Social justice and sanctuary: Youth activism programs as settings for development and learning

by Tom Akiva and Lori Delale-Connor

Young people have played an integral role in almost every important political movement in history. Although social media can help to foreground and coordinate youth activism, before the teens from Stoneman Douglas High School took to Twitter to advocate for gun control and created a movement and before African American teens nationwide spoke out against violence and racism against Black people as part of #BlackLivesMatter, youth were central to the United States Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. High school students advocated against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Youth helped lead revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Venezuela, and Iran. In short, youth have and continue to decry injustices, and call for change in many arenas through participation and activism.

However, the young people engaged in activism are still adolescents, and as such, still experience the same developmental and identity-related changes that all youth undergo. Indeed, their identities are salient and developing as they engage in activism (likely this comes as no surprise to caregivers and adult program leaders!). Understanding the connections between youths’ activism and their identity development is an integral part of supporting youth activism. Over the past few years, our research team has had the opportunity to study local youth activism programs with these connections in mind.

Broadly, youth activism or youth organizing programs involve young people, mostly high school-age youth, in events and campaigns to promote greater societal awareness and improvement. Most programs aim to develop critical consciousness; that is, they help participants learn about and question historical and political aspects of society. In addition, programs usually have a particular topical focus – for example, a program may emphasize educational justice and equity for African American school students.

Pittsburgh has dozens of programs that support youth activism, focused on a variety of topics. For instance, several programs target educational justice; others focus on female empowerment or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ+) awareness and support. Over the past three years, with the support of the Heinz Endowments, our research team worked closely with eight youth organizing programs in Pittsburgh. We asked a simple overarching question: Why do youth get involved in activism? More specifically, we asked, do youth come for social justice reasons; that is, do they come because of an altruistic desire to make the world a better place? Or do they come for sanctuary and belonging; that is, do they attend in order to feel like a part of a group?

Drawing from surveys that 64 youth activists completed on iPads (more video game and less math test than paper surveys), several pizza-fueled, hour-long focus groups, and observations of youth and adults at each program in action, we found that both social justice and sanctuary were important to youth engaged in activism programs. As shown in the chart, social justice work was the most highly rated motivating factor, followed very closely by sanctuary, then the adults that youth both engaged with and learned from comes in third. Although learning that youth engaged in activism for social justice reasons was expected, the strong importance of sanctuary was somewhat surprising.

Youth defined sanctuary in two ways. They indicated that they wanted a protected space; this is the well-researched area of psychological safety. But they also described wanting an affirming space — where aspects of their identity were celebrated. For example, one youth stated, “Being in this space, it just – it helps me know who I am, and everyone respects that.” 

Further, we found that reasons of social justice work and sanctuary were intertwined. In surveys, about 78% of the youth marked both social justice work and sanctuary as important reasons they attend (only 12% indicated social justice work was important but sanctuary was not). In focus groups, youth often mentioned sanctuary and social justice in a single comment.

This is the intersection of social justice and sanctuary. Youth were interested in belonging to a group…and in improving how that group is treated in the world. The youth activism programs provided sanctuary for aspects of youth’s identity that are often marginalized in society. From this sanctuary emerged social justice motivations. Understanding both is central to nurturing youth activists, as well as the programs that support both their work and identity development within these spaces. In the words of one youth activist, “[I] feel like I have a place to like be so I can speak my mind, and I did youth organizing because I feel like nobody really could hear us.”

The full study is published here: Akiva, T., Carey, R. L., Cross, A. B., Delale-O’Connor, L., & Brown, M. R. (2017). Reasons youth engage in activism programs: Social justice or sanctuary? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 53, 20-30.