BEING THE HELPERS: How to Guide Young Activists by Carrie Firestone
I wrote DRESS CODED to shed light on the pervasive problem of unfair and unequally enforced dress coding policies that disproportionately target students who identify as girls. While the novel centers around eighth grader Molly Frost’s efforts to address her middle school’s unjust dress code, I intended the book to be a blueprint for student activism.
Our children are growing up during a time when massive social tectonic plates are shifting all around them. They are taking to the streets and demanding adults act on guns, climate, racism, poverty, and other big-picture issues confronting our world. Meanwhile, adults are grappling with how to help kids and teens take action while still keeping them safe and emotionally well.
Many passionate young people have a desire for change but get stuck in the weeds when it comes to following through with a clear strategic plan. I’m going to illustrate steps teachers, librarians, community leaders, and parents can take to help guide children and teens through a successful project-based initiative. These steps can be used for literally anything—from lobbying the school cafeteria to switch to compostable cutlery, to asking the local school board to adopt an anti-racist summer reading guide, to urging elected town officials to finance a community pollinator pathway or broadband access, to pushing for safer state gun laws.
For adults, it is important to strike a balance between getting too involved or taking over the project and not providing enough guidance to help facilitate a successful outcome.
- Listen. Really listen to how the teens talk about the issue. Ask them to share what they know and what they would like to know. See where the patterns are. For example, if they are talking about racism, what are they focused on? Is it how racism plays out in the hallways at school? Is it how it’s addressed in the curriculum? Is it how Black students are disciplined by staff? These patterns will ultimately determine where they choose to target their work.
- Help them find their people. Suggest they put out a call for “their people.” This could be an “is anyone else upset about climate change?” post on social media, or a “join us Monday for our first social justice club meeting” poster at school, or a “wear orange for gun control” day at the library. “Their people” could be one or two passionate classmates or a hundred young people from the community. Let them know there is power in numbers, but even two people working together can be a significant force for change.
- Create a vision. We often spend a great deal of time looking at a problem without allowing ourselves to truly visualize what our desired outcome will look like. Encourage the fledgling group to choose one piece of the issue they care about and make a vision board or a list of specific action items they would like to see happen around their issue. Help them decide on one specific action item to start. If they are working on climate change, suggest they focus on a local solution to one of the causes of climate change, such as idling vehicles, or food waste, or energy inefficiency in town-owned buildings. If they are working on systemic sexism, have them lobby district officials to revise or rewrite their school dress code (like the characters in DRESS CODED). If they are working on LGBTQIA awareness, maybe they can organize a Pride awareness event or campaign in their community.
- Research. People often embark on a project without taking the time to do their homework. Strongly suggest the young people research their topic, including the history, legislative action (local, state, and national), recent initiatives, and organizations working on the issue. It helps to see if there’s already a local organization on the ground that they can partner with or assist so they don’t reinvent the wheel. And when they take action, it’s essential that they know of what they preach.
- Use their gifts. Help each member of the group identify how they can use their skills and talents to contribute to the project. Break up tasks and delegate to the organizer, the good-with-phones person, the web designer, the graphic designer, the public speaker, the social media influencer, the statistics compiler, etc.
- Suggest the traditional route (to start). If they are trying to change a policy at school or in the community, suggest they outline their request at a school board or town council meeting, then follow up with a letter writing campaign. They can also lobby their state legislators, draft petitions, create dynamic educational videos and social media posts, and ask people to patronize businesses that support their cause.
Fundraising for organizations already doing the work can effectively call attention to a cause. If they are focused on immigrant rights, consider starting with a fundraiser for a legal aid organization in your community. If they are working on hunger, suggest raising money and awareness for a weekend backpack program at a respected local food bank.
If none of that moves the needle, they might want to move on to acts of civil disobedience like sit ins, walk outs, or strikes to call attention to their cause.
- Let them make mistakes. You may find your children/teens are so enthusiastic about their cause, they’re not ready to take direction from an adult. That’s okay! They may want to skip all the “boring stuff,” and organize a protest, spend a lot of time on signs, stand on the corner, and then realize a couple weeks later that their efforts didn’t bring the change they had desired. Instead of saying “I told you so,” applaud their hard work and remind them that all movements face hurdles and road blocks.
- Celebrate wins. If your young people are fighting to bring an anti-racism curriculum to your district and they succeed in getting their school officials to read STAMPED as a faculty summer read, cheer for that success. Let them know they may not have changed the entire curriculum YET, but they DID get a win! Do the same if they teach their community that food waste contributes to climate change and convince the town dump to open a compost center, or if they succeed in helping a gun control organization get a ghost gun bill passed at the state legislature. Remind them that every win is a step closer to their ultimate goal. Find a special way to celebrate each victory, and suggest a rest and regroup before they begin their next project.
- Keep it age-appropriate. Most importantly, communicate with the other adults in their lives and make sure their work isn’t negatively impacting their mental or physical health. Sometimes the most age-appropriate and therapeutic way to address big issues IS to focus on the posters! Creating art—murals, songs, plays, dance routines, photo exhibits, or stories—is one of the most powerful forms of social activism for people of all ages.
Working for change can be an exhilarating and uplifting way for young people to bring passion, purpose, and human connection into their lives, while making the world a better place. Project by project, tectonic plate by tectonic plate, our children are ready to effect systemic change. It is up to the helpers to help them.
Carrie Firestone is the author of the acclaimed young adult novels The Loose Ends List, which Kirkus Reviews called “a poignant and important story about compassion, love, and the decision to live life on your own terms” in a starred review, and The Unlikelies, which Bustle declared “the summer read that’ll remind you how much good there really is in the world.” A former New York City high school teacher, Carrie currently lives in Connecticut with her husband, their two daughters, and their pets. Dress Coded is her debut middle-grade novel.