My father, a veteran of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1965 Selma march and numerous Vietnam War protests, still wages peace the old fashioned way. For seven years running, he and a group of fellow activists have taken to the streets every Friday afternoon, placard in hand, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the perspective of many younger activists, these 1960s-style tactics appear quaint and out of date.
That is not to say that teenagers and 20-somethings have left the streets altogether, as uprisings in Iran and climate protests in Copenhagen attest. But if you look closely at these and other young agitators, you would see they are carrying cellphones, twittering on-the-spot updates, and organizing flash mobs that can respond instantaneously like a school of fish to real-time text message commands from protest leaders.
Moving online, you will find thousands upon thousands of Facebook groups, social-change networks like Change.org, community support “marketplaces” like Globalgiving.org, and bloggers actively organizing around and raising money for a myriad of causes. Last year’s “Twestival” helped raise over $250,000 for “charity: water” (a nonprofit supporting clean and safe drinking water in developing countries) in only a few weeks time. The organizing was done entirely on Twitter and resulted in fundraising “Tweetups” in 200 cities across the globe.
The game has clearly changed. A new generation of young people is waging political and social battles through eyeballs and not sneakers.
And a more subtle change, mirroring a generation raised on always-on and always-responsive technologies, is the demand for instant results. Today’s young approach activism with an impatience that previous generations were often unable to satisfy.
For older activists, like my Dad, face-to-face interactions and organizing were a critical part of the education process. Nonviolent protest techniques were learned and trialed in the presence of angry mobs and club-wielding police. Results required training, patience, and unwavering action.
Many old-school activists are left wondering what happened to personal risk as expressions of commitment. They don’t understand why younger folks aren’t literally standing up to take action on climate change, gay rights, the war in Iraq, and the runaway excesses of the financial industry. They worry that younger activists are not willing to commit themselves to the laborious process of cutting their activism teeth the hard way.
Those may be fair points.
After all, putting up a Facebook page, donating through your mobile phone, or posting an angry message on a blog is not the same as a sit-in or hunger strike.
But the instant result impulses of today’s youth, bolstered by lightning-quick actions on the Web and phone, are also worth acknowledging.
Busing people to the Mall in Washington from across the country may not be as efficient as a viral campaign that can reach far more people in real time and lead to instantaneous mass action. Organizations like MoveOn.org and the social-media juggernaut that powered the 2008 Obama campaign have made this abundantly clear.
Furthermore, in the digital era, each individual is empowered to have her or his own distinct voice and doesn’t necessarily need the “movement” to speak for them.
Whether you agree with the old- or new-school approaches doesn’t matter. A smart activist, old or young, should realize that these approaches are not mutually exclusive.
Traditional activists should appreciate the fact that young folks are taking an interest, and increasingly at a younger age, thanks to exposure to issues and organizing activities enabled by the Web and mobile devices. They should welcome new and better communication tools for organizing and getting the message out in ways never before possible.
Younger activists need to realize that online activities will only do so much, and that governments and the media are far more responsive to 100,000 protesters on the Capitol steps than they are to an online petition signed by five times as many people. Social change does not come easy.
Here are several ways the old and young can together re-energize and re-imagine activism for the 21st century:
First, the massive wave of baby boomers reaching retirement are a source of tremendous know-how, which can be leveraged to take concrete action. These retirees have time, money, and wisdom – three qualities they didn’t have a half-century ago. As they re-engage today, they need to remember and reapply the skills they learned to effect change in the 1960s and 1970s. The issues have changed, but the urgency has not.
Millions upon millions of concerned seniors on the streets would be a movement unlike any other. And if they were joined by and schooled in the digital arts by younger enthusiasts, they would be unstoppable. The key here is agreement on which issues to target and a commitment on both ends of the age spectrum to listen and learn.
Mentoring programs for young agitators is another option. Just like the SCORE program, which matches retired business professionals with younger people wanting to start a business, older activists could teach their younger peers both organizing skills and dos and don’ts.
Younger activists likewise should mentor unskilled boomers on online organizing and fundraising skills through social networking and the use of text messaging. Serious seniors and middle-aged boomers need only to take a trip to local colleges and universities and tap into a wide range of campus-based groups. And these same groups should be identifying and recruiting older agitators, both online and off, to join their efforts locally and globally.
Speaking of higher education, seniors volunteering to develop and co-teach courses (with their younger counterparts) on political and social action would be rich sources of intergenerational learning. Older college administrators now in positions of power need to step up and support such efforts.
As for my father and his fellow war protestors, their amazing commitment need not stop with vigils of the old. Who will be left to pick up the signs when they are gone?
Nearby younger activists need to put down their laptops and pick up those signs.
The experience of the older generations and the innovations of the young each have something to offer. And as activism re-invents itself, there is a role for everyone.
Paul Lamb is the principle of Man on a Mission Consulting. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.