Supporting Black Youth Towards Social Justice
Photo by: Obi Onyeador on Unsplash
All youth deserve to have access to the opportunity to thrive. However, our society is not perfect, and there are systemic injustices that have greatly impacted the ability of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth to reach their maximum potential. The summer of 2020 laid bare the tragic reality of injustice in America. While living through a pandemic unlike anything experienced before, young people watched in horror while Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and others were killed. Later in the summer, they read about Breonna Taylor, who was killed while sleeping in her bed. The events of 2020 were not isolated, nor were they inconceivable. For Black youth, these tragic events continue to conjure up questions of worth and feelings of anger and fear. The questions on the minds of many young Black people are: What can I do? Do I have any control? Could this happen to me?
I have worked with Black youth as a high school teacher, head track coach, mentor, and youth pastor. Also, I am a former Black youth, and I know all too well the impact of today’s events on one’s psyche. It’s gut-wrenching. Nonetheless, Black youth have more control than they realize. They can participate in the larger work of social justice, thus identifying and affirming their shared purpose in creating change in the world. Although it is not the responsibility of Black youth, research suggests that participating in purposeful activities that align one’s passions to the world’s needs promotes youth thriving.1
Social justice means equal rights and equitable opportunities for all, but social justice as an action is how we get there. Given what we know about the current state of affairs for Black youth, the question we must attempt to answer is how can we actively participate in social justice work and empower Black youth to engage in activism for their benefit?
What do they need from the adults in their lives?
Time and time and again, research underscores that all youth need caring, supportive adults to reach their potential and thrive.2 Non-parental adults give adolescents needed additional boosts and practical support towards positive development during a time when adolescents are attempting to de-individuate from their parents.
I have talked to these kids—they need adults who “get it,” and are willing to step into their world and fight for them. They need adults who are willing to challenge oppressive systems and work towards justice for all. Interestingly, research supports that social justice bolsters youth towards positive development.3 Adults who advocate for youth need to understand that they have two important roles: to work towards social justice and to motivate young people to become actively involved in social justice as well. Black youth need practitioners and researchers who are willing to promote change. It is imperative that adults engaged in supporting young people recognize the important work of social justice by advocating for equal rights and equitable opportunities for everyone. These adults are also called allies and are pivotal to creating lasting change.
A growing body of research highlights the importance of supportive adult relationships that advocate for and motivate young people towards being actively involved in social justice work—adults who recognize the need for social justice and urge young people to be leaders in the movement.
This youth-led and directed approach includes collaboration with community partners to actively engage youth to counter oppressive conditions. Social justice youth development (SJYD) and positive youth development (PYD) can be integrated to support youth engagement in personal, social, and community improvement.4 Social justice work can take on many tangible forms: letter writing campaigns, protests, voter registration drives. Whatever action turns the needle towards justice, no matter how small or great.
Empowering youth to be agents of change in their own communities and beyond not only impacts the world for good, but also cultivates positive character and skills leading to healthy wellbeing.
Building Strengths Upon Strengths
Activism has the potential to connect Black youth to a shared purpose with other like-minded people, which can also support positive identity development.5 This is especially important for Black youth who have experienced marginalization and disenfranchisement.
Another possible by-product of civic engagement is the character strength, grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals.6 Motivating Black youth to pursue social justice in spite of the difficulties they encounter can encourage the development of grit, which has been shown to be a greater indicator of long-term success than IQ.7 Research demonstrates that grit can be encouraged by supportive adults who foster a healthy growth mindset by focusing on what can be gained in the process verses the outcome.8
If you are actively working alongside Black youth, be sure to affirm the identity and purpose you see in those young people. Help them to understand the systemic issues that may be impacting them but also encourage them to lead using their unique strengths in the fight toward social justice. Encourage them to see themselves as active agents on the frontline for a better future for this generation and beyond. Affirm that their personal contribution is part of a greater and enduring story.
Here are some examples of how adults can support the social justice work of all youth, but which can be particularly empowering for Black youth.
1. Strength-Based Approach
Consider the strengths of the young people in your circle and motivate them to use those strengths to promote social justice. Encourage the youths in your life to utilize their strengths to bring awareness towards a particular cause they are passionate about. For example, if they have strengths in music, art, poetry, or drama, they could work with others to organize a rally that showcases their expressive talents for social justice. If they enjoy caring for younger children, you can encourage them to volunteer at local community center or organization that works with children.
2. Support Access
As an adult, you probably have more social capital than the youth in your life, and are likely to have access to adults who may be of influence as well. Consider facilitating a meeting between the youth who you know and the adults in your network who can also support, educate, and advise the youth’s social justice actions. If Black youth are not in your circle, consider reaching out to organizations, schools, and congregations to offer your expertise, mentoring, or connections.
1. Iwasaki, Y. (2016). The role of youth engagement in positive youth development and social justice youth development for high-risk, marginalised youth. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 21(3), 267-278.
2. Lerner, R. M., & Castellino, D. R. (2002). Contemporary developmental theory and adolescence: Developmental systems and applied developmental science. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 122–135.
3. Ginwright, S., & Cammarota, J. (2002). New terrain in youth development: The promise of a social justice approach. Social justice, 29(4 (90), 82-95.
4. Iwasaki, Y. (2016). The role of youth engagement in positive youth development and social justice youth development for high-risk, marginalised youth. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 21(3), 267-278.
5. Bronk, K. C. (2011). The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. New directions for youth development, 2011(132), 31-44.
6. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.
7. Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological science, 16(12), 939-944.
8. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.
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