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On the Shoulders of Giants: The Lineage and Growth of California’s Intergenerational, Multiracial Youth Movement

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The grandmotherly figure didn’t seem to belong at the gathering of teens and twenty-somethings meeting in Delano for the 2018 Central Valley Freedom Summer conference, which focused on building political power among youth of color in the region. She could have been any boomer, a group not always well regarded among the newest generation, as evidenced by their catchphrase “Ok, boomer.” But this boomer was Dolores Huerta — a person who had proven herself standing with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s. Hers was a face the young people recognized from countless photographs.

When the youthful audience spotted her, you’d have thought their favorite Instagram influencer had suddenly appeared in their midst. They were starstruck and excited, and as they thought it over, they were also deeply honored. Here was someone who had advanced labor rights, racial justice, women’s rights and immigrant rights — movements for social justice that they were just now joining. It was a shining moment of alliance between boomers and Generation Z. But it wasn’t the only moment — it wasn’t even the most significant in the story of youth organizing.

Huerta is among dozens of men and women from her generation who created groups advocating rights for people of color when they themselves were young people— and who have grown old while advising new generations to take the fight for social justice into a new century. Sociologists David Meyer and Nancy Whittier coined the concept social movement spillover to describe how earlier movements influence the ideologies, strategies, tactics and structures of subsequent movements. Without a doubt, contemporary youth organizing groups can trace elements of their organizing repertoires — as well as commitment to cross-racial solidarity and political analysis — to those of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation. Young people, then and now, have taken great risks to stand up to the legacies of slavery, colonialism, unbridled capitalism and U.S. imperialism.

Since the 1990s, many 501(c)3 nonpartisan grassroots youth organizing groups have emerged, and over the last two decades, these groups have become an important training ground for young social movement leaders. Today, over 120 youth organizing groups in California address a range of issues affecting low-income young people of color, including those of immigrant and refugee parentage. Some also run sophisticated campaigns to get out the vote. The early and ongoing commitments of movement elders helped set the stage for these multiracial, multigenerational efforts that address many of the pressing issues facing our nation today.

Among these movement veterans are Millie Cleveland, David Hilliard and Anthony Thigpenn, all former members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded in 1966 in Oakland and quickly developed chapters across the country. In its prime years, the Black Panthers radicalized and inspired political action among Black youth and their allies. After the party was disbanded, some of its leaders remained as local activists in Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, counseling young people of color seeking to address their communities' concerns.

Anthony Thigpenn in action at California Calls | Courtesy of California Calls
Anthony Thigpenn in action at California Calls | Courtesy of California Calls

Millie Cleveland, a Detroit native, sold the Black Panther newspaper as a teenager and helped lead the 5000+ students at her high school in opposing the war in Vietnam. She witnessed firsthand how young people got caught up in violence, were criminalized and had limited positive outlets to develop their talents and skills.  For much of the 1990s, Millie sought solutions through her work at the Violence Prevention Project of the West Oakland Mental Health Center. A talented organizer, she leveraged her longstanding ties to local labor unions for the benefit of youth organizing efforts. She also drew on her conflict mediation skills to bring together racially diverse youth and broker relationships with decision-makers.

At age 24, David Hilliard was invited to join the Black Panther Party by childhood friend and founder Huey P. Newton in 1966. Thirty-plus years later, he brought an “I was there” account of the party’s origins, purpose and accomplishments to a new generation. Working with various colleagues, Hilliard put together tours of key historical sites in Oakland related to the Black Panthers. Along with other related curricula on Black Panthers, this tour often led participants to consider the relevance of earlier struggles to today’s issues. It likely is no coincidence that the Young People’s Agenda, a statewide platform developed by Y.O.! California-affiliated youth organizing groups in the summer of 2020, somewhat mirrors the 1966 Black Panther 10-point program.

Students line up in a Panther-like formation after successful walk outs of thousands of Bay Area youth defending land and life, demanding justice and resisting various propositions including Prop 187 and 209. | Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi
Students line up in a Panther-like formation after successful walk outs of thousands of Bay Area youth defending land and life, demanding justice and resisting various propositions including Prop 187 and 209. | Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi

In Los Angeles, Anthony Thigpenn has shared decades of social movement experience with young organizers.  He began fighting for racial justice while in high school and joined the Black Panther Party soon after.  Thigpenn was a central player in advancing a multiracial approach to addressing the systemic inequalities that resulted in the 1992 L.A. Uprising. As he fine-tuned approaches to grassroots organizing that leverage voter outreach, Thigpen has served as a guiding force in the voter education and mobilization work of Power California, the network of youth organizing groups led by co-author Sanchez. Meanwhile, Eric Mann, a Jewish-American who began organizing for racial and economic justice at age 21, directs the Strategy Center and has trained numerous young leaders in South Los Angeles and beyond.

Youth Together leaders from Skyline pictured with Yuri Kochiyama | Courtesy of Veronica Terriquez
Youth Together leaders from Skyline pictured with Yuri Kochiyama | Courtesy of Veronica Terriquez

Veteran Asian American activists also committed to training younger generations. Yuri Kochiyama was a tireless civil rights leader known for her pioneering work in building Asian-Black solidarity alongside Malcolm X. She also helped to win reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Into her nineties, she reached out to generations of younger Asian Americans and other young leaders of color. Pam Tau Lee and Lillian Galedo participated in the historic fight against the eviction of elderly Asian American residents in San Francisco’s International Hotel in the 1960s and ’70s. As founders of the Chinese Progressive Association (Lee) and Filipinos Advancing Justice (Galedo), both women have provided ongoing support to Asian American youth organizers. David Kakishiba, son of a U.S. Japanese internment camp survivor and community activist, ran successful youth programs for ethnically diverse Asian American youth beginning in the mid to- late 1970s. As the executive director of EBAYC and a member of the Oakland School Board, he has worked behind the scenes to support youth-led causes. He also was a strong backer of Sacramento’s Measure G, a statewide effort by California youth to win local government investments in youth programming.  Another key figure is Warrick Liang, an anti-war protester and participant in college ethnic studies struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. More recently, he ran the Richmond Youth Project, which jump-started youth organizing among Southeast Asian and other racially diverse youth in the City of Richmond.  

 Pam Tau Lee with YouthMOJO members at Chinese Progressive Association, circa 2014 | Chinese Progressive Association
Pam Tau Lee with YouthMOJO members at Chinese Progressive Association, circa 2014 | Chinese Progressive Association

California’s youth organizing groups also owe a great deal to the United Farm Workers and the related Chicano Movement, which offered a model for immigration and labor movements of the 1980s and early 1990s. Dolores Huerta was the valued right hand of UFW founder Cesar Chavez and the group’s prominent legislative advocate. Besides her impromptu appearance in Delano, Huerta has supported youth-led campaigns since the 1990s, and today her Bakersfield-based foundation sponsors a youth organizing group. María Elena Durazo, a former UFW volunteer, prominent labor leader, and now California State Senator, has long been a supporter of the undocumented youth movement.   Gabriel Hernandez, an activist in the Central American sanctuary movement and Unite HERE and SEIU organizer, always found time in the 1990s and 2000s to guide Chicano and Central American youth organizers. In the same period, Chicana activist Betita Martínez opened her home to young Bay Area activists and their events, mentoring organizers in the 1990s and early 2000s. Bill Gallegos, a Chicano civil rights activist since the 1960s and former Brown Beret, has encouraged contemporary youth to engage in environmental justice efforts. Philanthropic leaders with experience in the UFW and Chicano Movement have often supported youth organizing efforts.

Betita Martinez with Bay area youth leaders | Courtesy of Nancy Hernandez
Betita Martinez with Bay area youth leaders | Courtesy of Nancy Hernandez

In San Francisco and Los Angeles, community leaders have built social networks to assist large numbers of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees who fled U.S.-supported wars in their home countries.  Other activist groups helped (mostly) Mexicans gain amnesty immediately after the passage of the Immigrant Reform and Control Act and then turned their attention to the growing undocumented population. In a period of increasing opposition to immigrants, some Latinx and Asian American civil rights organizations have devoted greater resources to immigrant rights advocacy, including grassroots organizing of immigrant and refugee youth.

All of these individuals and their activist colleagues have built a civic infrastructure and public leadership pool that links civil rights, immigrant rights and refugee rights, as well as labor and environmental justice organizing. When youth organizing groups emerged onto the political scene in the 1990s, this movement infrastructure helped to get them up to speed on a host of issues affecting people of color, including immigrants. 

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The Emergence of Youth Organizing in California

In the early 1990s, non-profit 501(c)3 groups dedicated to youth emerged as formal organizations for the first time. Leaders of the broader social movement infrastructure had included young people haphazardly in their efforts over the years, but now they decided to develop specialized groups. Why? The civil rights community had sounded the alarm regarding the policies that were contributing to a growing gang problem, interracial violence and the crack epidemic. These issues resulted in the criminalization of Black youth and children of immigrants and refugees — among them Mexican, Central American, Asian American and particularly the children of Southeast Asian refugees. In California, the earliest youth organizing groups emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Their mission was to give young people the skills to lead policy change efforts that would improve opportunities for themselves and those in their communities. Often with the support of elders who were once the young activists of the ‘60s and ’70s, a new cadre of young organizers came forward to recruit members and organize an agenda. Gen Xers (like ourselves) stepped up in the wake of the L.A. Uprising, Proposition 184 (Three Strikes), Proposition 187 (denying immigrant public benefits), Proposition 209 (ending affirmative action), and Proposition 21 (convicting minors as adults).

In San Francisco, Margaret Brodkin, a well-known local activist with roots in New York’s settlement houses, established Youth Making a Change(YMAC) at Coleman Advocates. It wasn’t the only early group, but it had staying power. The program responded to a community-driven campaign involving high school-age youth that won voter approval of Measure J (the Children’s Amendment). This initiative set aside 2.5% of the assessed value of local property taxes for children’s services and established the new San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Families to disperse the funds to organizations serving children and youth. While YMAC began as a way to involve youth voices in directing those funds, its campaigns are now focused on school reform, health and juvenile justice. 

Across the Bay in Oakland, a coalition of youth advocates (including David Kakishiba and Millie Cleveland) came together to achieve voter approval of Measure K (also known as the Kids First Measure) in November 1996. Setting aside 2.5% of the city's unrestricted general fund for children and youth programming, Measure K did not necessarily lead directly to creating youth organizing groups, but it pointed to the possibilities for engaging adolescents and young adults to shape local policy priorities.

Millie Cleveland with Oakland Youth Together young members at a retreat | Courtesy of Jamileh Ebrahimi
Millie Cleveland with Oakland Youth Together young members at a retreat | Courtesy of Jamileh Ebrahimi

Besides Oakland Kids First! these contemporary Oakland youth organizing groups emerged in the mid-1990s with the support of social movement veterans, and they have continued to engage youth of color through the 2010s:

  • Youth Together was founded in 1996 to address root causes of interracial violence
  • Californians for Justice was founded in 1996 initially to address voter education and then shifted its focus to youth engagement in justice campaigns
  • Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) was founded in 1998 with the mission of engaging a diverse Asian American youth population in education and racial justice efforts.

In South Central Los Angeles, now-Congresswoman Karen Bass and Chicana civil rights activist Sylvia Castillo developed a youth program, South Central Youth Empowered thru Action (SCYEA), as part of the Community Coalition.  With support from community leaders and movement giants like Cheryl Grills, Denise Fairchild, Mary Lee, Bob Wing and the late Tom Hayden, SCYEA started intentionally organizing young people in 1994 to address social conditions that provoked interracial violence between Black and Latinx youth. As a young SCYEA organizer, Marqueece Harris-Dawson (co-author of this piece) received significant coaching from movement elders. He and young fellow organizers engaged Black and Latinx high school students in addressing common issues, such as policing in and underfunding of local schools. 

Now Congresswoman Karen Bass (center) and co-author Marqueece Harris Dawson top left corner, and other SCYEA youth in the 1990s. | Community Coalition
Now Congresswoman Karen Bass (center) and co-author Marqueece Harris Dawson top left corner, and other SCYEA youth in the 1990s. | Community Coalition

In East Los Angeles, InnerCity Struggle proposed alternative solutions to crime and violence, capitalizing on young people’s energy to overturn Proposition 187, a 1994 statewide ballot proposition that sought to deny government services (including access to K-12 education) to undocumented immigrants. The group also engaged Latinx youth (including those with gang affiliations) to improve local schools.

Educational issues and non-punitive approaches to youth violence prevention were a common focus of early youth organizing. Environmental justice was the cause for Youth United For Community Action, established in 1994 in East Palo Alto. Communities for a Better Environment’s Youth for Environmental Justice was established in 1997. It serves small cities in the southeast portion of Los Angeles County. Also founded in 1997 was Khmer Girls in Action in Long Beach, an organization that engaged Cambodian girls on behalf of reproductive justice. The organization's mission was later expanded to include boys, and its focus shifted more broadly on race, class, and gender justice.  Meanwhile, CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, established WiseUp! in 2001, one of the first youth organizing groups in the nation to focus on undocumented youth.

These early efforts set a pattern for engaging young people in winning campaigns across the state. Some staff and members went on to start new organizations or to provide technical assistance and training to new groups. Others became leaders in foundations and local governments that funded the field of youth organizing. Many of the young adult leaders formed valuable, if sometimes short-lived networks (such as STEP, Schools Not Jails statewide, as well as regional networks such as YOC in Southern California, Fund our Youth Project in the Bay, ESPINO in the Central Valley). These networks led to statewide powerbuilding and an intersectional approach to organizing. By the 2010s, young leaders from the Central Valley benefited from this growing infrastructure, as well as counsel from elders once active in the UFW, such as Cecilia Mendoza, who began fighting for labor rights and racial justice as a young woman in 1966.

In the 1990s, a dozen or so groups were focused on youth organizing; in 2020, more than a hundred and twenty report engaging young people in campaigns. In the 1990s, organizing issues that were salient to youth included racial inequality, the criminalization of young people in schools and communities, the failure of public institutions to meet the needs of young people and the attack on the rights of immigrants. In 2020, these issues remain central to young people’s campaigns, but the context has evolved. Today’s youth organizing groups reflect the interests and concerns of youth coming of age during a pandemic in an era of heightened economic inequality, emboldened white nationalism and climate and environmental crises.

Their ranks diminished by age and illness, some veteran civil rights activists and union leaders continue to offer support and guidance. In exchange, today’s youth, who often complain about boomer attitudes toward gender and LGBTQ issues, have introduced older generations to more inclusive thinking. While challenging their elders, youth also learn from the past.

Group founders have brokered relationships between younger people and those select veteran civil rights leaders who are willing to listen to and learn from younger generations.  Given the lasting implications of the current pandemic, ever-growing economic inequalities, racial violence, ongoing exclusion of immigrants and refugees, backlash against women's and LGBTQ rights and environmental degradation, it is clear that more than ever, we need an intergenerational, multiracial movement that centers the interests of youth to advance an inclusive vision of social justice and a more representative democracy. Youth-organizing groups are helping meet that need.

Top Image: Dolores Huerta, Veronica Terriquez and Central Valley youth leaders in Delano in 2018 | Courtesy of Veronica Terriquez

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