Youth Advocacy and Voice

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Action
Young people are strong advocates and have been for many years, filled with passion and the eagerness to learn and make a difference. The intent behind youth advocacy is often to change the world or be the difference in someone’s life. This can be tied to the adolescent urge to be an individual and find a deeper meaning in life at an early age. Other times, youth advocacy is simply a response to injustice young people either face or witness and cannot idly stand by.

Authored by Taylor M. Parker


Advocacy is popularly understood as support in decision making, often at an institutional level. The only difference between this understanding of advocacy and youth advocacy is who is doing the advocating. Young people are strong advocates and have been for many years, filled with passion and the eagerness to learn and make a difference. The intent behind youth advocacy is often to change the world or be the difference in someone’s life. This can be tied to the adolescent urge to be an individual and find a deeper meaning in life at an early age. Other times, youth advocacy is simply a response to injustice young people either face or witness and cannot idly stand by. 

According to US Legal, “youth activism refers to activities of youth voice engaged in community organizing for social change. Youth activists are engaged in activism as planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, social workers, decision-makers, advocates and leading actors in the environmental movement, and social justice organizations.” (Youth Activism Law and Legal Definition.) 


Historic Roots 

The most popular movement that began the wave of youth advocacy was the newsboys' strike of 1899 in New York City. Newsboys were having to buy paper by the bundle and sell late into the night to turn a profit. When the newsboys made their strike, the newspaper industry noticed how necessary their work was and offered to buy back any unsold papers in an effort to ameliorate this process. (LaChance) 

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine enrolled at an all-white school once their public schools were desegregated. This was not an easy task, there were many mobs and organizations working their hardest to prevent these students from even entering the school building. It was not until President Eisenhower had the National Guard escort students inside the building after weeks of trying to attend school that the Little Rock Nine were able to actually integrate the system. (Astor) 

The Walkouts of East Los Angeles in 1968 also helped set the precedent for latinx youth advocacy and activism. “Chicano high school students… wanted Mexican-American history and culture to be taught in their classrooms. They also wanted the school district to address high dropout rates, overcrowding and the ‘incompetent teachers and counselors who steered Latino students into auto shop instead of college-track courses.’” (Logan) To make their voice heard, these students organized a large school walkout to show the actions they were willing to take to fight for justice. 



Youth are not just the “future,” but they are also our present; therefore, it is imperative that young people use their voice to join and create movements to have a say in their future and what may be someone else’s final moments. While many may not take youth seriously in their advocating or activism, young people are strong in numbers and have a unique position in organizing, as K-12 schools often serve as meeting places for youth clubs focused on advocacy. 

Advocacy is often necessary for progress and young people now have a new generational perspective on how to create change. Similar to the beginning of social organizations in the history of civil society, young people meet in homes and common places, such as coffee shops or libraries, to discuss philanthropic strategies for their communities and beyond. 

The young will inspire the young. Anyone can inspire another, but the youth of today that are leading the charge in advocacy will be the ones to model a life for other young people. Not only are youth inspiring other youth to get involved, but they are empowering a generation now and generations to come to make their voice heard and gather in masses for a cause to believe in. 


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector 

Philanthropy is an act advocating for change in one way or another. Advocacy is often understood as a branch of philanthropy in itself (Moody), as philanthropy can take on various shapes and sizes. Because of this, youth advocacy can be understood as direct philanthropic action. 

Youth engagement also leads to civic engagement in adulthood. While the causes and movements may come and go with the times, the lessons learned through past movements will help young people grow into adult advocates and changemakers. Some may turn into entrepreneurs that open new nonprofit organizations and some may become ambassadors for certain causes. There is no limit when it comes to the possible results of youth advocacy. 


Key Related Ideas 

  • Advocacy as a brand has been growing in popularity around the swell of social media. Many online personalities and celebrities have been working hard to get their name and brand synonymous with activism and advocacy by constantly connecting their followers to new nonprofit organizations, relaying new data about hot button topics, and celebrating certain dates, such as National Coming Out Day or International Women’s Day. This can lead to book deals for these influencers, the creation of new nonprofit organizations, and developing mentorship for both the influencer and their followers. (Gamber-Thompson) 

  • Family advocacy is often the start of a young person’s activism journey, whether that begins as families going to marches together or even volunteering together. Especially when children are young, they learn so much from their parents that their morals and determination are shaped earlier that many think. This can heavily influence a young person’s determination to get involved with local organizations and causes to try and advocate for themselves and those in their communities. 


Important People Related to the Topic 

  • Malala Yousafazai was born in Pakistan in 1997 to a family that supported equal education. Her father taught at and ran a school for girls in her village for much of her life. The Taliban banned school and educational opportunities for girls and Malala was deeply upset. Through this dissatisfaction, Malala spoke out and demanded access to education for herself and for all girls. At the age 15, on her way to school, Malala was singled out by extremists and shot in the head. Surviving the attack, Malala has now devoted her entire life to advocating for equal education for girls internationally. (Yousafzai) 

  • Born in 2001, Rowan Blanchard is most commonly known for starring in the Disney Channel Show “Girl Meets World.” Outside of her work on screen, Blanchard is an avid activist and uses social media to the height of its capacity. She has been known to protest agendas harmful to youth, women, people of color, indigenous people, and the environment, and was even asked to speak at The Women’s March when she was only 15. Using her Instagram and Twitter accounts to encourage others to get involved with popular causes is very quickly becoming her brand, especially during election time. (Macklin) 

  • Mari Copeny was born in Flint, MI, in 2007 and is often referred to as “Little Miss Flint” by locals and online fans alike. In 2008, Copeny wrote a letter to then President Barack Obama about the dangers Flint’s water system was presenting to children and how typical activities were now causing harm, such as showering and swimming. Since then, Copeny “has founded the Dear Flint Kids Project, raised more than $10,000 for students in her community, become a Women’s March Youth Ambassador, and recently started to fight against education inequality.” (Gallucci) 

  • Ryan White contracted HIV and was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 when he was 13. Because much about HIV/AIDS was widely unknown by the public, his school didn’t allow him to return after his diagnosis both under the impression that he was a danger to other students and under the pressure from other parents at the school. White spent the last years of his light fighting that decision and against the stigmas attached to those diagnosed with AIDS. He died at 18. (LaChance) 


Related Nonprofit Organizations 

  • Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation has been encouraging and supporting youth mental wellness since 2012. Founded by Lady Gaga and Cynthia Germanotta, Gaga’s mother, the foundation works meets the youth where they are at and challenges people of all ages to be kind - to themselves, to their communities, and to their world. Born This Way Foundation also provides a platform for youth voice in media,, where youth reporters can share stories about kind acts in their communities and how others can advocate for kindness similarly. ( 

  • The March for Our Lives is an organization run by youth advocates to end gun violence and diminish the power of the NRA. Whether or not the mission of the organization is one to agree with, the organization’s leadership and work is something to be modeled. March for Our Lives was created after a school shooting in Parkland, FL, on February 14, 2018. Survivors of the attack started advocating for their lives and safety through marches, petitions, and rally tours of the United States. In less than a year, the March for Our Lives leaders gained celebrity status and continued to encourage others and run a nonprofit organization while applying for college and continuing their coursework. ( 

  • The Black Youth Project is an organization that explores how black youth and black millennials perceive American politics, culture, and sexuality. This organization also explores the issues facing these generations of younger African Americans and how to help this demographic contribute to these areas of society while creating a space to show positive media around black leaders that may not be found elsewhere. ( 

  • Maater Makers was started as an organization to help millennial innovators share their work and lift their voice. Especially with the twenty-first century media focus on younger voices, Maater Makers wanted to create a platform and a program that allowed these youth advocates to share their narratives authentically and on their own. Many youth that have worked with Maater Makers have gone on to write their own books or give TEDx talks promoting their cause at a very young age. ( 

  • Peace First is a nonprofit organization rooted in Boston, MA, that works with youth internationally to provide toolkits and resources to teach these youth how to become peacemakers. Peace First allows young people to come to them with their ideas on how to make the world a better and more peaceful place through their online platform and various Peace First Challenges and then equips them with the needed support, sometimes through mini-grants or strategizing. This work is done remotely for the most part, so youth from anywhere are able to participate in a community of peacemakers from every inch of the globe. ( 


Reflection Question 

How can you start advocating for change with your own talents and passions in a way that could inspire others to advocate too? 



  • Astor, Maggie. "7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism." The New York Times. March 05, 2018.
  • Blakemore, Erin. "Youth in Revolt: Five Powerful Movements Fueled by Young Activists." National Geographic. March 23, 2018.
  • Cammarota, Julio, and Shawn Ginwright. "Youth Activism in the Urban Community: Learning Critical Civic Praxis within Community Organizations." International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 20, no. 6 (2007): 693-710.  doi:10.1080/09518390701630833. 
  • Cammarota, Julio, Shawn Ginwright, and Pedro NogueraBeyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America's Youth.” 2006. 
  • Gallucci, Nicole. "Little Miss Flint's 5 Awesome Tips for Becoming a Young Activist."  Mashable. September 22, 2018.
  • Gamber-Thompson, Liana, Henry Jenkins, Neta Kligler-VilenchikSangita Shresthovaand Arely Zimmerman. BY ANY MEDIA NECESSARY: The New Youth Activism. S.l.: New York University Press, 2016. 
  • Ginwright, Shawn A. "Black Youth Activism and the Role of Critical Social Capital in Black Community Organizations." American Behavioral Scientist 51, no. 3 (2007): 403-18. doi:10.1177/0002764207306068. 
  • Kelleher, Jennifer. "8 Ways Rowan Blanchard Proved She Was Wise Beyond Her Years." E! Online. October 11, 2018.
  • Kirshner, Ben. "Introduction: Youth Activism as a Context for Learning and Development." American Behavioral Scientist 51, no. 3 (2007): 367-79.  doi:10.1177/0002764207306065. 
  • LaChance, Nicole. "Child Activists: Ten Stories about Inspirational Kids." Institute for Educational Advancement. November 30, 2016.
  • Logan, Erin B. "From Little Rock to Parkland: A Brief History of Youth Activism."  NPR. February 28, 2018. 
  • Macklin, Emma. "Rowan Blanchard: 16-Year-Old Social Media Activist, Humanitarian, Feminist, and Artist." April 16, 2018.
  • Mason, Heather. "Meet Smart Girl Mari Copeny Aka 'Little Miss Flint'." Amy Poehler's  Smart Girls. August 22, 2017.
  • Moody, Michael P., and Robert L. Payton. Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 
  • Yousafzai, Malala, Patricia McCormick, and John GilkesI Am Malala: How One Girl Stood up for Education and Changed the World.” Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press, 2018. 
  • "Youth Activism Law and Legal Definition." Youth Activism Law and Legal Definition. 2016.


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.