Teen activism

Neerja Singh

We ask our primary school students to save the earth and not burst crackers on Diwali to encourage their social sensitivity. When the same children turn teens and want to participate in the Shaheen Bagh protests or use social media to speak up for the rights of the transgender people, we tell them, “That’s not your job, just study and get into a good college!” In college, some of them continue to suffer pangs of conscience but there is no role model to follow. Come graduation and the young adults enter the workforce and the desire for change begins to die down. They end up adulting like the generations gone before. And the deeply embedded injustices in society continue, no one has the time to analyze and challenge them.

Quite surprisingly, India has a rich tradition of youth movements, nonetheless. And today, when one in five young people suffer from mental illness, there has never been a greater time for generational empathy with the young throwing the gauntlet, when they do. In other words, when a teen takes to Instagram to create awareness about a social issue, rather than scoff at the armchair activism, he or she deserves adult support and encouragement. They cannot be prepared to inherit the earth when they are so grossly underrepresented in the political process across nations. If they are to come out of their present political apathy and disenchantment, they need support to participate in social justice so that parliaments begin to cater to their interests and concerns.

The young are increasingly impatient with the older generation being just inert with hopelessness. A growing number of teenage activists are taking matters into their own hands. These angry voices speak through social media and they may not be dismissed any more. The time for surprise and shock to hear teens being politically articulate is over. Believe it or not, there are teens today who ask what is the point in attending school when the earth’s capacity to nurture life is falling apart. They would rather sue governments for inaction and push policy reforms. Law actions, civil disobedience, name it and the young are in the thick of it.

It is all moving younger. Not just coding but the fight for fairness to all. This Instagram link for instance https://www.instagram.com/youactproject/?hl=en works on “sparking teens into policy advocacy.” Consider some cases making the headlines today. Marley Dias, 14 founded #1000blackgirlbooks campaign when she was 11 in 2015. She said she was sick of reading about white boys and dogs and decided to donate 1000 books to her peers that featured black girls as the main characters. The campaign was a massive success, and she’s since been honoured on the Forbes Under 30 list. Her mission is to help youth to “open up to people who are different, to understand and to see and grow from those things we don’t understand.”

‘Desmond is Amazing’, 12, is committed to garner LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) youth visibility. He performs to inspire fellow tweens and adults to “be yourself always, no matter what”. Mari Copeny, 11, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in March 2016 about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Obama responded to her letter and flew to Flint which put the crisis in a national spotlight. These teen activists and others like them have not just created awareness, they have followed it up with concrete action.

Not only do these teens educate their friends and family about important social causes, a growing number take personal action to live more sustainably. They donate and volunteer time to issues that interest them. I know some who have boycotted companies completely because they do not resonate with their values. My daughter does not buy from Amazon! It is teens worldwide that are holding companies responsible for their actions. Corporate social activism is a by-product of teen expectations of businesses. The message is loud and clear. Individuals and the government have the primary responsibility of “cleaning up” yes, but the young are more likely to purchase products from companies that support causes.

Teens are more in touch with the wrongs that need to be righted in the new world. So, if your teen is voicing concern about the state of things, if they are bringing in stray animals, if they are asking you to fund your domestic help’s education, if they insist that you use your influence to speak in favour of the weak…stop and listen. This is a sign of hope for us all. For the woke teens, it is not just about money and fame and the fairy tale life. It is about changing something and challenging the status quo. The teens have a strong sense of fairness.

But here is the paradox. The average age of the Indian population is 27 years and that of the Indian MP is 57. The age difference is of more than a generation. It is the young that are the “excluded majority” today even though they are the cohort that have pushed increasing education, globalization and digitalization of the world. Their concerns are gender equality, climate change, poverty, unemployment, over-population while the traditionalists are still struggling with the ancient issues of casteism and religious intolerance. Many find the adult world disconnected, non-committal and disrespectful. While adults pontificate on TV panels, it is the teens mobilizing on topical issues. They deserve respect.

Youth quotas in parliaments and lowering of eligibility age ought to be considered. The young have been ridiculed for lazy, mouse click activism but the war of ideas is being fought on bandwidths, not so much on the streets anymore. WhatsApp and Instagram are routinely dismissed and trashed but that is where mental shifts are happening. Therefore, full marks to a teen who is using these to push a message of positive change rather than sharing just filtered food photos and dance videos!

There is tremendous pressure on young people today to challenge things adults should be addressing.
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful,” Malala Yousafzai.

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at

neerja@neerjasingh.com and https://neerjasingh.com.

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