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Perspective: How Gen Z activists are living and protecting the First Amendment

Zanagee Artis says he got into climate activism too late in life. The senior at Brown University co-founded Zero Hour, a youth-led climate movement, in 2017 when he was 17.

Teigan Blaine, a high school junior in Minnesota, started organizing in eighth grade and is now part of MN Teen Activists, which unites young voices to speak up about injustice.

In 2018, weeks after a shooting killed 14 classmates and three faculty members, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. — one of the largest protests in U.S. history.

These young people are among the 70 million or so members of Gen Z, born between the late 1990s and early 2000s and now ranging in age from about 10 to their early 20s.

While activists are in the minority across generations, members of Gen Z are among the more likely to raise their voices for change.

More: Most people in the U.S. say they have never participated in a protest, rally or public march.

They’re joining the ranks of past youth activists, like the more than 1,000 kids as young as 7 in Birmingham, Ala., who skipped school in May 1963 to protest inequality and segregation. Those marchers were sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by law enforcement — but the Children’s March helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act just over a year later.

Like those children, Gen Z faces significant fears. John Della Volpe, researcher and author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” says today’s kids and young adults have faced an unprecedented onslaught of societal challenges, like climate change, racial injustice, gun violence and a global pandemic.

But, he says, they’re not buckling under these pressures. Instead, young people like the Parkland students, MN Teen Activists and Zero Hour organizers are channeling their passions and using their freedoms of speech, assembly and petition to organize and engage.

Watch how Gen Z is using First Amendment freedoms to change the world.

“The idea of having a future is key to why young people are mobilizing the way that they are right now,” says Zanagee Artis. It can be scary, especially when the issues are existential, but he says kids deserve to know about what their world faces.

They also should know, he says, that they’re not alone, and there are solutions to today’s complex, systemic and interconnected issues of social justice.

In a recent conversation with the Freedom Forum, Artis connected Zero Hour’s climate work to broader movements for economic, racial and social justice. MN Teen Activists’ Blaine similarly cites the group’s work on a broad range of justice issues, from racial injustice to sexual harassment to COVID safety.

“We are not afraid to be upstanders versus bystanders,” Blaine says.

According to Della Volpe, and the example of activists like Blaine and Artis, younger people want a seat at the table to participate in civic discourse about important issues.

“Speak with us; have that dialogue with us,” Blaine urges.

In speaking up, listening, rallying and organizing, these Gen Z activists are living the First Amendment.

“The ability to march in the streets, to call on our government to make change, is not something that everyone has the privilege to do around the world,” says Artis, and such freedoms are the “core to our ability to organize.”

More: 5 things to know about Gen Z and the First Amendment

Members of Gen Z are slightly better, on average, at identifying several First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of speech (perhaps fresher from civics class than older generations). They’re also less likely to say its freedoms go too far.

Della Volpe sees embracing and protecting First Amendment values as essential to Gen Z “and their commitment to making the country a better, stronger place.”

In addition to exercising their freedoms, the Gen Z activists we spoke with also help their peers speak, publish, assemble and petition. MN Teen Activists helps students know and use their freedoms, including navigating protest at school. Zero Hour has “defended the defenders,” working to protect the rights of environmental activists.

All in all, according to Della Volpe, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future, thanks to Gen Z activists exercising and protecting our freedoms, not only for themselves but for all of us.

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