Opinion: Younger generations rise to activism

WNBA player Natasha Cloud speaks alongside Washington Wizard NBA player Bradley Beal prior to a Juneteenth march and rally in Washington in 2020.

WNBA player Natasha Cloud speaks alongside Washington Wizard NBA player Bradley Beal prior to a Juneteenth march and rally in Washington in 2020.

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In spring 2022, a national sample of 18- to 29-year-olds from the Harvard Youth Poll suggested that their midterm election turnout is likely to match the record-breaking percentage in 2018, with respondents distinctly preferring Democratic candidates. Notably, there was marked increase from previous surveys in those believing that “political involvement rarely has tangible results,” and over half asserted that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.” When asked if they ever felt “under attack,” nearly three-fifths of Black Americans, about two-fifths of Asian and Hispanic Americans, and about half of LGBTQ interviewees indicated “a lot.” The director of the poll concluded that there’s “a growing disdain for political discourse,” as “young people seriously question […] whether politics can even meet the challenges our nation is facing.”

While young activists are also disillusioned with the political process, they readily join organizations immersing themselves in improving modern society. Let’s consider.

Natasha Cloud is a top player in the WNBA, a pro league containing many competitors campaigning to get increased recognition for girls’ and women’s contribution to sports and for other equality-linked issues.

For this 30-year-old Black woman, one moment revved up her activism. In 2019 she and several teammates visited a local primary school, and a weeping librarian asked for help, “telling us the stories of how three bullets had penetrated their school building in one month. And their representatives weren’t doing anything.”

That incident, along with the massive protests in reaction to George Floyd’s murder in 2020, prompted Cloud to leave the WNBA for a season and focus on social-justice causes even though it was “probably the hardest decision this far in my life.” She added that to be effective as both a player and an activist, she couldn’t be “removed from my community and … not being able to be at marches, not being able to sit in rooms that are having these dialogues that need to be had about decisions being made moving forward. I want to be in those chairs.”

The next year Cloud returned to the league, continuing her activism but also signing a high-paying contract as her team’s point guard. Meanwhile, she often looked ahead to life after basketball, planning to serve as “a voice for the voiceless” — a person “represent[ing] a community that needs true representation and someone that understands what it means to be in their shoes.”

Because their experiences are very different from their elders’, there’s concern that young activists like Natasha Cloud will have trouble communicating well across generations. A journalist mentioned this to leftist Sen. Bernie Sanders, noting that he was “no spring chicken” but nonetheless “the overwhelming [presidential] choice of young voters in 2020.“ As with all generations, Sanders replied, it was important to show them respect.

It’s also relevant that this “is the most progressive generation in the modern history of this country.” Their members are “firmly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia — … very compassionate … believ[ing] in economic and social and environmental justice.” Sanders added that this is the only recent generation whose living standard fell below that of their parents’.

The findings of the Deloitte Global Zen and Millennial Survey of spring 2022 resemble Sanders’ conclusions about young people. Respondents from Generation Z, whose members currently range from 10 to 25, and millennials extending from 26 to 41 are often deeply troubled about such social issues as “the cost of living, climate change, wealth inequality, geopolitical conflicts, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” Rebecca, a 25-year-old American participant, listed the social issues that most concerned her, concluding that “[a]ll of these things prompt me to have at least a low level of stress basically at all times.”

American activists emerge from both age groups. Maxwell Frost, another 25-year-old who received a nomination to run for Congress in a traditionally strong Democratic district, appears very likely to be the first member of Generation Z to join that body. He’ll also be its only Afro-Cuban. Frost’s platform “focus[es] on expanding Medicare, ending gun violence, improving housing affordability, sustainable and affordable transit, environmental justice and the climate crisis.” The campaign has posed financial hardship, but he “can't imagine myself not doing anything but fixing the problems we have right now.” Frost suggested that he won the nomination “because of our message: Love. That no matter who you are, you deserve health care, a livable wage, and to live free from gun violence.”

Our modern world has persistent problems, which many young people believe politicians won’t resolve. Nonetheless there’s encouraging evidence of youths’ enthusiastic commitment to productive change that can readily provide tangible benefits for American society.

Chris Doob is an emeritus professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of a variety of books involving sociology and sports.