March 27, 2018

Weekend gun control protests a real 'turning point'

Shirley Steinberg, Werklund School professor of critical youth studies, on the next chapter of youth activism
On March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC and other cities, hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common-sense gun control in the wake of deadly school shootings in the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common-sense gun control.

Flickr photo by Mobilus In Mobili, licensed under Creative Commons

Shirley Steinberg watched the news very closely this past weekend.

The Werklund School research professor of critical youth studies and the author of a forthcoming book, Activists Under 30took a deep breath as hundreds of thousands of young people rallied in #MarchForOurLives protests in Washington D.C. and at like-minded protests around the world, including Calgary. She couldn’t turn away as youth (and adults) “took their grief and made it as productive as possible.” She believes it was an important moment — a real tipping point for youth activism.

“That raw passion at the march really stood out for me,” says Steinberg. “Seeing that innocence, but it’s no longer naïve innocence. You could see in the faces of the protesters that without taking charge of their own lives they could lose their lives. It’s a different world.

“I don’t think we reached a tipping point because anyone cares. We reached a tipping point because it is an election year in the United States and 18-year-olds vote. The timing of all these school shootings has been horribly fortuitous. Politicians have to face this reality of dealing with gun control that no one wanted to talk about,” she adds.

“The only thing that moves politicians is money and position. Now, it is in politician’s best interest to listen to students.” That may sound a little harsh, but Steinberg doesn’t pull any punches. 

With hashtags like #MarchForOurLives #enoughisenough, #timesup, and #metoo, young people are mobilizing and finding their voices. They’re using the movements to fight for change. The recent shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida didn’t just kill 17 and injure dozens, it left countless others with a sense of immense loss — and they are not willing to accept the status quo.

Protesters march in the wake of gun massacres that have become one of the defining features of life in the United States over the past 30 years.

Protesters march in the wake of gun massacres that have become a defining features of life in the US

Flickr photo by Stephen Melkisethian, licensed under Creative Commons

The next chapter of youth activism

“What we saw with youth activism in the United States in 2008 was that social media had a huge influence on the election of Barack Obama,” Steinberg says. “That groundswell was very strong, yet it lost steam after different dreams were shattered after the most recent U.S. presidential election. I think we saw the role of youth activism in Canada, too, with the election of a young prime minister, Justin Trudeau. He has given real a push to youth activism. But Canadian youth are also involved in fighting for some of the same causes we see in America, too.

“This next wave of youth activism is strong in that the one thing they are really in control of is social media. Youth are tapped in and have really shown in the last few weeks how strong they can be. They have shown they are stakeholders, supported by what would have typically been adult-led organizations. This is not youth taking over, but it’s about youth demanding a strong voice at the table,” Steinberg says.

“I don't understand why school shootings are not referred to as terrorism. Unfortunately, this has become a perfect storm. Graduating American high school students, many of whom are so unhappy and angry about the political climate and their current administration, have begun to harness their anger in such a constructive way to fight for gun control.” 

Steinberg has just put the finishing touches on a book that focuses on youth leadership and advocacy. Called Activists Under 30: Global Youth, Social Justice, and Good Work (Brill Publishing, May 1, 2018), the book contains two sections. The first half showcases 15 global youth activists and details their efforts to affect change; the second half contains entries authored by high school students who are part of the Werklund School of Education’s Youth Forum, which meets semi-annually and has provided funding support for the student initiatives highlighted in part two of Activists Under 30.