My high school experience was mostly pretty average. I did the usual activities: AP classes, extracurriculars, hanging out with friends instead of doing homework. But my experience parted from most high schoolers when, in 2018, I was at school during a mass shooting. The infamous “Parkland Shooting” lit up the news cycle, with 17 people killed and more injured.
It was my senior year of high school. Prom plans and hopes for graduation melted away as the world turned into one of grief and political strife. Our town was overrun with press all looking for the best scoop on the newest mass shooting.
Although I was freshly traumatized and still grieving, I decided to pivot my attention away from that and towards the public. I scheduled interviews for a day after the shooting and threw myself into advocacy. Three days later, I found myself on stage in front of the Ft. Lauderdale courthouse calling for Congress to take action.
My peers and I who took the path of politics quickly gained attention. Our group began to receive interview requests, phone calls and offers for collaboration. We formed an organization– March For Our Lives– and planned a march on Washington in record time.
In the midst of all of that, we ran the media circuit. We appeared on everything from CNN to Ellen, and Fox News to Face the Nation. Within weeks a bunch of high schoolers had become the leaders of a national movement against gun violence.
As our platforms grew, so did our responsibility. Thousands of teenagers across the globe had been inspired by us to mobilize in their own communities. Different chapters organized walkouts and sister marches. Young people had proven their political power.
But what actually happens when traumatized teenagers are thrust into the national spotlight? After all, my personal politics were still growing. I hadn’t even finished my AP Government course, much less learned all the ins and outs of gun legislation.
The reporter labeled me an “activist” before I even had a grasp on the role. I resisted the term at first– I was just a grieving teen trying to speak my voice. I still don’t like the word now.
Still, I tried to learn. I constantly said I was the “expert in my own experience”, an easy reply when I faced criticism from people who disagreed with me. I wasn’t lying about my expertise at the time, but I overestimated exactly how far it could take me.
I was a public figure for a cause I was still learning about, and my growing pains were far from private. Every step I took and mistake I made had a real, tangible impact that could both help and harm people.
My peers and I weren’t the only young activists. According to a Fuse survey, in 2018 nearly a quarter of teen respondents had attended protests or rallies. In 2020, 32% of respondents had recently talked to friends or family about a cause. Teenagers have grown increasingly politically involved over the years, and many are engaged with some level of activism.
The Perfect Protestor
Mollie Davis had planned the walkout at her high school six days before the shooting. She was a student at Great Mills high school, and had been organizing after the shooting in Parkland. Great Mills was one of the first school shootings after Parkland, and was quickly swept up into a similar media frenzy.
Davis’ Twitter thread went viral after the shooting, with people pointing out the painful irony of her protesting gun violence days before only to experience it firsthand.
“I dealt with a lot of guilt without 1000s of people on the internet feeling guilty and sad on my behalf,” said Davis, “people were tweeting ‘she posted this a week ago! horrible!’ and looking back I’m like yeah, I knew that, I didn’t really need it to be repeated hundreds of times.”
The virality pushed her into activism– and the frenzy that followed. Davis said she only knew that Jaelynn, the victim of the shooting, was getting taken off of life support after student journalists told her.
“I was so angry. The thing I remember most from those first two weeks was how angry I was.” said Davis. That anger took her into what at the time was a ‘lifetime cause’ of gun violence prevention.
Yet Davis quickly realized it was unsustainable. “After a certain point it becomes just too hard to pour your heart out about your trauma only to go home and get a news alert about another school shooting a week later,” said Davis. “It feels like I exploited myself for nothing.”
Not only did Davis feel exploited, she felt responsible. While she knew she could only do so much, the cycle of cameras and expectations placed on teen activists made a young Davis feel guilty whenever another shooting occurred.
So Davis bowed out of the activism sphere, and moved into self care. “Walking around Capitol Hill holding back tears because I feel like the next school shooting is on me for not being persuasive enough doesn’t help.” said Davis.
Now, Davis feels that major GVP organizations have pushed smaller activists out of the organizing sphere. While her platform hadn’t grown to the massive size of other school shooting survivors, Davis still felt the impacts of the hectic space.
“In the aftermath of the shooting I felt like my community and my school were counting on me and if I fumbled my words in an interview or said something cringey and it got traction then I’d be failing them,” said Davis. It’s been years, but she still points blame at the adults who wanted to make traumatized children some sort of celebrity.
Who Gets To Be A Youth Activist?
Only a few young activists are given gargantuan, “celebrity” platforms. It’s no coincidence that the most “famous” teen activists are often white, wealthy, and non-threatening enough that they’re palatable to the public. Those who might not fill the requirements instead offer something highly consumable: a tragic story.
Malala Yousafzai is perhaps the first example of this tragic story turned teen activist. Yousafzai’s activism was borne after she was hit in the head with a bullet by a Pakistani Taliban gunman. As she recovered, the public sent waves of adoration and support her way.
Yousafzai took that public attention and turned to education rights activism. Her work eventually earned her a Nobel Peace Prize and the young woman soon became a household name. Yousafzai’s traumatic experience made her not only a powerful figure, but a powerful story for the world to consume.
As years have passed Malala’s story has grown into a sort of symbol instead of a person. She’s been the focus of multiple documentaries, penned a bestselling book, and started her own foundation. Her accolades are numerous, but the average person would be hard-pressed to detail her advocacy work.
The trajectory is common for young activists. The media chooses a few faces, and they quickly take on the award circuit and the media cycle. My own organization wrote a best-selling book and we’re even the focus of an upcoming documentary.
These things aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re a heavy burden to hoist upon still developing people. Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who’s become a global fixture, recently faced the unsavory side of such prominence.
Thunberg has millions of followers and Nobel Peace Prize nominations, but when she recently posted a ‘neutral’ stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict the backlash was swift. This wasn’t the normal hate that a youth activist receives, although that’s damaging in itself. It was a pointed criticism of a post that many asserted “said nothing” in the face of a pressing crisis.
While criticism is very much necessary for any prominent political figure, it raises the question of why Thunberg’s opinion on Israel and Palestine was so valuable. The activist is only 18 years old, an age where many are just beginning to build their political belief system. Her issue is climate change, yet she’s expected to have a public opinion on every topic.
Thunberg has moved beyond an activist around her issue and has been turned into a political pundit. Still just a teenager, Thunberg is now a global symbol of the “powerful teen”, ripe for the world to consume and easy to signal support for.
The Non-Profit Industrial Complex
As Black Lives Matter protests raged on across the country, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors spent millions of dollars on real estate properties across the country. The action was met with heavy criticism toward Cullors for her seemingly “lavish” lifestyle, and Cullors stepped down from the organization after.
Yet the growth of Black Lives Matter was not Cullors doing alone. The foundation said it ended 2020 with a $60 million balance after global protest over the death of George Floyd. As it functions now, the primary organization has become more of a philanthropic group than a radical organization.
It’s the natural transition for organizations as they grow, and many divide the more “grassroots” aspects to local chapters while the national organization takes on the front-facing responsibilities. Yet the transition also means that many once-radical groups must relax and soften to ensure fundraising dollars.
The trend is best explained by a term coined as the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex”, or NPIC by organizers. While the definition is hard to nail down, it’s best explained as the relationship between non-profits, businesses and the government.
The larger a non-profit the more money they need to function. Thus, the more fundraising they must do. While small-dollar donations are helpful, organizations often must focus on bigger targets like millionaires, large corporations and governmental institutions.
When organizations are beholden to these large donors, they must be made to cooperate with its image. Government funding means cooperation with the government, and corporate funding means representing the brand.
It’s this complex, then, that brings us to the philanthropic turn of many grassroots organizations. But the NPIC doesn’t quite explain the unique phenomenon of the crying child on national television or the magazine cover that follows.
The Youth Activism Industrial Complex
Instead, I introduce a new term to explain the situation: The Youth Activism Industrial Complex. After years of meeting every youth activist under the sun, I’ve learned about the unique intersection of the traumatized teen activist and the NPIC.
I’m not the first to name it– co-founder of March for Our Lives Cameron Kasky tweeted that the Youth Activism Industrial complex is “a great way to social climb” and a toxic culture.
The youth activism industrial complex takes the teeth out of social movements. Deeply hurt teenagers will organize, but the moment they’re picked up by the public the world becomes a whirlwind of attention. Brand deal offers and media requests will fly by the young activists and soon enough they’ll become another cog in the nonprofit regime.
The youth activism industrial complex has become a revolving door for passionate teens who want to make a difference. I experienced it at 17 years old, freshly traumatized and avoiding my grief. I listened to the people who told me I could change the world if I just spoke at their event.
I still believe I can change the world, but not in the way I used to. I don’t call myself an activist. It isn’t true. I was an advocate, sometimes an organizer. Yet I can’t claim a word that’s become so warped by the world.
The way towards revolution for young ‘activists’ isn’t from an Instagram partnership or brand deal. The back-patting of spaces built only to cycle young organizers and advocates through does little for outward progress.
Change comes through education and space to learn. Change comes when young people can simply be young.