12 Ways Young People Organized for Human Rights in 2014


It’s the end of the year, and thus the perfect time to reflect on the ways in which young people in 2014 led the charge for change in the human rights and justice movements.

1. Young people were at the forefront of racial justice activism in 2014. Throughout the history of this country, Black men have been killed at the hands of police officers, often while unarmed, in the name of “safety.” Safety for whom, we don’t know. But what made 2014 different was not the brutality of these murders. Nor was it the unwillingness of grand juries to indict in high-profile cases like the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement. What made this year different was a grassroots movement, largely led by youth organizers, flooding the streets in Ferguson, conducting die-ins in New York City, shutting down intersections in Washington, D.C., blockading freeways in Oakland, and walking out of classrooms around the country. Young people of color continue to be active leaders and participants in this work to declare that Black lives matter and that police violence must end.

2. Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for women and girls and especially access to education, was at age 17 awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism, making her the youngest recipient ever. She began campaigning for education for girls at age 11, and first drew international attention after Taliban fighters shot her in the head. This year Yousafzai traveled to Nigeria, issuing an appeal for increased funding for education after more than 200 girls were abducted from a school by Boko Haram terrorists. Yousafzai’s bravery and moral clarity serve as inspiration to young feminist activists around the world.

3. United We Dream and immigrant youth demanded that the president issue an executive order on immigration. After foot-dragging that extended past the November elections, President Obama made good on a promise to issue an executive order extending relief to undocumented immigrants. The order protects up to five million undocumented residents, and especially the parents of children who have citizenship, as well as the parents of DREAMers brought to the country as children. As with other controversial executive actionsnotably one in which the president refused to extend religious discrimination into an executive order barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by federal contractors—Obama was compelled to act because a left flank used direct action to inject clear moral analysis into the debate. Leading that flank was United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization that, among other direct actions, led activists to get arrested outside the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). In July, activists from the group were escorted out of the Netroots Nation conference while interrupting a speech by Vice President Joe Biden with the chant “stop deporting our families”; after a pause, the vice president encouraged the audience to applaud them.

4. With one mattress, Emma Sulkowicz turned campus sexual assault into a striking piece of performance art. Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, turned her rape on campus into an unavoidable activist conversation with a piece titled “Carry That Weight,” in which she carried a twin-size dorm mattress around campus to draw attention the fact that her rapist, a fellow student, had not been expelled. Her piece inspired a Carry That Weight Day of Action on more than 100 campuses, with thousands of students carrying mattresses to call for reforms to the way colleges address sexual assault.

5. Know Your IX kept leading a grassroots movement to demand accountability on campus sexual assault. There is no one better to organize against oppression and injustice than those most directly affected, and the growing organization Know Your IX—a reference to Title IX, under which educational institutions receiving federal funding must address sexual assault as a civil rights obligation—does just that. The survivor-led and student-driven group, founded last year, remained at the forefront of efforts to inform students who have been sexually assaulted of their rights and demand that the Department of Education improve its enforcement of the law. These efforts played a clear role in a new national dialogue about campus sexual assault and the unveiling of the It’s On Us campaign by the Obama administration in September.

6. Young people participated in and led abortion speak-outs. 2014 continued to be a challenging year for abortion rights in the legislatures; as of December 1, states had enacted 23 new restrictions on abortion access. However, advocates are actively working to create culture change around abortion and break stigma through storytelling. Young people were among the 100 individuals participating in the first-ever live-streamed abortion speak-out hosted by the 1 in 3 Campaign, which is run by Advocates for Youth. Abortion speak-outs also occurred during in-person events on college campuses, including the University of Michigan, the University of Central Michigan, and the University of Central Florida, where hundreds attended.

7. Emily Letts filmed and shared her abortion, demystifying the process. Letts, a counselor at Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey, filmed her abortion and shared the video online, an act that showed a common medical procedure as it truly is. “I could have taken the pill, but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I wanted to show it wasn’t scary—and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story.” The video has been watched more than a million times.

8. Alex, an 8-year-old-boy, rapped about coming out as transgender to his mom. The confluence of rampant discrimination and inadequate legal protections for transgender people hits youth particularly hard; more than half of transgender youth will attempt suicide by age 20. But in one short viral video released by Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp for transgender youth, an 8-year-old boy named Alex seized a difficult narrative and turned it into a source for hope. His rap details his positive story of coming out as transgender to his mom, and ends with a call that “We all deserve freedom, love, and respect!”

9. Pro-choice students at Catholic-affiliated universities fought back against restrictions on reproductive and sexual rights, and free speech. One of the primary faces of today’s pro-discrimination movement is the religiously affiliated university. Playing a prominent role among those are Catholic-affiliated colleges attempting to hold a line for the archconservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2014, students and their allies at these institutions fought back. In Indiana, three Notre Dame students using the pseudonyms Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Jane Doe 3 joined a brief opposing their university’s lawsuit against the birth control benefit. In the District of Columbia, students from the group H*yas for Choice were removed by campus police twice this year for tabling in peaceful protest of the Vatican’s stance on reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights; these efforts have led the group to grow in popularity and size.

10. A Florida youth council fought for access to comprehensive sexual education, and won. The Broward County Youth Council, a leadership group of ten high school, college, and graduate students, fought long and hard to have the Broward County school board adopt comprehensive sexual education standards, and that fight culminated in 2014 with a big win. Students in the county will now receive medically accurate, LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education. As local student Keyanna Suarez told CBS Miami after the vote, “There’s not gonna be a taboo about anything. Everyone’s gonna be able to open up, ask questions, and get the info they need to make these decisions because some parents aren’t giving them the education at home.” Broward County is the sixth largest public school system in the country.

11. Colorado high school students walked out of class to protest a proposal to downplay the role of protest in U.S. history. In September, hundreds of high school students in the Denver area walked out of their classrooms in protest of a proposal to focus history curricula on topics that promote respect for authority. “I don’t think my education should be censored,” Tori Leu, a student who protested at Ralston Valley High School told the Guardian. “We should be able to know what happened in our past.” One month later, the Jefferson County School Board passed a compromise proposal that essentially overruled the proposed change.

12. The Harry Potter Alliance tackled income inequality with creativity. The alliance, which engages Harry Potter fans, used the recent success of The Hunger Games to engage young people in income inequality activism. The Odds in Our Favor campaign uses the #MyHungerGames hashtag to encourage people to share their personal stories about class-based injustice. The organization has also compiled pictures of youth using the story’s three-finger salute to protest income inequality.

Baker’s dozen bonus: RH Reality Check continued to foster and share the voices of young people on the important issues of sexual and reproductive rights, health, and justice. As a proud servant leader of the RH Reality Check young writers program, I would be remiss not to mention the commitment of this publication to young people. It was on full display in 2014.

In July, Associate Editor Regina Mahone traveled to Detroit to attend the Youth Sexuality Media Forum; you can read her resulting report on how the media can better cover youth sexuality here. President and Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson spoke to 19 young reproductive rights activists from around the world at a Youth Champions Initiative in Palo Alto, and Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy and Investigative Fellow Zoe Greenberg attended in-person as well; you can read Imani and Zoe’s fantastic conversation with four of the youth champions here.

The participants in our young writers program receive mentoring, intensive coaching, and editorial support beyond the bounds of what traditional freelance writers receive, and publish pieces on RH Reality Check at a competitive rate. What follows is just a small sample of what those participants published this year. Emily Spangler, a high school student in Illinois, wrote about how other young women can get involved in politics; Marcus Lee, a student at Morehouse College, discussed ways men can embrace a culture of consent; Erin McKelle, a student at Ohio University, took a look at the consequences of young people not voting; Lizzie Fierro, a high school student in Texas, spelled out how we can combat sexism in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects; and Briana Dixon, a student at Spelman College, took a nuanced look at the news of a couple who sued a sperm bank after mistakenly receiving a Black sperm donor. (Insert group hug!)

Contrary to a narrative that young people are apathetic or lazy or too busy texting to care about human rights, in fact young people are at the helm of the movement for justice for all people. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they pull off in 2015.

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