Global Youth Activism definitions

Definitions of youth activism are in order. An activist is someone who cares enough about an issue to risk significant costs due to her or his actions, even death as in Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine. In Kiev, the police snipers killed over 77 demonstrators in Independence Square in just two days in 2014, followed by outrage from the EU and US. Activists (meaning active in a group) are likely to be well-educated, more affluent than average, and confident like Yara, according to a European Social Survey of 15 European nations in 2002.[i] Women were more engaged than men. Young people were more active in sports and educational groups than older people. Youth were more like to engage in “cause-oriented” political action than older people, but were less interested in political groups than middle-aged voters.

A youth movement is “organized and conscious attempts on the part of young people to initiate or resist change in the social order,” as defined by youth studies Professors Richard and Margaret Braungart. For a history of youth movements, see the book website.[ii]

Social movements are described by political scientist Sidney Tarrow as “strangers at the gates,” groups that organize outside of mainstream politics and culture to replace a dominant belief system and challenge authority. Activists form networks to create a social movement, which involves collective organizing against the established social structure for more equality or well-being, often using public protest. Earlier nonviolent protest movements set a precedent for recent uprisings when they ousted the British from India in 1947, Gamel Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, dictators were overthrown in the Philippines, the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Communist dictatorships were ousted in Eastern Europe, legal segregation was ended in the US South, the Vietnam War ended, and official apartheid ended in South Africa.

Significant social change is defined by sociologist Anthony Giddens as “modification of basic institutions during a specific time period.” Change is created by a social movement in “contentious politics,” a sustained collective intent to challenge authority, meaning that a single riot or demonstration isn’t a movement.[iii]  It’s effective when it produces a new reality. Writing about the psychology of social change, Australian psychology professors explain social change is associated with a change in identity, a sense of who “we” are. We’re influenced by our social identities, by the leaders of groups we belong to such as religion, political orientation, and gender. An example, Serbian activists in Otpor (they ousted their president in 2000) said their organizing style is not to focus on issues but on identity, to make being arrested “sexy,” for example.

Australian Global Youth leader Jeremy Heimans reported, “Movements that I have been involved in founding such as GetUp, Avaaz, and All Out [and], depend on people telling each other compelling stories of shared struggle and support. …Movements help create and cement new identities and new forms of citizen and consumer power.”[iv] Pope Francis’s proclamations about the sins of economic inequality no doubt changed the thinking of some of the 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as others who read his speeches. Right-wing Americans called him a Marxist.

Popular culture also influences identity and how we think about social change as when rap music provided theme songs for the uprisings and activists  were influenced by the film V for Vendetta. British professor Steve Hall observed, “consumer culture had almost entirely displaced class and politics as the principal source of young people’s identity.”[v] However, Chilean student activists said there’s was not a student or workers’ movement, but both. Group identities influence cognitive processes, so social change occurs “when critical consciousness is mobilized, people move away from the uncritically accepted version of ‘reality’ towards considering the possibility of transforming their lives.” Globally people realized in 2011 they could topple the power elite.

Social change can be initiated by shifts in technology (as emphasized by futurist Alvin Toffler), as in the use of newspapers in the European revolutions of 1848 and ICT in the recent uprisings. Their successes changed global belief that people have more power and resources than they imagined. Other influences on social change are economics, politics, religion and other ideas, and demographic changes such as the youth bulge in developing countries. From 1970 to 2007, 80% of conflicts occurred in countries were 60% or more were under age 30.[vi]

Rebellions, revolts, and uprisings don’t change basic political structures, so they’re not revolutions. A Tunisian activist named Rafik explained that they had a revolt not a revolution, because in the latter the majority of the people take part in a struggle and it achieves its goals. Revolution: Marx taught that a revolution involves violent overthrowing the ruling class and requires the “class overthrowing it to rid itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” A revolution destroys the “machinery of domination,” by the “development of an alternative network of relations,” according to André Gorz, a French Marxist. African American Studies professor Robert D.G. Kelley defines revolution as “a fundamental change in the status quo.”[vii] He thinks the change from the Great Society of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and their “war on poverty” to neoliberalism is an example of a revolution for the worse. He faults consumer culture and blind patriotism for loss of freedom in this era of the war on terrorism.

Activist Douglas Ruskoff stated in Open Source Democracy (2003) that he prefers the term “renaissance” meaning new concepts and stories. Zapatista Subcommadante Marcos says rebellion is a celebration that belongs to humanity. The Zapatistas are the most widely referenced direct democracy revolution where local councils govern communities. They were probably the first to make mask-wearing part of demonstrations in recent times. An Argentinean activist explained that the Zapatistas taught them how to build a new world, not through changing governments, but “through autonomy, self-management, and alternative communication, using globalization in reverse.”[viii] Revolution is a long gradual process rather than an event; a widely quoted statement from Marcos is, “We walk, we do not run, because we are going very far.”

Were the uprisings kicked off in 2011 revolutions? They are a beginning. They changed consciousness about people power, and some got rid of long-lasting regimes, but most didn’t succeed on large-scale changes in “the system,” as Spanish Indignados referred to neoliberal capitalism. The military still rules Egypt with General Sisi in control, disallowing freedom of speech and assembly, putting youth activists and journalists in jails, as well as Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators.Tunisia is the best example of democracy replacing a corrupt autocrat. A young Tunisian woman explained after Ben Ali left, “The revolution is in constant movement; each day it gains new contours and changes.”[ix] Many young activists around the world made the same point three years after the revolutionary event.

Yemen is splintered by tribal and regional factions and former President Saleh still pulls some strings out of office, Libya’s militias rule their local fiefdoms, Syria is in bloody civil war, Bahraini Sunni rebels are oppressed, Greece and Spain suffer from austerity cut backs, and Brazil went ahead with huge expenditures on world sporting events. Transportation fare increases continued, as in Rio in 2014. Global finance continues making major decisions behind the scenes, as President Eisenhower warned.

Dutch graduate student Jerome Roos, the founder of online ROAR Magazine, argues that the task of the revolutionary is to destroy the capitalist state. He adds that no revolutionary power that gained state power in China, Nicaragua, Bolivia or Mexico or a SYRIZA government in Greece challenged capitalism. An event like the Egyptian uprising of January 25, 2011, creates a rupture, but is not a revolution. He advocates creating local direct democracy as the Zapatistas did in Mexico. He acknowledges that “pure decentralization alone is not enough,” but will require councils to provide coordination.

Alterglobalization: also called anti-globalization (but activists say they’re not anti-globalization except for neoliberal capitalism), and global justice movement. It opposes international neoliberal capitalism.


Arab Spring: refers to the series of revolutions starting with Tunisia in 2011. Some Arabs consider this a western or “orientalist” term and prefer Arab Awakening or Arab Revolutions


Civil Society: The third sector outside of government and business, including volunteering groups and other NGOs.


Football: Refers to what only the US, Canada and Australia call soccer.


Hajib: Muslim women’s haircovering worn in layers of scarfs


ICT: Information and communications technology

Neoliberalism: The dominant global economic policy associated with privatization of public assets, deregulation, free trade and reduction in social welfare thus increasing economic inequality. It’s associated with Professor Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago and international organizations like the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund formed in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. It’s criticized by the global justice movement as the enemy of the global uprisings.


Niqab: Muslim women’s facecovering except for the eyes


NPR: National Public Radio broadcast in the US


Sharia: Islamic law governing secular and moral matters. For example, criminal law in Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia law.


Social media: Internet applications built on Web 2.0 that allows users to generate content.


Squat: Occupation of an abandoned building, using it for living and community gatherings


EU: European Union


GLBT: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered sexual preference


GA: General Assembly


GDP: Gross Domestic Product is the value of a country’s production


GMO: Genetically modified food organism


ICT: Information and communication technology including the Internet


IMF: International Monetary Fund


MB: Muslim Brotherhood


MENA: Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, mostly Muslim


NEETs: Young people not in education, employment or training


NGO: non-profit, non-governmental organization, part of Civil Society


PPT: Political Process Theory


SMT: Social Movement Theory


UNICEF: The United Nations Childrens’ Fund


UNDP: United Nations Development Program


USAID: US Agency for International Development


WHO: World Health Organization


WTO: World Trade Organization

[i] Pippa Norris, “Young People and Politcal Activism,” research paper, October 7, 2003.

Click to access COE.pdf


[iii] Sidney Tarrow. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[iv] Jeremy Heimans and Lee-Sean Huang, “What Structures Really Change the World?’, Youth Participation, January 16, 2013.

[v] Steve Hall, “Why Aren’t Unemployed Young People Rioting in the Streets,” The Conversation, May 16, 2013.

[vi] Lionel Beehner, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts,” Council on Foreign Relations, april 27, 2007.

[vii] Benjamin Holtzman, “An Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley,” In the Middle of a Whirlwind, 2008.

[viii] Tomás Astelarra, “Piqueteros: the Revolution Without Face or Time,” ROAR Magazine, January 3, 2014.

[ix] Alcinda Honwana, Youth and Revolution in Tunisia. Zed, 2013, p. 82.

1 thought on “Global Youth Activism definitions

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution | Global Youth Transform the Future

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