Even at a young age, Leah Penniman was committed to grassroots change. Now the Co-Executive Director and Farm Director at Soulfire Farm, she started her journey as a Grassroots International donor.
“Grassroots International was the first organization I ever donated to — as a five-year-old. I bundled up my coins and mailed them to you all,” Leah wrote to us a couple years ago. “I still get Grassroots International mail addressed to me and my father because of this early interaction.”
Leah is far from the only young person who has connected with Grassroots over the years. Some have spent their summers volunteering with us. Some, like Nithyani Anandakugan, have put on dance recitals to raise thousands of dollars for social movements. Many more have engaged with Grassroots as members of the social movements we accompany. As a nearly 40-year-old organization, we have watched young activists grow into seasoned organizers. Just as we and our partners have inspired them to action, they continually inspire us too.
For July, we are looking at the ways youth continue to play central roles in communities and social struggles — both through their own independent organizations and in youth sections of broader movements.
Sustaining and Expanding Movements and Communities
Social movements are constantly finding ways to uplift youth, organize them, and develop their leadership. It is a matter of survival and a means to grow the movements.
In the Global South, especially in rural areas, communities face daunting challenges in creating opportunities for youth to stay, maintain, and be proud of their peasant upbringing. Instead, West African and Meso-American youth migrate northward to Europe and the United States for jobs and in search of better life.
Not only have these youth faced mortal danger on the Mediterranean Sea and along the US-Mexico border. This migration — often driven by agribusiness-imposed poverty — has threatened the very continuation of the peasant communities that these young migrants are leaving.
Even after a successful journey, this migration can have devastating effects, according to Rony, a member of our Honduran partner OFRANEH.
Once in the United States, many Garifuna youth face discrimination and alienation, and often recruited into violent groups or exposed to drugs. If they are imprisoned and deported, they come home with trauma and a mindset disconnected from the Garifuna cosmovision.
“We are facing losing connections [with the migrant youth],” Rony told us on a recent visit to Boston. OFRANEH is seeking ways to connect the movement building back home in Honduras, with building strong diaspora communities in the US, while highlighting the US responsibility in the root cause of the migration crises.
Youth Work Inside Bigger Movements
“The average age of farmers in many countries is increasing… Transformation in the political, economic, socio-cultural system and transformation in agriculture is not possible without youth.” — Pramesh Pokharel, International Coordination Committee (ICC) member of La Via Campesina1
Social movements like La Via Campesina have long recognized the importance of youth participation and leadership. At the same time, young people are charting their own agendas through youth work and shaping the direction of the broader movement.
Before most Via Campesina regional and international convergences, the youth sections meet and organize separately. At the Seventh Congress of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC/LVC), the main organizations endorsed the youth’s declarations.
For our part, we have provided funding for the recent 30th anniversary gathering of the CLOC/LVC and next year’s Eighth World Conference of La Via Campesina, both based in Nicaragua. Youth participation and protagonism are core components of both.
Youth are also engaging in struggle through Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST). In Maranhão, we are funding the MST over the next three years to support youth leadership and capacity building. These youth have played a key role in both the broader movement’s work, like planting trees to confront the climate crisis, and specific youth issues like protesting the government’s education policies.
MST youth have participated in Dessalines brigades to Haiti. Last year, MST Maranhão youth joined a national youth encampment commemorating the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre. The event was chock full of music and poetry, community-building and study, and workshops and strategizing.
MST Maranhão believes it is critical for youth to collectively deepen their vision of themselves as subjects in the struggle to defend democracy, human rights, land and territory. Rural youth are continually learning, growing politically, and actively confronting agribusiness in the countryside. Through the MST, these youth are working for justice in their communities.
Youth are not just future peasants or workers. They are not just adjuncts to communities and movements, but they also have their own unique struggles and visions. They have been the leading edge of both uplifting LGBTQ+ liberation and connecting art to organizing. They are more likely to be anti-capitalist.
Youth are also building their own movements.
Since 2006, Levante Popular da Juventude (Popular Youth Uprising, LPJ) has organized youth across Brazil to fight for young people’s rights. The movement draws together students from schools and universities, youth in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, all in partnership with the youth sections of Brazil’s Via Campesina member organizations.
LPJ, as with most partners we accompany, combines tackling immediate needs with political organizing. The youth of LPJ run the National Network of Popular Courses of Podemos+, which helps prepare their low-income peers for university and the related placement exams. They also engage in mass social action and political education. For example, they launched nationwide actions against those who committed torture during the 20-year military dictatorship. And with our support, they are conducting a nationwide course on grassroots feminisms.
“We will not let ourselves be crushed and we will not lower our heads. We will continue to fight for popular democracy: the people in power.” — Letter of Commitment from the Third National Encampment of the LPJ
In Palestine, Baladna the Association of Arab Youth and the Lajee Center both provide deliberate spaces for youth to organize and build community.
“What we do, on a practical level, is to create the spaces for young people from the ‘48[/Israel], from the West Bank, and from Jerusalem to meet, to socialize… to fill in the information gaps,” Nidaa from Baladna told us. “The young generation [in ‘48/Israel] has not had the opportunity to have normal social, political relations with their peers in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
Baladna also fosters political and cultural education and organizing. These are all in service of breaking down the physical and social walls that Israel uses to divide and atomize Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Lajee Center focuses specifically on those youth living in the Aida, Dheisheh and Al-Azza refugee camps. The Center provides these young refugees with cultural, educational, social, and developmental opportunities.
Yet even its rooftop gardens and dance recitals are still not free from Israeli aggression. During a raid on Aida Refugee Camp early this year, the Israeli army ravaged Lajee’s hydroponic garden with dozens of teargas canisters. Grassroots provided emergency funds beyond our usual grants so that the youth could rebuild their garden.
While we have provided grants to West African movements for years, we have now elevated that work to an official program region. In Senegal, although family farming provides the bulk of agricultural production in the country (and livelihoods for 70 percent of its population), the farmers who create this wealth have little access to land and productive resources. Our new partner, Casamance Agricultural Youth Association (AJAC), is a youth-led organization working to change this, particularly through bolstering the leadership of young rural women.
Affirming Our Commitment to Youth
Around the world, young people are making essential contributions to struggles for justice and liberation. We will continue to accompany these efforts in young people’s movements and the youth work of our other partners.