Online and Off, Millennials Redefine Civil Rights Activism

There has been a lot of chatter lately about the Millennial Generation. It has been popular to discuss how best to manage Millennials. The generation has been analyzed and scrutinized in how they get their news and just what, exactly, they are doing during all that time online. There's also been discussion over whether or not Millennials are the "right type" of political activists. That Millennials are engaged and active is no longer in doubt, but it seems that other generations are perplexed by just how Millennials choose to live their activism.

(Disclosure: I am, in fact, a Millennial! I am writing this blog post from my social justice-focused workplace, where I use two computers simultaneously, have my iPhone stationed nearby, and am listening to music.) (Specifically, I am alternating between the New York Philharmonic and Patti Smith, as a reference point for those who engage in the debate around Millennials and what we make of culture.) In other words, I am writing to you about my peers.

Much of the recent debate about Millennials has focused on the fact that we're both engaged in our communities and country, and yet also spend massive amounts of time being digitally connected. Somehow the debate has been premised on a belief that such things cannot be possible at the same time, let alone be beneficial to each other! The idea seems to be that if we are online activists and information seekers, we are not also at rallies or organizing at our schools. This is just patently untrue.

A good starting point to understanding the Millennial Generation is to realize that Millennials have proven to be anything but an either/or generation. We are online and in the streets. We are openly gay and openly members of various religions. We want a fiscally responsible government, and we believe this can be done while decreasing the numbers of Americans living in poverty. We are black and white. We are black and Latino. We are Asian and Latino. We are....well, you get the point. We do not see our identities, our world, or our options for living as a series of dichotomous choices. Nor do we view our options for activism as such.

What does the world know about Millennials? Well, we know that there are 83 million of us. We've grown up in a more diverse world, after various civil rights gains have been made by our predecessors. Research study after research studyhas shown that we're political and online in large and regular numbers. We also know that in the last year our voter turnout numbers have been unprecedented, phenomenal and a testament to our engagement in changing this democracy.

In the recent debate over Millennial activism, the civil rights movement of the 1960s is occasionally held up as an example of successful organizing that did not take place online. (Although, were the Internet around then, you bet all those organizers would have made the most out of its potential!) We have been told that our Facebook groups and our Darfur petitions are not enough. But, the thing is, those actions are both important in their own right but are only pieces in the range of activism options in which Millennials have led.

It was largely young people, organizing via MySpace and text messaging, who got hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in support of immigrant rights in 2006.

And, yes, young voters are more likely to get their political information online, but we also have no problem getting ourselves to the voting booth in overwhelmingly strong and record numbers this primary season.

A less well known case of youth activism around modern day civil rights is the case of Lawrence King. Lawrence was murdered in his junior high school computer lab shortly after he came out as gay and starting wearing women's clothes. The mainstream media was silent on his death. Millennials, outraged over his murder, spread word via blogs and Facebook. They used the web to organize a march and cross country vigils in Lawrence's memory. After enough weeks of Millennials refusing to let the story of Lawrence's murder be ignored, the mainstream media began to pay attention and start covering the story.

Millennials have grown up during the civil rights rollback of the last twenty years. We have seen the courts grow more conservative and have watched a political system that for too long has not reflected our diversity. For all the recent talk about how Millennials are suppose to crave instant gratification, it can be said that part of that progressed gratification is worked for through voting and taking political action. It's hard to argue that's a bad thing.

Using the 60s as a framework for understanding Millennial action is somewhat like comparing apples and oranges. Millennials are not just post-civil rights, we are redefining civil rights. Organizing and political tactics that work today are built upon the prior successes of the civil rights movement, but Millennials are taking that legacy, re-adapting its style and redefining what civil rights looks like today. Whether the topic is allowing for equal opportunity through immigration rights, making no citizen second class through supporting marriage equality, or supporting policies that allow for fair educational access across all races and economic levels, Millennials are not often defined by just one aspect of civil rights belief.

This election season has highlighted a changing of the guard. A young, very involved, more progressive generation is coming up and has already started leading on today's civil rights issues. There's a lot to be learned from the ways Millennials view civil rights today, and the ways we have taken action.

To give voice to this tidal wave of young and engaged activists, the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights is working with YouTube to create a platform to highlight the civil rights work of Millennials. Civil Rights 2.0 is a YouTube contest that asks Millennials to define: What are you and your generation doing for civil rights today?

Millennials have already taken the lead in redefining politics and activism, and it's time that we started highlighting more of this generation's stories and successes.

Below is the announcement video for Civil Rights 2.0, and you can click here for more information on how to join in this public debate on civil rights today.