Identity and solidarity: youth participation in social movements


By: Hina Haider


The emergence of social movements, the protests around peace, autonomy, feminism, human rights, have reshaped the world’s democracies. The United States has experienced many social movements such as the climate strikes to demand action for climate change, the civil rights movement to prohibit discrimination and end segregation, and the women’s suffrage movement to gain women’s right to vote. By uniting a large number of groups and individuals towards a common cause, social movements have become a strong collective force for promoting social or political change. The transnational movements against police brutality, for example, mobilize people across different races, classes, and ethnicities. The big question regarding historically successful social movements: How do movements emerge? How can a collective effort overcome the growing division between people, as we see between political parties today? How can activists come together to forge an influential movement? The role of collective identity in social movements, new and old, is the key.


Collective identity is an “individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution” (Polletta, 2001). More than a devotion to a shared cause, collective identity resides in the shared sense of belonging or “we-ness”. Movement emergence depends heavily on solidarity, the perception of a common identity. The construction of collective identity relies on the distinction between “us” and “them”. Activists often come together in opposition to a cause, issue, idea, or structure. To illustrate this idea of collective identity, the Occupy Wall Street movement utilized a popular phrase, “We are the 99%”. Although the “99%” referred to a broad and diverse group of people, different in many aspects, they were distinct from the other 1% that controlled the majority of the wealth. Despite the fact that it was the majority of the population against a small group of people, there was still a strong sense of solidarity, collective identity, and “we” within the movement. More importantly, collective identity is often recognized as an important mobilizer in social movements for unifying activists and individuals and allowing them to engage in collective action. 


Identifying youth as a collective identity allows us to explore youth activism through a new lens. The youth are deeply important to significant social movements due to high rates of youth participation. Not all social movements are youth-dominated, but of the ones that are, the youth play a fundamental role in mobilization. Collective identities usually form within an injustice frame, by identifying a condition or aspect that needs to be addressed. These groups often find solidarity due to a preexisting injustice, like racial inequality or sexism. The youth is not a marginalized group whereas gender, race, and sexuality are; however, youth find solidarity due to similar life experiences. Youth activism orients around youth-related issues, like dress code policies and education reform. The social movements that are youth-led focus on issues that resonate with them. 


The youth are often overlooked for political or civic participation; however, there is a strong history of youth involvement in social movements. In the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins were staged by students as a protest against segregation. Students played a major role in the protests and demonstrations in the antiwar movement during the 1960s. More recently, March for Our Lives was a student-led demonstration to fight against gun violence, particularly school shootings. Another example of youth activism is the protests against zero-tolerance policies and the school-to-prison pipeline. As collective agencies, the youth often mobilize for school and community reform. The surge of youth voter turnout in this recent election has been said to have a dramatic impact on the results. Although this victory should be celebrated, it is important for youth activism to continue.


If we extend civic participation beyond voting in elections, it becomes abundantly clear that the youth have consistently taken part in collective action in social and political movements. It is possible to transform the world beyond a ballot. Initiatives dedicated to youth empowerment and encouraging open discussions about topics like equity, race, and diversity are necessary to allow youth to mobilize their peers and communities towards positive social change.