Twin Cities student activism on the rise

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While New York has a Wall Street that no city can beat and DC can rally up people by the million to march at the Capitol, the Twin Cities has the highest per capita count of colleges and universities in the nation. With 17 colleges and universities and more than 35 high schools within the metro area, we have 112 square miles teeming with students—this is our thing!

As September approaches, these students are bustling back to the Twin Cities, reuniting and gearing up for a new school year. While classrooms may seem the most obvious location to find youth, last spring’s walkouts and immigrant rights marches showed that youth are by no means restricted to campus.

Over the past five years, there has been a burst of youth-run organizations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Many students are deciding to take their education outside the classroom and direct their energies toward more proactive connections with local and national issues.

“Last spring students were inspired by other students and what was happening around them in other towns and all over the city. They fed off each other’s energy,” says David Skovholt of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network (MIFN), which introduced a new leadership curriculum to empower immigrant youth last year.

“Naturally, students are more passionate and sincere about their work,” adds Alondra Espejel, also of MIFN.

This fall, MIFN is working to expand their successful leadership curriculum to more than 17 different schools, stabilize the energy stirred up from the action last spring and use it to build powerful community voices on a state-wide level.

MIFN emphasizes art as a medium for social change. This summer, 12 students worked to film oral histories of immigrants throughout Minnesota. They hope to show this film to set the tone for candidate forums in southern Minnesotan towns during the fall.

Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR), a student organization formed in 2004, focuses on counter-military recruitment. Last November 2, a citywide council of YAWR high school students organized a student walkout and march that ended in front of the military recruiters’ office at the University of Minnesota. More than 2,000 students showed up. Although there are counter-recruitment campaigns all over the country, the scale of student participation is unique to the Twin Cities.

“Usually, counter-military recruitment movements are made up of parents and old 70s activists going into schools,” said Ty Moore, a supporting organizer of YAWR. “Here [in the Twin Cities], there is an emphasis on student-led action. … This independent strength defies the perception that students don’t care, because actually, young people are fully prepared to take action. They bring a bold and opportunistic approach to the movement.”

Yo! The Movement is a completely youth-driven and -run nonprofit organization. “If you step into my office you will see a bunch of young people working on serious stuff,” says Claire Redmon. Redmon was a high school student when she got involved with Yo!’s Youth Fellowship program, a training program that aims to provide young people with the skills to empower themselves and other young people in their communities. Now, as a college student at Hamline, she’s working with local hip hop artist Toki Wright to set up events like this August’s Twin City’s Celebration of Hip Hop, where youth came together to listen to hip hop and strategize on how to effectively make change.

From one perspective, the Twin Cities seems like the ultimate place to be a student activist: the numbers are here, the initial structures have been organized and creativity is flowing. On the other hand, collaboration between all these inspiring groups seems to be lacking. Coalition-building remains a task to be accomplished.

Jewish Community Action (JCA) and the West Side Citizen’s Organization are taking action on this front. Together they are planning all-youth coordination efforts where youth organizers across town sit down and discuss how to work together better.

“Every kid has an issue that they care about. Give them the tools, and bodies to do something about it and they can be extremely powerful within a movement,” says Molly Bowen, an intern with Jewish Youth Organizing Leadership Team, JCA’s new youth organizing program. “We need to support each other and start getting to know one another. If you don’t take action as a student, when will you?”

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