Beyond the walkout: A call to philanthropy to invest in youth-led social change

Written by: Mónica Córdova

Date: March 13, 2018

In late 2007, I was a youth organizer at the SouthWest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sitting in the third row of a cold school board room anxiously awaiting my turn to speak. A few years earlier, we blocked efforts to allow school police to carry guns in schools. But in the wake of a deadly shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech just a few months earlier, the odds that we could stop a similar effort seemed stacked against us.

We did everything right, the right power mapping, the right messaging and the right messengers: students, parents and teachers. We packed the house to make sure board members understood that guns in schools might feel like the easy, quick fix, but they pose a threat to low-income students of color who need schools to be safe havens rather than places where they were increasingly in danger of being swept into a pipeline to prison.

As I watched the disengaged Albuquerque Public School Board members not even look up from their computers as students, teachers and parents passionately spoke about their concerns, I knew we were about to lose. Several of the school board members had just been elected on a platform that promised solutions other than guns on our campuses and yet they flipped their votes without batting an eye.

The pressure of the moment, post tragic school shooting, was too much to overcome. The votes came down against us. We never even had a chance. That evening as I watched the news coverage sitting next to the young people who led the campaign, my heart broke and tears ran down my face as I heard hopelessness in their voices, asking me what else they could have done. I vowed to never let young people feel so disempowered.

Ten years later, here we are again. This time a tragic event in Parkland, Florida, has led to young people capturing the heart of the nation. Their demand that the violence end has placed a national debate about gun control front and center, while young organizers fear many of the solutions offered will only further racist policies that militarize their schools and criminalize communities of color.  

For generations, youth of color have sparked movements igniting a fight for safe, healthy and just schools and communities. Often they’ve waged long-term campaigns against great odds as they watch their schools become more like prisons than environments that foster growth and learning.

As the current debate swirls around arming teachers, more armed school resource officers and more cops policing schools and communities, young organizers like those at the Power U Center for Social Change and Dream Defenders in Florida are seizing the moment. They’re meeting with Parkland students and building intersectional alliances and visionary solutions that transcend the false, quick fix of more guns.

Youth-led organizations across the country are demanding to be heard and student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are inspired, working toward a platform that is shared across race, class, gender and geography.

It is philanthropy’s turn to grab hold of the opportunity before us and advance the movement for a multiracial, cross-class alliance of young people standing up to demand a society free from all forms of violence. The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing calls on funders and donors to step up and into the moment. The kind of movement and leadership from young people needed now will not happen without sustained resources.

Let us not be here again in another 10 years, fighting the same bad policies and saying never again. Those of us in philanthropy must take seriously the role we have been given and find the resources to support the movement in front of us so young organizers can focus on the paramount task of transforming society.

To that end, the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing has launched The Youth for Safety and Justice Fund to help support young people of color taking action. The focus is on efforts that employ a racial justice lens and connect gun violence to other forms of systemic injustice.

Youth of color have long called to be taken seriously in social change efforts and, if the last two weeks have taught us anything, it is that young people have the strategic ability to build lasting power and create solutions that ensure safety for all.

As students walk out tomorrow we cannot let them walk alone and allow this to only be one moment. We must invest in organized youth efforts to cultivate lasting change. To get to scale and sustain their work, they need the support of philanthropy. The moment is now. Resources must follow.

Mónica Córdova is deputy director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing. For more information on how to get involved or give to The Youth for Safety and Justice Fund, contact her at Follow @THE_FCYO on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing.