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Modern tools boost rise of student activism in wake of Parkland massacre

March for Our Lives leaders, now in college, rely on social media to organize. But action has to follow to achieve results.
Alyssa Ackbar of Tampa, center, meeting in Tallahassee with fellow members of Florida's March For Our Lives organization, is a student at Florida State University and director of the group. [Courtesy of Emilee McGovern]
Alyssa Ackbar of Tampa, center, meeting in Tallahassee with fellow members of Florida's March For Our Lives organization, is a student at Florida State University and director of the group. [Courtesy of Emilee McGovern]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 12

TAMPA — Two years after the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the March For Our Lives movement continues to inspire a new generation of youth activism.

Experts are calling it the new normal.

Among the signs: Educators are developing online courses to help school leaders support student activists, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg was named Time’s Person of the Year, and young people are taking a stand in unique yet familiar ways at immigration rallies, unity marches, even anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

“Youth activism is only going to get bigger,” said Alyssa Ackbar, 18, a graduate of South Tampa’s Robinson High School and now state director of March For Our Lives in Florida.

Related: Florida lawmakers revisit post-Parkland school safety, student mental health

The growth is partly fueled by a unique characteristic of Generation Z: They’ve grown up with social media.

Young people born in the late 1990s are coming of age at a time when community is created through digital technology, said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Tex. Social media, in particular, makes it easier to find like-minded individuals and organize.

For Ackbar, who turned to activism in the wake of the Feb. 14. 2018, Parkland massacre, cell phones are key to coordinating emergency conference calls and strategy meetings across cities and states.

Greater access to information online also has led to a heightened awareness of social issues, Dorsey said.

Yet, the new reliance on digital tools carries pitfalls.

It’s not always enough to motivate young people — to march, donate, vote, or call representatives, said Dorsey and Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Online activity must be tied to tangible action.

Related: Orlando student releases music video to honor Parkland victims

Then there are the ideological and legal risks. Conversations online can quickly devolve into calling out those with opposing opinions, making it harder to get members to join a cause, Lingel said.

She also pointed to the risk of doxxing, where personal information such as a home address is shared online to hurt an activist. Law enforcement agencies also have been known to conduct digital surveillance of people involved in anti-fascist, anti-racist and environmental rights groups, she said.

Compared to their predecessors, young activists today are making greater efforts to attract a more diverse membership in their campaigns.

Ackbar, a freshman at Florida State University, didn’t join March For Our Lives to become a leader. But as she learned how gun violence disproportionately hurts minorities and LGBTQ people, she felt it was important — as the bisexual daughter of parents from Brazil and Trinidad — to shed light on this intersection.

Ackbar thinks about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the drive for equality as she fights today for a right to safety.

Young activists in the 1960s shared the same disappointment as those of today in adults who hold positions of power, said Julie Reuben, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They feel a responsibility to fix the problems left them today, be it climate change or gun control.

Still, Dorsey wonders how long this civic engagement will last, especially as young leaders age into the workforce.

Ackbar acknowledged that she and other March For Our Lives leaders feel burned out now that they’re in college. Yet she hopes to remain politically engaged as an adult, through voting and other action, while those coming up behind her rise to the challenges of their day.

“It’s very much about training the next generation,” she said.

This summer, an online course developed for teachers and school leaders nationwide will be available to help them with questions about ethics and the law when students take part in activism outside the school curriculum.

The course was started by an initiative called Youth in Front, a collaboration among Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and consultants Freshcognate. It will cover the history of youth-led activism and best practices for supporting students, and will connect interested educators across the country, said Meira Levinson, a Harvard professor and co-founder of the initiative.

“It is certainly a new normal,” Levinson said.

Pinellas students organized the Unity Walk in Clearwater on Jan. 28 to commemorate the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Educators have long played a role in supporting youth-led movements, she said. One local example: Some 800 students from Pinellas County’s traditional high schools marched along the Memorial Causeway Bridge in Clearwater for the inaugural Unity Walk.

Related: 800 Pinellas students marched across Memorial Causeway Bridge. Here’s why.

Lyric Williams, a 17-year-old senior at Clearwater High School and one of the walk’s leaders, said it helped that administrators at her school supported the project from the beginning.

The walk was aimed at spurring conversation about civil and human rights. Javante Scott, an 18-year-old walk ambassador at Clearwater High School, said he learned more about historic marches in a few hours than in a whole year of studying history.

“You don’t have to be an adult to influence change,” Scott said.

One clear message emerges from across the spectrum of today’s youth activists.

“It’s not a moment. It’s not a trend," Ackbar said. "It’s going to continue to happen,”

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