Being young in a social movement 1

Young people contribute a lot in social movements…but what is their status in them?

I worked for a few years with activist organisations in India and the contribution of young people to these organisations, and to social movements was striking.  Equally striking was the attrition that these organisations had.  A part of it was clearly for financial and professional reasons, but that was clearly not the whole story. Activist groups that work on issues like labour rights or democracy often do not pay attention to such issues within.  Many young people whose efforts form the backbone of the work of these campaigns find themselves in a strange position of arguing for democracy and dissent in the society on the one hand and not finding the space among the very people who champion them.

Fortunately for me, I worked with some exceptional people with a deep commitment to democracy, not just in the polity but in their personal lives.  The example that they set made that which I saw around me even more stark.  But I had my moments, many of which I would not have experienced had it not been for my age and status.  I have copied below one email that I sent the wonderful people that I worked with.  I decided to post it on my website since this indicates a frustration that I have seen in many other young people that I worked with at that time.  I post it with a realization that I too was not the easiest person to work with; after all, activist organisations tend to attract people with strong opinions.  My class background, and the fact that I worked with a supportive team, ensured that moments like these were rare and that they were redressed.  Many young people needed the meagre salaries and work experience and did not have the privilege to rebel or a network of support.  Their days were needlessly filled with frustration, and this should not be so.  I revisit my thoughts in solidarity and for a better workspace for all.

All of us have gathered here to work on a common cause, and not private profit. Each of us is giving what is precious to us. I hope to work in an environment where I can put my best for a social cause I value. I am lucky to be working with all of you, each of whom is distinguished in many ways. That said, I am a highly self-willed person who evaluates the usefulness of what I do. While I am willing to do certain things I don’t believe in, for the sake of teamwork, I consider that I am not obliged to do so. If I am asked to do something, I will evaluate the value of the work to be done, I am capable of taking things up only when I am convinced of the merits of doing it. This scheme of things is considered healthy in a horizontal set up. Without asking any of you about it, I have declared myself an equal partner in this common venture (liberty shall not descend onto me, I shall raise up to it). Luckily for me, most of you have accepted me as such. This has enabled me to dialogue with you. The dialogue has helped me understand your positions and on most occasions be convinced of your opinion. Unfortunately, this is not the case with everyone. This is stifling dialogue. In the extreme case, he even questioned if I should be a part of the campaign when I did not subscribe to his view on BT cotton (we never discussed my stand, I merely did not accept his). I wonder if there is some way of dialogue between generations!

I feel that I am working with wonderful people and have a lot to gain from you all. I am certain that I am doing as good a work as I can at my age. I urge you all to make the best use of me, I am glad to be of use. I urge you to try influencing me; I have strong but pliable opinions. I urge you to point out to my failings when I am in my good mood (which is more often the case) and I am inclined to accept change. I am more than willing to play that part with you. While I am willing to work hard without a sense of reward, it is important for me to feel that my time is usefully spent. For this I demand that the group does its homework. I demand that you think and plan well before asking me to take up a task. I demand that you convince me of the effectiveness of proposed measures, by articulating your understanding and by convincing me of its foundations. I demand that I am not taken for granted, expected to do what is given or repeat what is said. Work with me with democratic values, intellectual honesty, adequate homework and courtesy; I will promise you a rewarding experience.

Thus went the mail and a lot of smoke went up the air subsequently.  The wonderful-of-the-lot continued to support me and lived the values I expected of them.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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One thought on “Being young in a social movement

  • Eli

    Well, Vivek, I feel similarly. I once told my high school math teacher that I didn’t do the homework because it was homework for the sake of homework, and not for the sake of learning. She didn’t disagree.

    As a research assistant in an academic department, I scurry around for obscure pieces of information and track down footnotes. I usually debate why this info is relevant when I get the project description. I too want to be convinced of the merits of something before I do it. So when I’m asked to survey US graduate schools of public health to figure out how many offer courses on global health inequalities, or when I’m asked to find out whether such-and-such a drug (say, a blood thinner) hastens death, I ask why. Sometimes, I get a good answer. Sometimes not. It’s a job, after all, so I do my work. But I also know that time is valuable, and that I could be doing other work.

    Here here for social movements being places of rebellion. But who says old people can’t rebel, too? 😉