June 14, 2018, openDemocracy
In teaching nonprofit management and advocacy, it is important to emphasize the external and internal pressures on those who are doing the hard work. A new generation is stepping up to change the world, and the generation in front of them is looking to share experiences and the values that defines the work.
Nick Engelfried, a millennial who started his climate change advocacy in college in 2005, is sharing his insights for his peers, as well as those before and after him.
He lists eight lessons: trust in students’ abilities; follow-up is hugely important; teach transferable skills; be specific about movement goals; partner with frontline communities; partner with older activists; have hard conversations about equity and inclusion; and youth need mentors, not sages.
His points are solid and time-tested, and unpacking them periodically to keep nonprofits and advocates on the best road for their journey can be useful for both the new generation and the one that’s still working in the trenches, as it has for years. The older advocates should note that taking things for granted and using methods that may be stale will not help to move the needle on issues like climate change or feeding children. At the same time, we are keeping our sights on the millennials, as well as the youth emerging to address the issues that affect them.
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The emergence of the March for Our Lives to fight gun violence, with 800 events across the country on March 24th, was indicative of the fervor and determination of a new generation of post-millennial advocates. The Women’s March the day after the president’s inauguration in 2017 included millions with every generation present. The indigenous people fighting pipelines in the center of the country also included all generations.
Engelfried acknowledges that he has moved from on from being a youth advocate now that he’s turned 30. In his own self-evaluation, he notes the changes in the climate movement in the last decade: a single youth movement has morphed into a coalition of several, addressing fossil fuel dependence, the rights of indigenous people to determine what happens to their land, and clean water initiatives.
The changes in methods of communication alone since many of us began our own advocacy journeys have been radical. It would be effective if we put his list into our nonprofits’ agendas. The following is his list again, with explanation and commentary.
- Trusting students’ abilities means empowering them, not emphasizing what they do wrong. In 2007, Thomas Friedman said that the college students of the day, while they demonstrated concern for the world, were phoning it in. It appears that the students in March for Our Lives have made the switch to being present themselves with their message.
- Follow-up is important in every phase of nonprofit work—with donors, with populations served, with communicating the message—but with youth movements, it demonstrates a maturity in message and a willingness to be around for the long haul.
- Engelfried’s point that experienced activists need to teach transferrable skills is obvious, although a teacher may add that if you teach it successfully, it is transferrable. Experienced activists and nonprofit managers should make a point to share the basics like meeting with elected and public officials and training for nonviolent demonstrations.
- Being specific about movement goals serves activist and nonprofits. Keep mission and goals in sight at all times; don’t let them be watered down by other issues or, with nonprofits, funders’ influence on programs. Legislation is created with a great deal of add-ons and giveaways to please stakeholders, so activists must keep their eye on the goal line. When you aren’t clear on the goals, you lose credibility, and it becomes difficult to keep the interest of the public.
- Partnering with frontline communities is a critical principle, especially in current youth movements, such as the movement against gun violence. As NPQ noted earlier this month, this has been challenging. For instance, in the Birmingham, Alabama metro area, the planned March for our Lives event initially had no Black speakers because school segregation was so severe that white suburban organizers had few contacts in the overwhelmingly Black public schools in the Birmingham school district.
- Older activists have valuable experience (and, yes, stories) to share as they remain active partners and co-participants in the movements themselves. Collaboration by example can be a powerful tool.
- The stories from the older activists should not just be from the rocking chair, they should be told from a mentor. As a young person, there’s nothing less empowering than listening to an older person tell you how real activism was done in the good old 1960s (or the ’90s, ’00s, etc.). Young people don’t need sages telling them what to do. What they can use are mentors—people who’ve left their twenties behind and have experience and knowledge they’re willing to share, but do so humbly and with the realization that youth also has its own knowledge and skills to share.
- The final point is one about equity and inclusion and hard conversations. While activists talk about social justice and include diversity in their beliefs, they should reach out to make sure that movement structure and leadership reflects these principles. In his experience, Engelfried saw more middle-class white people doing work in the climate movement in his first years in the climate movement. Now, they are beginning to address white privilege within a wide range of youth movements.
We appreciate the list from this now slightly older—but at 30, still fairly young—activist. It should probably be noted that youth activists tend to stick around and may themselves eventually become story-telling, experienced mentors.—Marian Conway