July/August 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 6

download pdfDownload full issue pdf

Looking Forward to the 2014 Annual Meeting

Youth Activism in the Bay Area

Jessica K. Taft, University of California–Santa Cruz and Hava R. Gordon, University of Denver

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been an important site of progressive and radical social movement activity within the United States, including the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, and the Center for Third World Organizing’s model for community-based organizing. Furthermore, the Bay Area’s social movement history has been shaped by the enduring strength and legacy of student activism in the area. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement is often described as the beginning of the wave of college student activism that spread throughout the United States in the 1960s. In fact, the first student strike for ethnic studies occurred in 1968 at San Francisco State University.

Ferry Building in San Francisco (Photo Credit: San Francisco Travel Association/Scott Chernis)

Ferry Building in San Francisco
(Photo Credit: San Francisco Travel Association/Scott Chernis)

Contemporary Bay Area youth activism is not only informed by this earlier history and broader context of social movement vitality, but it also emerges directly out of a set of struggles that began in the 1990s. Youth of color in 1990s California were facing increased police repression and violence as well as pervasive media images that portrayed them as a dangerous threat. At this time astonishing numbers of ballot initiatives were introduced that attempted to prevent undocumented immigrants from public services, outlaw affirmative action in the university system, end bilingual education, and increase the imprisonment and punishment of youth via major changes to the juvenile justice system. Many of today’s youth activist organizations emerged during the fights against these propositions. Importantly, the 1990s were also an apex of activism around educational justice and calls for ethnic studies programs in area high schools and colleges.

The battle for ethnic studies across institutions of learning brought together junior high and high school students with college students who had access to ethnic studies and women’s studies courses. These college-aged and teen-aged youth partnerships were instrumental in transmitting critical knowledge about systems of oppression to younger students who had little access to these kinds of studies. For the younger students in particular, receiving this mentorship from college students was central to fostering a critical consciousness about social inequality and movement history, which these youth then carried into their future years of organizing.

Today’s Activists

Today, youth activism in the Bay Area is highly institutionalized. A multitude of community organizations either work entirely on “youth organizing” or include programs for youth within their broader work. Compared with much of the rest of the United States, Northern California has a particularly extensive network of organizations providing opportunities for youth involvement in activist projects for political and social change. There are many nonprofit youth activist organizations that are now well established, with their own institutionalized structures and curricula for political and activist education. Most of these organizations and programs are also explicitly youth-led and committed to the idea that young people can and should be the primary decisionmakers within these programs. In addition to the dozens of nonprofits that facilitate youth activism, there are countless more informal school- and neighborhood-based groups in which teenagers become engaged in activism.

Bay Area youth organizing focuses on a variety of issues and modes of activism: youth media and youth radio; countering the school-to-jail track; spoken-word poetry and the arts; educational, environmental, juvenile, and racial justice; immigrant rights organizing; groups addressing gender and sexuality; and many more. Research in sociology, education, political science, and human development suggests that youth activists develop important critical thinking and communication skills, increase their self-confidence and sense of efficacy, and maintain higher levels of civic and political engagement. In addition to impacting individual participants, youth activist organizations have achieved substantial political victories. For example, after 11 years of advocacy, agitation, and public pressure, Youth United for Community Action in East Palo Alto won the shut down of a toxic waste facility that had violated numerous health and safety regulations and damaged the community. San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development has improved conditions for young mothers and LGBTQI youth in the juvenile justice system. And high school and college students played a vital role in the organizing that led to the passage of the California DREAM Act, which gives undocumented students access to financial aid for higher education.

An Organizational Structure

Despite these victories, youth activists in the Bay Area face specific challenges distinct from those faced by youth activists in the 1960s. Given the growing institutionalization of youth social justice work in formal non-profit organizations, youth activists today find routes to political power and public policy that are shaped by the organizational logic of the 501(c)(3). Reliant on specific funding sources and often tied to neoliberal ideology, the non-profit structure and youth-oriented foundations can sometimes work against the transformational promise of grassroots youth organizing. As Kwon (2011) points out, these nonprofits and their funding agencies often perpetuate the idea of youth organizing as the solution to the problems faced by “at-risk” youth, while they seek to empower these youth. In this way, youth themselves (rather than the state) bear the burden of fixing broader social, economic, and political problems. These countervailing forces are particularly acute in the Bay Area, where youth organizing is strongly anchored in the landmark social movements of the 1960s while standing against the backdrop of state retrenchment.

Those interested in learning more about these topics are invited to attend a session with local youth organizers, “Social Justice Youth-Style: Bay Area Youth Activists’ Perspectives on Race, Education, and Coalition Politics,” on Sunday, August 17 at 8:30 a.m.


Kwon, S.A. (2013). Uncivil youth: Race, activism, and affirmative governmentality. Durham: Duke University Press.


Back to Top of Page

Print this article Connect on Facebook twitter

Featured Advertiser

Fellowships Available. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents