Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards
Ground Building

What is youth organizing?

Photos from Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (@D.A.Y.U.M_) at Lobby for our Lives in collaboration with March for Our Lives Michigan, February 2022.

In the summer of 2020, young people—and particularly Black and Brown youth—were the organizers behind the protests that filled our streets, screens, social feeds, and public consciousness after the murder of George Floyd. Those demonstrations are now known as the largest US protest in our country’s history. Again, in 2022, Generation Z announced their power and made headlines as they turned out to vote and influence the midterm election and become the “firsts” in their generation to hold public office in Congress and local government.  

These are the stories about youth organizing that have dominated headlines over the past two years. While these events are historic and important moments in this generation’s organizing story, there is more to youth organizing. 

Youth organizing is about young people being supported individually and collectively to build their power and to activate it to make change. It’s about young people developing their leadership skills to take on meaningful leadership and decision-making roles. It’s about young people being at the table setting policy agendas. It’s about young people designing solutions to our toughest challenges. And it’s about young people being able to build social networks and collaborate with others to achieve a shared vision. 

In Detroit, youth organizing is all of these things. From young people securing federal funding to implement systems-level solutions. To youth building local and statewide coalitions to advocate for statewide policy that reimagines education. To youth surveying their peers and convening conversations to build awareness around community priorities, ensure youth voices are heard, and hold people in power accountable. And it looks like young leaders developing and supporting other youth through community organizing training, healing workshops, and mutual aid. 

DAYUM youth organizers advocate in Lansing, MI for safe storage laws and funding mental health supports in schools.

Youth organizing today is led by Generation Z. Gen Z is between 11 and 26 years old, born between 1997-2012. They’re the largest generation in the world and the most diverse in America. They’re poised to be the most economically powerful generation and they’re driven by the value of authenticity. They’re a generation shaped by online connectivity, COVID-19, school shootings, racial and political strife, and yet, they remain hopeful and motivated. They are engaged and savvy at understanding systems, the intersectionality between the biggest issues we face, and they are savvy at organizing.  

At The Skillman Foundation, we’re living into a new strategic framework that centers people and systems. We know that in order for education systems to serve young people, Detroit youth have to be at the table and to create new tables to achieve equitable education systems. In Detroit, this means we must center Black and Brown youth.  

We’re building out a strategy to invest in the power of young people by supporting a strong youth organizing field in Detroit. We’ve started by listening to and being led by young people. There’s no other way to do it. We will continue to listen to local organizers to seek opportunities to design bold strategies with Detroit youth.  

Coming soon: A report on youth organizing in the Detroit area 

In addition to learning from local organizers, we’re also engaging with national experts and funders who have been supporting youth organizers for decades. We’ve partnered with the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) to conduct a landscape scan to better understand the current state of youth organizing in Detroit and opportunities to contribute to the strength, power, and sustainability of youth organizing. The scan was informed by a series of interviews with youth organizers, youth organizing and youth development leaders, and a survey of Michigan foundations. Before we release findings from the scan, we’re sharing it with an advisory of local youth organizers and the adults who support their efforts to share what resonates and what else needs to be considered and to provide their own set of recommendations on how philanthropy can partner to support their work. 

Stay tuned this spring when we will share a report of the landscape scan, what we heard from the advisory of local organizers, and how we can go forward together. 

Lindsey Barrett

Lindsey Barrett is a partnership manager of Ground Building with The Skillman Foundation. She leads the Foundation’s efforts to build power with Detroit youth.

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