Stowarzyszenie Projektów Międzynarodowych „INPRO”

Youth activism and its place in civil society

Youth activism and its place in civil society

The expression “civil society” was coined by Aristotle and it served to define a community with a shared set of values and norms in which the individuals are all equal and subject to the same laws. The aim of civil society according to him is – using the Greek term: Eudaimonia, which can be translated in many ways, such as happiness and human flourishing. According to him, human beings are political animals by nature, not simply because they are social animals or because they benefit from each other’s help, but because according to him human beings can only flourish in a politically organised community (the polis). For Aristotle, participating in social and political life is the key to happiness and the apex of human accomplishment.

Centuries after Aristotle’s time, participation in the social and political life of civil society has become rarer among young people. Youth today have grown disillusioned with politics and have become less and less involved in activities that generate social change. However, young people should not be underestimated. They are advocating and organising themselves all around the world. Just this year in the United States, as a reaction to the mass shooting in a Florida school, students have been loudly advocating for stricter gun control laws. This wave of protests is fueled by the tragic situations families face after the loss of a child, and also by the outrage survivors of the shooting feel. They have been organising anti-gun rallies across the country. Although the outcome of these protests is still uncertain, they are indicators of a change in thinking of young Americans regarding gun control laws.

Another example of young people actively taking part in civil society is the story of Joshua Wong from Hong Kong. In 2011 Joshua Wong organised a student activist group called Scholarism in  protest to the changes in the school curriculum which were approved by the Hong Kong government. In 2014 when the Chinese government refused democratic concessions to Hong Kong, namely reforming the electoral system, Joshua Wong and his student movement organised a series of boycotts and sit-ins against the decisions of the Beijing movement. These demonstrations were later to be referred to as the Umbrella movement. Joshua was arrested and detained for 40 hours by the Hong Kong police for his involvement. However, his arrest sparked a further series of protests and demonstrations, making Joshua the face of the movement at only 18 years old. The influence he made in Hong Kong with his activist group was such that in 2014 he became Time magazine’s Person of the Year. These days Joshua is a politician affiliated with the party Demosisto which he established together with other student activists who helped him during the 2014 protests.

Finally, we turn to the UK, where in 2010 a large student-led movement protested against spending cuts in education and a raise in university fees. The organisers of the demonstrations where the National Union of Students and the University and College Union. On the 10th of November, 2010 between 30.000 and 50.000 demonstrators gathered in central London. On the afternoon of the same day, they rallied outside the headquarters of the Conservative Party and about 200 demonstrators broke into the building and occupied it for an hour. Unfortunately, these actions brought no positive results. Extensive cuts were made to education and university fees were raised from £3000 to £9000.

So, if we take Aristotle’s teachings, and compare them to the examples of youth activism stated above, we ask if only success in activism is necessary for humans to flourish. And we would argue that it’s not. Activism gives a voice. Whether or not demonstrations are successful, what is important is for young people to show that they are not passive, that they are full of ideas and that despite their rebellious ways, they are aware and have strong opinions about what is going on around them. Of course it is not necessary to become the next Joshua Wong. Every little action young people initiate, like volunteering in small organisations, animal shelters or organising festivals or language exchanges count as youth activism and participation in the life of civil society.

In INPRO we, as strong supporters of youth activism, encourage youth to be involved at all levels of decision making in society. And we insist on having a well-argued and informed opinion on current issues. We motivate youth to get involved in policy making and further on into politics, where there is a massive need of people with open views who were active in the youth sector. This will balance the discourse in the chambers and in public institutions, bringing progress for everyone, including themselves.