Including the voices of young activists, using technology and starting grass-roots movements are the most important factors in forging a successful social movement, a panel of social justice activists said during a March 23 discussion.
The event, organized by the office of Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, featured a panel of social justice activists and experts on how young people in particular can help a social movement to succeed. The panel followed a national walkout against gun violence March 14, when DeGioia delivered a speech voicing support for the student activists’ efforts.
The nationwide walkout was one of the most high-profile outgrowths of a nationwide, student-driven push for increased gun control in the aftermath of last month’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people and injured 17 others.
Social justice workers on Friday’s panel agreed a nationwide social movement requires a strong grass-roots foundation at the local level.
“The most important factor that differentiates the winning movements from the rest is their grassroots,” said Leslie Crutchfield, executive director of the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at the McDonough School of Business. “It’s how they mobilize, organize and work city by city, state by state to move the entire country closer to their ideal of what … society should look like.”
Sarah Clements (COL ’18), a gun control activist and native of Newtown, Conn., where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in 2012, emphasized the power young people can have in creating social movements.
“What’s different about this time is that students are leading the cause, students are leading the calls to action,” Clements said.
Other speakers on the panel included David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and law and public policy professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, and Colleen Roberts (COL ’15), associate director for alumni of color at Georgetown’s Office of Advancement. Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94), executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at the McCourt School of Public Policy, moderated the discussion.
Leticia Bode, assistant professor of communication, culture and technology, discussed the role technology plays in assembling citizens into action. Bode said technology allows leaders to understand directly what citizens want by forging direct communication between leaders and constituents.
“If you want people to get involved with something that is important to them, ask them,” Bode said. “That’s why people run for office, that’s why people sign petitions; the entire range of political participation is driven a lot by somebody just asking somebody to get involved.”
Cole echoed Crutchfield’s sentiment on the importance of foundational groundwork in building strong movements for social change.
“You’ve got to have that infrastructure that you all can engage in,” Cole said. “You have to engage in a long, incremental struggle that involves citizens getting engaged, calling their congress people, visiting their local legislators, acting on small incremental changes and, most importantly, voting. If you can do that, over time, you can have tremendous success.”
Roberts tied into the panel a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement and how its growth magnifies the discussion on which movements are heard.
“Which movements and which youth are allowed to achieve success? I think that we’re at a moment in American history where we have to really consider which stories get amplified, which aspects of humanity are recognized,” Roberts said.
Clements hopes that as the movement against gun violence continues at Georgetown and at a national level, students’ perspectives and voices are heard and valued.
“My hope is that after the March for Our Lives, moving forward that these organizations allow students to be at the table in decision-making and leading the way for years to come,” Clements said. “I really hope that this is a moment where these national organizations and political infrastructures will understand that this movement has to be led by young people if it’s going to succeed.”