They Have a Dream

Trayvon Martin

It’s a fact: Young people are historically the highest-profile activists in most social and civic movements for change. Consider this: A 20-something Martin Luther King Jr. pushed for civil rights in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society pushed for an end to the Vietnam War. And more recently, Occupy Wall Street’s supporters were predominately under the age of 34.

This year’s social justice battles follow suit. Phillip Agnew, 28, is the executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group of young adults determined to do something about racial profiling and policies they feel unfairly target students of color. The organization kicked into high gear around the George Zimmerman trial and issues surrounding Florida’s Stand Your Ground (SYG) law. After Martin’s killer was acquitted, it staged a 31-day sit-in at Florida’s capitol. The re-
sult: an agreement to meet with legislators and with Florida’s Departments of Education, Law Enforcement and Juvenile Justice.

“This was an experiment in democracy,” says Agnew, a FAMU graduate and Chicago native who oversees the year-old organization. “And while there’s a place for everybody in the movement, it’s always the young people who can actually make the moves.”

Agnew and some 250 supporters have a threefold goal: to repeal or revise the state’s SYG law; to end racial profiling in a state where Confederate flags fly freely in front yards; and to end the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline perpetuated by districts that send children to the police upon their first small infraction.

They are not alone in their quest for social change. Additional groups to watch include The League of Young Voters, who are very active in Wisconsin and Texas and do a lot more than simply register voters; they also make an effort to connect young people—and not just college students—with the important issues of the day. Experts also point to the young group coming out of Los Angeles’ Labor/Community Strategy Center as another poised to make headlines.

“In the days after the Zimmerman acquittal, young people were angry and wanted to do something,” says Judith Browne Dianis, an attorney and co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that helps youth groups advocate for change. “Here you have young people who decided to take action. They didn’t just go to a rally; they decided they had to kick it up a notch, and their activism is important because they really are our new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I think they’re going to grow into that. And they’re growing because they are putting themselves on the line around freedom and justice issues.”

Organizing largely via university chapters at Florida schools, the Dream Defenders use tried-and-true nonviolent methods of bringing about change. One method is the sit-in; another is “restorative justice,” a concept that Miami high school student Annie Thomas, 18, employs when training newbies on how to address the issue of criminalizing kids when problems arise in schools.

“Restorative justice comes into play after the fight happens,” says Thomas, who teaches educators and students how to mediate conflict to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. In Florida last year, some 12,000 students were arrested 13,870 times in public schools, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Black students are only 21 percent of the state’s youth but comprise 46 percent of school-related arrests.

“Everyone involved comes into the circle for a healing process and to address why [the fight] happened in the first place,” Thomas explains passionately. “It’s been proven to work in Philly and Chicago. It’s not something new, and it’s effective.”

The Dream Defenders couldn’t stop Zimmerman from shooting Martin, but the group can help bring about laws that lead to a more equitable existence. It just won’t happen overnight.

“We’re making the nation realize it’s not just a one-person issue,” says Thomas. “These issues affect everyone.”