What Fires Young Progressives’ Activism? A New Study Asks Them

[H/T Colorlines]

Last week, the Applied Research Center, released “Millennials, Activism and Race,” a report on the motivations of young people who are active in progressive politics. Following up on last year’s research, Don’t Call Them Post-Racial, this report provides more information about what draws 18 to 30 year olds to social justice work, and how people with progressive politics deal with race as part of a larger political worldview.

The study is among the earliest bits of research conducted with participants in Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, and some of the most interesting findings reflect the subtle but important differences between those activists and others who have been active as staff or volunteers of community-based organizations.

The findings are based on nine focus groups held in five cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Portland) in 2011 and 2012, with participants who either worked/volunteered for a progressive organization or participated in the Occupy movement. The goal of the research was to better understand the attitudes and motivations of millennials who are actively engaged in social justice—why they engage, what they see as barriers to an ideal society and opinions on whether an explicit racial justice lens is essential.

Here are some highlights:

  • Politically active, young progressives most often find themselves in the work as a result of family influences. They aren’t having grand epiphanies at lectures by prominent people or even recruited heavily by their friends. Their understanding and commitments come from observing or experiencing daily struggle.
  • People active in Occupy and those active in community organizations are similarly disenchanted with the electoral system. Their frustration was less about the Obama administration than it was about the dysfunctionality of the electoral and legislative systems generally.
  • All our participants named a dominant doctrine of individualism as a critical barrier to progressive change, but people involved with Occupy had a more explicit critique of capitalism as a system than those involved in other organizations.
  • Most respondents felt the need to address the racial dimensions of inequality, but they both wanted to include other systems in that analysis, and had few tools with which to bring in race with any combination of other systems like class, gender and sexuality.

You can download the full “Millennials, Activism and Race” report at ARC.org/Millennials.