What Can Young People Do?: Collective Action and People-Powered Politics

Hahrie Han is the Inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Director of the P3 Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University.  Her award-winning work has been published in the American Political Science Review,  American Sociological Review,  American Journal of Sociology, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and numerous other outlets, and she’s a coauthor of Norton’s American Government: Power and Purpose and American Government: A Brief Introduction. 

Hahrie Han 
Image Credit: Will Kirk/Johns

Hopkins University 

So often, when I talk to students, I am struck by how hungry young people are to find ways to make the world a better place. We live in a historical moment that is reminiscent of a letter that the author George Orwell wrote to a friend in 1940, when the Second World War was ravaging society. Orwell noted, “The old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots.” It feels like we are in another moment like that, when the global coronavirus pandemic, the changing contours of the global economy, the looming climate crisis, the ongoing racial and economic inequality, the political upheavals confronting so many countries, and all the social dislocation that accompanies these changes are challenging our society and the communities in which we live. So many students seem to want to be part of reimagining a different world, and to work to make it so. The question is, What can young people do? 

I wanted to answer this question for students in my new role as coauthor on American Government: Power and Purpose and American Government: A Brief Introduction. As someone who studies social movements, collective action, and people-powered politics as a strategy for social change, I tackle these challenges by turning to the questions that have sparked collective action and social movements throughout history: Who are my people, and what do they need? In the global pandemic, we saw so many people—from public health workers to neighbors—stepping up to ask themselves what their people needed. Even when governments were failing us, these examples demonstrated the enormous power of people’s unleashed compassion. But translating outbursts of activism and activity like that into durable social change is difficult.  

That’s one of the issues I have tried to understand in my research for many years. As depicted in this video, my research team and I have run multiple studies that show there are some common misconceptions about the best ways to get people involved in public life and make that involvement actually matter. Such misconceptions are why learning political science, understanding how to read data, and applying the scientific method to comprehend the political world is so important—only through a systematic analysis of how the political world works can we overcome some of the instinctive biases that might drive us to make the wrong choices. This focus on building data literacy carried over to my work on American Government: Power and Purpose and American Government: A Brief Introduction, where my coauthors and I focus on making contemporary research accessible and how students can make sense of these data to help answer questions about American government.  

For instance, students often mistakenly assume that building participation in public life is just a matter of making the right ask: designing a fun, easy way for people to get involved. Having these entry points into participation is fundamental to building activism, but the ability for people’s participation to affect societal change depends on so much more than just generating activism.  

Building power for social change also depends on the kinds of structures or scaffolding we create around organizers and community members willing to do the work. How do we equip organizers to navigate an increasingly uncertain world, and create the collective capacities that foster more politically engaged people? The work of building relationships, creating structures to facilitate interdependence, teaching people to act together—the work of organizing. Organizing is fundamentally about equipping a group of people to work together to make the change they want. Through organizing, people learn to work with each other to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. 

The basic logic is this: Anyone who is trying to make social change happen needs to become comfortable working in an environment of uncertainty. Organizers and other social change leaders have to make decisions now without knowing what political circumstances and changes they are going to face in the future—for instance, which party will win elections in 2022? Or 2024? What issues are going to be salient on the public agenda? Because of that uncertainty, we find that organizers must make choices now, in the present, that maximize the chances that they will be able to adapt strategically to unknown future challenges. For people-powered organizations and movements, that means building a constituency of people who have three characteristics:  

(1) a willingness to be flexible as the needs of the campaign or change effort changes, 

(2) a commitment to and connections with each other through a set of horizontal relationships amongst the constituency, and  

(3) an ability to engage this group of people in action without depending on resources from anyone else.  

Learning to do this work is not easy. Yet, throughout history, we have seen that young people have often led the work of social change. As one of my colleagues writes, “It’s no accident that young people have been on the forefront of social change throughout history, because young people have the critical eye and hopeful heart that it takes to make change.” That is true. What people need in order to do the hard work of organizing for social change is to have a hopeful heart to commit to the work—but also a critical eye, and an ability to analyze the political world, to identify what is wrong and what can be done. The ability to undertake that analysis is a powerful tool. 

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