Youth artists at the helm of social movements: galvanizing hope through peer exemplars
During the ‘Youth Artists for Justice” study, and in my applied theatre course, I introduced students to many strategies, philosophies, struggles and accomplishments of social movements that engaged in various forms of resistance, direct action and cultural production;3 in particular, I shared youth-led arts activist exemplars. By offering case studies of youth activism that had significant impact through the arts, I aimed to provide the participants with a sense of belonging and momentum, of hope and inspiration. Sharing these examples also fuelled dialogue on the youths’ creative, pedagogical and political intentions, as well as the potential principles and strategies they might implement as theatre-makers involved in struggles for justice. I facilitated this discussion to enable the youth to participate on creative, practical, ethical and theoretical levels when considering applied theatre as a mode of effecting change in social movements.
I provided models for youth participants of contemporary' versions of youth-led cultural production that explicitly name and challenge social inequities, promote new social relations and combat hegemonic domination. My aim was to provide education on social movements that youth often do not access through formal educational channels, and to support
Nurturing hopeful agency 21 them in developing and presenting their own ideas about creating change through applied theatre, with the overall goal of increasing their sense of hope for the future in terms of their own political agency.
I had the honour of working as a research assistant with Kathleen Gallagher on a project in which we collaborated with drama education scholars and practitioners across five countries, including Urvashi Sahni, the founder of The Prerna School for lowest-caste girls in Lucknow India. Sahni utilizes drama pedagogy in conjunction with critical feminist ped-agog)’, and the mission of the school, in part, is to “raise their feminist consciousness and to help them emerge as emancipated women with a perception of themselves as equal persons having the right to equal participation in society” (Sahni 60). Veerangna is the direct-action drama group that Prerna students engage with as a means of participating in social change through initiatives such as raising awareness about and reducing domestic violence. Through a combination of public performance, organizing rallies, creating a help phone line, collecting petition signatures declaring a commitment to ending domestic violence and engaging the police force, the young women take on the roles of public pedagogues and social justice activists, anchored in applied theatre practice. I shared one of the Veerangna street performance videos with youth and students to bolster solidarity and provide an inspiring example of applied theatre as social resistance.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an Indigenous climate justice artist-activist, is the youth director of the global Earth Guardians organization, made up of thousands of youth demanding environmental sustainability through various forms of protest from lawsuits to marches. Since his childhood Martinez has protested through speech and music, such as with the hip-hop song, What the Frack'?, which helped mobilize the political movement to successfully ban fracking in Colorado and other areas in the United States. At the age of fifteen he spoke as a representative of civil society at the General Assembly of the United Nations before world leaders from 193 countries. I showed youth Martinez’s speech from the Youth Leadership Bioneers Conference, in which he proclaims:
What better time to be born than now? Because this generation gets to rewrite history, gets to leave its mark on this Earth, because this generation will be known as the people on the planet that brought forth a healthy, just, sustainable world for every generation to come, because this generation of people get to create the rebirth, get to co-create and re-create this new world of sustainability, of justice, of equity for all people on Earth. We are the generation of change. We are generation RISE!
Exposure to youth artist activism is one important step towards nurturing hope and a sense of political agency in youth, who often feel distanced from participation and the potential for leadership within social movements.
Here I offer a number of other case studies involving recent youth-led resistance actions on a global scale that may inform and inspire students. There are a variety of lessons to be gleaned from each of the cases, including the constant shift of tactics required as political conditions change such as in the case of Egypt (Abdalla 2016); the need to identity' which gatekeepers hold the greatest power in relation to the goals of the struggle as in the case of Shannen Koostachin in Attawapiskat (Angus 2015); potential strategies to galvanize peers as in the case of the DREAMERS (Gamber-Thompson and Zimmerman 2016); and the vitality of cultural production as a medium for instigating change as in the cases of Venezuela (Jaramillo 2015) and Palestine (Desai 2015).