Meet Gen Z activists: Called to action in an unsettled world

September 29, 2020 GMT

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Lily Mandel has already lived through a national security crisis, two recessions, nationwide civil unrest, a looming concern over climate change and school violence and a pandemic.

She’s 17.

“We’ve had this idea of growing up thinking, what the heck is this? What the heck is going on?” Mandel said. “This whole time we’ve been growing up thinking this isn’t right. This is crazy. We need a whole new system.”

Mandel is just one of many young people whose life experience has pushed her to fight for change. She’s the organizer at Bucks Students for Climate Action and Protection of the Environment, an activist group she created in her hometown of Warwick. Since its creation in 2019, BSCAPE’s members have hosted forums, held climate strikes and raised money to build a greenhouse before 2021.


“It’s really just this fresh set of eyes that Gen Z has,” Mandel said. “OK, you guys might have been raised to think that this system benefits you, but you’ve been brainwashed. Let us give it to you straight.”

Generation Z refers to people ages 13 to 23, beginning with people born in the late 1990s. Although most don’t remember 9/11, this generation grew up in its aftermath, felt the effects of the 2008 recession, and are now the first kids to navigate social media, which, as the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing protests against police brutality have shown, is an activism force of its own.

And now, all of that is against the backdrop of COVID-19, the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years.

So perhaps it is no surprise that Gen Z has a unique view of the world, said Jason Del Gandio, a professor of communications and social influence at Temple University.

“It’s like this fluctuation in social expectations of Gen Z,” Del Gandio said. “When you live through the first Black president, I think it’s going to affect how you perceive race relations. Gen Z’s also lived through the legalization of same sex marriage and lived through the first and second iteration of Black Lives Matter. Along with the climate catastrophe, that’s a lot to deal with.”

About 70% of young people in Gen Z want an activist government, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. Two thirds of this generation say Black people are treated less fairly than white people, as compared to about half of baby boomers and Generation X. Gen Z is also more progressive than previous generations in their views on gay marriage, climate change and gender identity.


Members of Gen Z organized marches nationwide after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. Seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg travels the world bringing awareness to climate change, while 23-year-old Malala Yousafzai leads the feminist movement in the Middle East.

“Gen Z is simply being called to action because of the conditions they’re living in,” Del Gandio said.

Kiley Allgor first stepped into activism in 2018, when 24 school shootings killed or injured 114 people, according to data collected by Education Week. That year, Allgor organized Lenape Middle School’s walkout to protest gun violence and helped to organize a protest with Bucks Students Demand Action, a group fighting against gun violence, which was attended by about 3,000 people.

Allgor, 17, works as the social media manager for Bucks Students Demand Action. She’s a member of BSCAPE and Doylestown Youth 4 Unity, a new group formed in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in April.

As a social media manager, Allgor understands the impact technology has on her generation.

“Young people have the most access to education through technology,” she said. “Our minds are still malleable so we process information and form our own thoughts rather than keeping the same mindset.”

From the 1960s to now

Though the activism of Gen Z is unique in many ways, it does bear some resemblance to the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s, said Del Gandio, who wrote “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists.”

“When we think about the 1960s, it’s often marked by radical activism, radical social change, and often led by the youth. I think that’s sort of what’s going on now,” he said. “In both time periods, there are very polarized politics, and a polarized society is more active and more people want to get involved because of what they’re experiencing. Gen Z will parallel this militancy in the demand for social change.”

Chris Bursk said he sees the same passion for social change in today’s generation as he did when he protested during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

“The beginning of a movement has a belief in possibility and belief that voices will be heard,” Bursk said. “That is what I am seeing happening now.”

After demonstrating as a young person, Bursk became a professor at Bucks County Community College, where he started the Human Rights Club, in which student members planned on-campus protests and other social justice initiatives from 1975 until 2005.

Still, Del Gandio and Bursk agree that the largest difference is who is orchestrating the change.

“The joy of these protests today is they are organized by students. In most cases high school students,” Bursk said. “That has been so inspirational and so liberating to see.”

In the 1960s, Del Gandio said, movements often lacked diversity. Most activism was led by white men — another difference taking shape in 21st century activism.

“Nowadays, I see a lot of young activists that are really outspoken about making sure multiple voices are represented,” Del Gandio said. “If you come from a place of privilege and take a step back, and those who did not come from privilege stick their heads forward, it leads to concepts like intersectionality and allyship. Those weren’t present in the 1960s.”

In 2020, young activists are focused on representing all groups of people who are impacted by a certain issue and support people with different racial, ethnic, sexual or gender backgrounds than themselves, Del Gandio said.

This also reflects the growing diversity of America: Nearly 70% of the country’s largest cities are more diverse than they were in 2010, according to U.S. News and World Report. In addition, Gen Z, as a group, is more diverse than previous generations. About half of Gen Zers are white, while more than 60 percent of Millennials are white, according to the Pew Research Center.

Betsy Watson is a 20-year-old Black woman who’s part of the LGBTQ community. When she was attending Central Bucks West High School, she witnessed several things that shaped her activism.

During her senior year, a member of the football team was rumored to be gay and the team threatened to jump him. Around the same time, students at Central Bucks East hanged a dead deer on the bleachers with a noose. On a day-to-day basis while in high school, white students would regularly used the N-word around her.

“I felt so disheartened. There was this hate for no necessary reason,” Watson said. “It felt like people hated me just for existing in the world, and being Black was too much space taken up in the school. I lost a lot of hope at that time, because I didn’t see a world where I would be ever considered valuable or intelligent or beautiful. It was hard.”

Watson founded the P.E.A.C.E. (People for Equality, Acceptance, Cooperation & Empathy) club at CB West, which brings students together to improve the school and world by focusing on cultural awareness and social justice. Now, as a 20-year-old communications student at Bucks County Community College, she’s continuing her activism on social media by posting educational content on Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok, where she has more than 17,000 followers.

“I think the good thing about Gen Z is that they’re not being silenced,” Watson said. “There’s power in numbers and Gen Z is coming together for the greater good. I do think they’re going to be the generation of change. They’re seeing things from different perspectives and they have social media on their side, which shows you different outlooks on the world.”

Social media activism

Gen Z grew up with social media — Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006 — which gives them a widespread digital platform no generation has had before, Del Gandio said.

“The speed at which social media moves is mind boggling,” he said. “You’ll be sitting today on Twitter and not heard of an issue and then within 24 hours, there’s thousands and thousands of retweets about this one issue. Technology allows us to keep real time and these tweets or TikTok videos or whatever the case may be, can go across the globe within a matter of minutes and allows us to see each other in each other’s struggles.”

For Watson, her exposure to so many different causes through social media has led her to get involved with several different causes.

“My biggest passion is justice for Black trans women, but also I’m very passionate about income inequality, helping the poor and the homeless, and I also care a lot about animal justice,” said Watson.

What’s most important to her, Watson said, is “overall equality and human decency.”

For Kashyap Nathan, a 16-year-old student activist at Great Valley High School in Malvern, social media is also a helpful tool for on-the-ground organizing.

“I feel strongly about social media. In terms of activism it’s played a major role,” he said. “If you look back at the Arab Spring, which was some time ago, that was all on social media. It has major implications. It’s done a great job of furthering the activism efforts of a lot of people.”

Nathan is a fellow at the Germination Project, a progressive organization in Philadelphia aimed at giving young people the tools they need to be leaders in their communities. He’s passionate about fighting for immigrant rights and ending systemic racism.

Mandel also said social media has played a huge role in her activism and how people in her generation interact.

“We can quickly share ideas which creates new conversations,” she said. “If you’re not having those conversations and you’re not constantly having an influx of new information you’re bound to keep with the traditions of the past.”

She said social media has made it easy for people to learn about injustices like the murder of George Floyd and keeps her generation educated and engaged in ways that were impossible before the invention of the internet.

“Social media allows things that are happening to be really displayed in ways that it wasn’t before,” she said. “It’s essentially like going to a library and reading every book in there.”

What’s next?

Even with new tools like social media, this generation of activists has faced its fair share of obstacles.

Causes led by young people can sometimes cause those in power to write them off, Nathan said.

“People are hesitant to take you seriously,” he said. “If I go and make a point, if I bring up a data point or draw a connection in a meeting, people would be more inclined to take that point (if I were older).”

Nathan has met with state lawmakers and proposed amendments to city council. Allgor met with Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick to talk about supporting a bill that would prevent gun violence.

Despite bureaucratic roadblocks, these Gen Z activists are hopeful for the future.

“Something that I’ve learned is that we need systematic change and not reform to fix these things. One bill has not ended systemic racism, or environmental racism, it’s always just a sprinkle on the top of things,” Mandel said. “That might help people alleviate some problems, especially in the public eye, but not necessarily solve the problems. In order to change a systemic issue you have to really go for the foundation of the system.”

“(We) have this hope and energy and passion for activism,” Watson said. “Small change is still major change. I hope people don’t lose sight of that.”


Alyssa Moore contributed reporting.




Information from: Bucks County Courier Times,