40 Lessons from a Youth Organizer

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate a daylong institute on youth-led activism at Creating Change 2014 in Houston. In preparation for the conference, I created  a list of the key lessons I’ve learned as an LGBTQ youth organizer the past few years. Instead of sharing a wordy editorial, I thought this format would be more fun. Enjoy!

1. Youth-led dreams come true because of hard work, integrity, and resilience

Tiana at Work

Disney / via Tumblr

Youth justice is realized through an unyielding commitment to the dignity of all. The power to
secure social change resides in authentic community leadership and the selfless dedication
of individuals toward the power of love.


2. There are no fairy godmothers in youth-led activism


Disney / via Tumblr

No youth activists are given power outright – it must be created and sustained.
Sometimes, an individual youth leader can be tokenized and invited to ‘the ball.’
However, getting a free ticket to the local LGBT community banquet for one night
is not shifting a community power structure. You’ll still be a house-servant again
at midnight. So, empowered as your own blue fairy, you can become more than
the intern who stuffs envelopes or smiles for a poster.


3. The ‘movement’ does not invest in youth-led activism;
learn how to stretch a dollar


Disney / via Tumblr

The institutional barriers blocking youth-led work are everywhere. It should not be
this way, but it is. Social justice movements despise financial investments in
youth-led work because funders often stereotype all young leaders as irresponsible
or unprepared. So be ready to scrape by on whatever resources you can piece
together. In 2012, FIERCE in New York found that youth self-fund over 80% of youth-led activism.


4. You will often be alone in believing in the power of youth

You will get regular side-eye from members of student groups, youth communities and
adult organizations alike. But keep on. You are not strange for thinking you can be an
equal and valued member of your community.


5. The land of youth-led justice actually exists, despite those who say otherwise


Disney / via Tumblr

Even though it may have been buried underground for a few thousand years,
it’s there. #hope


6. Youth leaders can be taught any task


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but the spark of unyielding sacrifice toward justice can only be self-made


Disney / via Tumblr

You can teach a youth leader any task or professional standard such as how to
write an email or speak in public. Yet, it is the commitment to unconditional
sacrifices toward justice and a selfless dedication to the team that define an
authentic leader. And to sustain effective work, you need a team of authentic
leaders in it for the long haul. But only the leaders on their own can get themselves
into that mindset.


7. The best moments of youth activism are when youth-led work clicks


Warner Bros. / via Pen and Muse

The best reward for doing this work, besides getting it done, is when you see the
gleam in another young leader’s eyes when they ‘get it’ – when they understand
their power. It can take months, sometimes over a year. Some will never know.
But when you see the click, it’s beautiful.


8. A fierce value and defense of youth dignity allows our full empowerment


20th Century Fox / via FanPop

Youth-led dignity allows us to believe in our full empowerment – whether in our
own little corner or with a royal scepter in our hands. True empowerment is our
complete and total autonomy.


9. Never make yourself a person who can be bought or sold


Paramount / via Tumblr

Plenty of youth go to the highest bidder. Sometimes adults offer rising youth
leaders “key opportunities” which are rather tools by which they can later use to
leverage and influence them. Don’t let yourself be bought by others. If you make
yourself your own boss, you can secure your success independently and be
free of manipulative relationships.


10. Defend your fellow youth at whatever costs


Lionsgate / via Pandawhale

What happens to one of us, happens to us all. And next time, they will have your back.


11. One of our greatest rebellions as youth is standing against the institutionalization of social justice


Touchstone Pictures / via Next Movie

The revolution will not come to us by any non-profit organization – but by our
own voice and action. Youth-led organizations have long recognized the
importance of resisting the formation of corporate, non-profit industrial
complex-based communities. It is critical to preserve this fierce sense of
organizational culture as best you can. Our movement should be sowed in the
truth of our communities, and not rooted in appealing to wealthy donors.


12. Once you find your groove in youth-led activism, you will have aged


Disney / via Tumblr

You can get easily get swept into the colors of the wind. And two, three years
later…you’re supposed to age up from being youth? Ugh. There is no snooze button
on this on, unfortunately. So dance as fast as you can. And remember, this is a
good thing to keep new energy constantly coming into your youth community’s leadership.


13. Always take the higher road


Disney / via Tumblr

Microagressions because of age are regular occurrences. Either from adults who
think you know nothing, and treat you like icky creatures from the deep, or other
youth who think you are insane and pretentious. It’s not worth the time or resources to respond to
these haters. Even though you certainly know they could learn a lesson or two, it is
best to leave them be and focus on the work ahead.


14. Work hard, to work harder


Disney / via Tumblr

Rest? Early wake-ups for one-on-one, group, or community meetings are very
regular for youth organizers. You have to work hard, always be sharp, and be in
communication 24/7 – all the while never comprising who you are or your fighting
spirit. For some, self-care is a vacation every few months.
For others, youth activism is their self-care.


15. Your fellow youth-led activists will become your best friends for life


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 And we are also a family


Disney / via Tumblr

Always be there for each other, through thick and thin. Especially older youth
reaching out to younger youth to make sure they know they
are loved and cared for.


16. Because our struggle is real being queer youth

Ellen / via Tumblr

Through all the social justice advocacy, we are still growing up as queer people in
America. Work with this, rather against it. It is much worse to pretend it’s not a thing.
Build-in supporting those in the coming out process and affirm each other in living
true into all you do.


17. Youth can be evil to other youth


Disney / via Tumblr

A young person once naively said to those in a group meeting, “well, youth don’t have politics
with each other!” Lol. Some youth will knowingly oppress other young leaders in order
to advance themselves in adult circles. This is some of the cruelest work. Best to avoid them.
They are very few in number, but these are the sharks who want to take your heart.
In order to crush grassroots youth empowerment efforts, adult organizations can hire interns
to undermine youth-led work. (#mercenaries4resumes) And along the lines of youth antagonizing
each other – some youth will contrive conflict where there is none. Instead of owning up to
responsibility in the movement they signed up to help lead, it can be easier to incorrectly
judge their counterpart leaders and youth activists as “others who are dangerous” or
“who just don’t get them,” and thereby an ‘enemy’ as well.


18. And some youth don’t know how to check their privilege


Disney / via Tumblr

Sure, cast your privilege and cultural appropriation all over town!


19. The stages of accepting youth leaders being apathetic to social justice
When a GSA President mentions that they could care less about social justice and
mainly want to hook up with the next catch-of-the-day, blood will boil even in the
most seasoned youth organizers. There are generally five stages to accepting
youth apathy. The lesson here is that some youth are inconsolable, but never give up –
always try to find other ways in. Sometimes that is waiting for them to develop more
in their leadership. Many young leaders can be socialized to be wholly disempowered,
although it’s not generally articulated that way. Activating them, and having them
understand their potential, can be a difficult process that requires patience. Yet, marching
in with a savior-complex is highly problematic too. There is a battle to be waged against
years of being told by adults (and themselves) that they are incapable of being equal
and respected partners at the community table. It may take a long time to get through
the dragon’s keep of their internalized adultism, and for some it will never happen,
but it can be conquered. Mostly though, it makes for very entertaining stories.


Disney / via Tumblr

First, the Mary Poppins eye roll. You are innocently stunned at their immediate
rejection to your suggestion of community engagement.


Disney / via Tumblr

 Quickly, you will exclaim how unforgivably small-minded and uncivilized they must be.

However, you are an incredibly patient and compassionate person. You ask them
for reasons why they think they are unable to ‘divert attention or resources’ to
social justice work that happens off-campus.
 In horror, you take a breath.

Disney / via Blogspot

Then you explain, in no uncertain terms, that they are in a leadership position
and responsible to their community to do something more than a bake sale or drag show.


20th Century Fox / via Tumblr

But your final plea is to no avail. A cost-benefit analysis will lead you to shush
them away from your outreach agenda – but of course open if they want to talk
or return. The work to be done is more important than extending all your resources
to help empower others who are not in a mindset to do so.


20. Youth who need constant praise or hand-holding will not last long


Disney / via Giphy

You stuffed twenty envelopes? Yay for you! Now, it’s totally time to twirl in celebration.
Thanks for not helping the rest of us write the darn letter, which took longer because
we thought you were coming to the work party. We have all the golf claps for you. Youth
who need constant praise to keep their minimal involvement will drain you. Youth-led
work is not for people who need applause. Expect to be seldom thanked, never paid, and
continue the fight from the bottom of the totem pole.


21. In general, when the world does not expect you to do anything valuable as a young person, you’re shoved into invisibility


Disney / via Tumblr



22. Telling-off the big bad wolf about his adultism is usually a bad idea

Stopping in the forest to tell-off the wolf about his adultism can have you ending
up as his dinner. It’s usually a bad idea. So, guard your basket, filled with
youth empowerment, for dear life and sprint through the forest.



23. You’ll likely never know why some adults
want to knock
youth down


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You may never know the reason why some adults just don’t like working with youth
as equal partners. Maybe they are jealous of the swanky red shoes you have on?
Just beware of the flying monkeys.


24. Youth are not pawns of adults because we choose our destiny
Our lives are not the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the
programming of what youth are supposed to be. Youth-led activists are not the
eventuality of an anomaly, which despite the sincerest efforts of some adults, has
been unable to be eliminated. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is
not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led us,
inexorably, to action. The answer is: our choice.


25. Don’t get bitter against all adults

Disney / via Imgur

Not all adults are trying to manipulate you to speak for youth, harm youth communities,
or disrespect you intentionally. If you don’t perceive adults to be the enemy, they
don’t become an enemy. It’s a much calmer approach too. Lesson: think happy thoughts!


26. If not all youth are at the table, then the table is not worth using

Isolated and divided, our youth fiefdoms (college groups, youth groups, youth
networks, etc.) will be easily taken over. Creating an accessible space grown
from the most marginalized parts of the youth community will root yourself in
the struggle and not above it. Selfless service, and keeping your heart close to
the ground, will allow you to build the inclusive, affirming, and productive
bonds you wish to build. As one roundtable, there is nothing that can defeat
us and no dragon we cannot slay.


27. Let your elders in – they can be your strongest advocates

If you need a reprieve, an escape to grandmother’s house is usually safe.
Elders know a great deal and can use old-school crossbows to threaten any
wolf if he dares to come near.



28. Meet youth where they are at

Disney / via Blogspot

Always do meetings in person. Talk on the phone over email. Connect with them
where they are at in their development – not where they should be, or where you
want them to be.


29. Be aware of your physical presence


Disney / via Tumblr

When meeting new students or youth, keep your physical presence in mind.


30. Remember, you are in a long legacy of youth-led activism

Disney / via Tumblr

Do justice to the sacrifices of youth before you, and pave the way for the next
generation in every move you make.


31. Know the history of your community



Read everything you can on the youth activist histories in the Civil Rights
and suffrage movements. Their story is your story.


32. Get used to youth saying no when you ask them to step-up into leadership,
for all the wrong reasons

Touchstone / via Photobucket

Students and youth will say no 95% of the time not only to getting involved in
youth-led activism, but also in leading it. It is generally not a natural paradigm
for youth to understand or embrace. Similar to any group doing marginalized constituency-led
work. It is much easier to say no, then yes. Yes is a commitment. Yes is time.
Yes is responsibility. Even though those are the precise ingredients for community
change, personal responsibility is rarer than gold. The ‘no people’ are followers and
important, but not always reliable, and will not lead an effort forward independently.
And certainly need hand-holding. Defeatism: the acceptance of failure without
action or struggle.


33. So, hold out for the rare yes

Build a community of the youth who always say yes, and anything will be possible.


34. You must have a process of how to identify the successors to
established youth activists

There is no avoiding the fact that youth, as a constituency, have quick
leadership turnarounds, of usually of 2-4 years. Without a strong leadership
pipeline, your community will wither and shrivel away. #mortality


35. Never give up

New Line / via Tumblr

Youth combating social injustice can be met with a community torn apart, apathetic
youth, or pervasive adultism. The ever multiplying barriers can seem to be
insurmountable. But it is absolutely possible to rise up and overcome these
challenges to impact change.


36. Diving into youth-led activism can be petrifying

Paramount / via Tumblr

Especially when there is no safety net below, and you have no idea how long
it will take to get to your goal.


37. But when you’re with your team, nothing can take you down

Disney / via Data3

And through the toughest of battles, you know you’ll succeed. A day may
come when the courage of youth fails, when we forsake our friends and
break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day! This day we fight!


38. Why do we keep fighting? Because youth can win!
You’ll often need to ask: Why do we do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting?
Do we believe we are fighting for something? For more than our survival?
Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? No, not Illusions.
Not vagaries of perception. We can win. It’s not pointless to keep fighting.
We persist because we choose to.


39. Yes, down the Rabbit Hole we go

Disney / via Tumblr

You finally earn the trust of a youth leader and make the ask to them: take on the
necessary leadership for the cause to move forward, or not. Some will say ‘no,’
choosing to go home and believe whatever they want. However, there will be the rare
few youth who are ready to say: ‘I’m ready to see how far the rabbit hole goes.’
This is the only way into wonderland. And the heart of why we do this work.


40. Always remember: justice and love are what we are fighting for


PSEC 2011



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