Youth activism isn’t a new concept. In fact, historians can trace the involvement of young people in advocacy back hundreds of years. But with every generation, more and more adolescents and young adults have been motivated to address the issues that plague the world around them, and have led the charge for change in myriad arenas: human rights, women’s rights and reproductive rights, civil rights, education disparity, gun violence, climate change and more. Today’s youth are the most social justice-minded generation yet, with highly visible young leaders taking a stand. Malala Yousafzai. Greta Thunberg. Thandiwe Abdullah. These young women, and their contemporaries, began tackling major societal woes before they even graduated from high school.
When you think about it, this makes sense. Schoolkids today are either a part of Generation Z (Gen Z), born from anywhere from 1997 to the early 2010s, or Generation Alpha (Gen A), which will include children with birth dates from the mid-2010s to the mid-2020s. Both generations have never known a world without the internet, and their early exposure to social media has allowed them to see role models their own age speaking up for important causes. “With digital technology, there is a lot of watching and observing—more than even 20 years ago,” says Che Marville, a diversity specialist and CEO of the Our Mind is Calm Academy. Kids in Gen A—which is projected to be the most diverse generation yet—are also largely children of millennials, a generation known for social consciousness on a number of levels. This means that socially minded messaging starts at home in many households. “Kids are being raised to question the status quo in a way that no generation has before,” says Marville. “They also have access to more resources than any other generation, and without the experiences and trauma of those who came before them, so it makes them uniquely positioned from a social justice standpoint.” So as Gen A ages and becomes the lion’s share of kids in school, this shift will also mean a change in how educators engage and inspire young people.
Schools like Upper Canada College in Toronto and Lakefield College School in Lakefield, Ont., are already making the move. At UCC, Principal Sam McKinney says, “Our commitment to service, pluralism and global-mindedness informs much of what takes place inside and outside the classroom, and we empower students to take action by educating about important issues and developing their leadership potential and problem-solving skills.” For students at Lakefield, the message in similar: “At LCS, we have roughly 400 students from seven provinces and more than 44 countries. We believe young people learn and mature best when they’re encouraged to embrace their individuality within a richly diverse and supportive community. With this belief comes a commitment to learning from each other and leaning into difficult discussions in order to grow our understanding,” says Anne-Marie Kee, head of school and foundation at LCS. As a result of this open dialogue and dedication to creating a strong sense of belonging for students and staff alike, student-led initiatives like the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Club, Safe Space Club and the Passionate Advocates for Gender Equality Initiative have been created at LCS. UCC has similar initiatives spearheaded by students: “Our clubs and activities [include things] like the World Affairs Conference (the longest-running student-led conference of its kind in Canada) and the student-run Amnesty International group, out of which a student-led truth and reconciliation council was formed, involving Indigenous elders, student leaders and faculty.”
Also, early in the pandemic, a group of UCC students recognized that the elderly in particular might experience loneliness and isolation during lockdowns and started a new club called Pandemic Pals, which allowed students to connect with seniors through tech. The concept has since expanded to include other schools.
This dedication to social justice is likely to continue as younger members of Gen Z and people of Gen A complete their education and go out into the world to seek understanding and to drive change for the better. “This generation understands context and point of view in a way that I’ve never seen,” says Marville. “It took older generations years to get to the place where younger people are now. That said, these kids can be hard on themselves and each other. If they can be taught to channel their passions in the right direction, and to care for each other, I’m confident we’ll see great things.” So what does this mean? It means that while this up-and-coming generation is finding their feet now—and it’s the job of parents and educators to support their seemingly inherent enthusiasm for social justice—they’ll definitely have a thing or two to teach us in the years to come.