and concludes with 41 specific recommendations.  The Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media paid attention which increased pressure on state juvenile justice authorities who adapted three significant proposals:

  • Create an evening reporting center for girls in Baltimore City, as an alternate to detention.
  • Hire more staff and make sure that the staff you have get good training/know the rules, and treat us respectfully.
  • Give girls the same types of opportunities you give boys, like hands-on experiences and different types of job training programs

This document demonstrates how “youth voice” and art activism, when combined with media advocacy and direct action with policymakers, can make a lasting impact.