Hashtags and rallies are important parts of raising awareness and calling the public’s attention to an issue, but sustaining engagement and momentum requires more than that. If the #NeverAgain movement — or any other movement — is going to last, activists need to learn a lot of truths about organizing and activism from those who have come before them.
That transfer of knowledge is exactly what the Young Leaders Summit set out to facilitate when it engaged with students and young activists from around South Florida this past Saturday. Held on Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus, as well as concurrently in Broward, the summit was about teaching young people substantive skill sets to help them help themselves and their causes through advocacy, leadership, and empowerment.
"Even though we’ve been involved in politics for a little while, a lot of the people who are getting involved and who are really passionate about this issue are getting involved for the first time ever, so they don’t have experience organizing; they don’t have experience strategizing," says 16-year-old Nikita Leus-Oliva, a junior at Coral Gables Senior High and one of the lead organizers of the summit.
"As of now, it’s been marches and rallies and Twitter hashtags, but we want it to be more," she explains.
Oliva and her Gables High classmate, 18-year-old senior William Breslin, were approached by Juan Cuba, the chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, with the idea to create the event after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The students took the lead on Cuba's brainchild to make it a reality.
"We want to give these students the skills they need to fight the battles that they believe in and then fight back against anybody who tries to infringe on those values that they hold," Breslin says.
The event featured speakers ranging from Harvard fellows to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Marshall Ganz, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a legend in the world of activists and organizers, gave a virtual lecture about what it takes to build a movement.
“Social media has made it much easier to mobilize by taking advantage of the big event, and people show up. The problem is when that’s it — when there’s no leadership that has been built, when there’s no entity that has been created, and when there’s no strategy to follow up on what’s happened," Ganz explained.
"Organizing is about making the investment in developing the leadership, creating an entity, and developing a strategy that can turn these moments of mobilization into a foundation for actual power.”
There were also three hours of breakout sessions spread across 15 topics, with each talk lasting about an hour. The sessions ranged from discussions about the nature of power and civil disobedience to developing shared strategies and building relationships and structures around an issue.
Students were given the opportunity to both listen to and interact with people who have real experience in their fields. Ricky Junquera, the deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club, spoke to students about engaging the media, and Phil Agnew, the codirector of Dream Defenders and one of the most prominent voices of activism in the nation, led an in-depth discussion about political analysis.
And that's perhaps what made the summit so significant. In a time when so many people are so focused on fighting for gun reform, this event wasn't just about fighting for one cause. It was about how to fight for any cause.
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To Casey Sherman, the 17-year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High who was largely responsible for planning the March for Our Lives in Parkland and one of the speakers at the summit, the importance of learning how to organize is obvious.
"If we don’t teach people how to get together and make change, nothing is actually going to happen," Sherman says. "Seeing something like this was just so inspiring, and it really did give me a lot of hope because I saw that we’re inspiring people to take that initiative and bring this social-action movement into their communities."
And, fortunately, the young leaders who organized the summit have no intention of letting future students down by making it a one-time event.
"In every historic movement, it’s been the youth leading it," Oliva says, "so we as the youth have to take charge and make sure that our peers are educated and that we’re doing it in the best way possible to enact change, to really get what we’re pushing for. So I think this will definitely be a yearly event, and I hope that other cities take charge."