Young people across the nation are leading their communities in activism for social change. When I entered “teens and social justice” in Google I came up with a long list of youth organization across the USA that engage in all kinds of activities to help make this world a better place.
From youth parenting groups providing education on how to help the young parent and child survive the high school years, to a non-profit dedicated to positive organizing among Latino youth gangs. New York also has a citywide network of young activists staffed by youth from the age of 15 to 19 and primary of color. Their mission is to organize around the issues that impact on the quality of life of young people in NYC with a focus on counter-military recruiting and other social justice issues. Yet another group organizes around issues such as reproductive freedom, privacy and police brutality. Serious issues that many of these youngsters have sadly encountered at a young age and decided to do something about it in a civil and peaceful way.
In Boston, the mission of the Center for Teen Empowerment is to realize the potential of inner-city youth to build healthier and safer communities and schools. They hire and train urban youth, including at risk youth, to be community organizers. Their programs are based on the belief that urban youth represent a valuable, untapped resource and can significantly contribute to the rejuvenation of neighborhoods and local institutions.
“DOSOMETHING” is one of the largest organizations in the world that provides guidance and information for young people who want to contribute to causes they care about. DoSomething.org is a driving force when it comes to creating a culture of volunteerism, and is on track to activate two million young people in 2011. By leveraging the web, television, mobile, and pop culture, DoSomething.org inspires, empowers and celebrates a generation of doers: young people (25 and under) who recognize the need to do something, believe in their ability to get it done, and then take action.
What inspires these young people to sacrifice their leisure-time schedules to participate in volunteer activities? Their motivations are as diverse as their choice of cause; from inspiration coming from watching their parents, to having survived heart-breaking experiences such as child hunger and feeling the need to do something so that other children are spared the same pain or are provided for, where they weren’t. Some commented that it is the right thing to do because you are “human.” One young lady commented that initially she felt sorry for for “those people” but after several conversations discovered that they were all the same – underneath the differences.
EXPERIENCES SUCH AS THESE—”if they don’t just expose them to a situation of need but if they ensure real, genuine interaction with the people they serve”—can really help young people “get into social justice,” says University of Iowa graduate Peter Swanson.
Social Justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.
One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility reflected in the concepts of simcha (“gladness” or “joy”), tzedaka (“the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts”), chesed (“deeds of kindness”), and tikkun olam (“repairing the world”).
At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills social justice has a central place and there is a program especially for young activists called MATCH – Money And Teenagers Creating Hope. This innovative program, beginning its fourth year, invites the teenagers of the congregation (ninth through twelfth graders) to become the board of an endowment fund of $250,000 that generates approximately $10,000 per year that the teenagers have to decide how to distribute. Each teen who participates “buys” a seat on the Board for $72 and commits to meet five times a year to study about tzedakah, create a mission statement for the Foundation, choose the issues and areas that ought to be funded, meet with philanthropists, research organizations, and ultimately advocate for his or her particular passion. Over the past three years the teenagers have distributed funds to local, national, international as well as Israeli organizations making a real difference in the world.
At a recent meeting, the teens gathered in small groups to create massive lists of organizations related to health (their topic for the year, chosen by the executive committee of 12th graders) that could benefit from the help that they will be able to offer by way of this program. From health services to the hungry and homeless to preventative sex education for teens, the lists that our youth created suggested just how passionate they are about the problems in our world that need solving. How empowering for them to be able to come together and offer a concrete way to begin making a difference!
What better way to ensure our future leaders are well-informed about social justice issues and have first hand experiences on how to address these issues and motivated to work in areas much-needed in our communities.