What is a Youth Organizer?
As a Youth Organizer, the most common question I get is, “But how do you get paid?” And the answer is... I usually don’t.
Youth Organizing is considered an after-thought for funders, if they think of it at all. It’s something they support on a project by project basis, assuming you already have overhead for salaries, rent, and other organizational needs. It’s even harder to find a Youth Organizing grant that serves regions outside of the east and west coasts. So, even when I’m giving expert training, I’m often the lowest-paid person in the room.
DAYUM members are in consensus that I have "Spencer from iCarly vibes"
In 2015, when I graduated from college and quit my job, I started calling myself a Youth Organizer. At the time, there was no such thing in my city and I’d never seen a “youth organizer” in action, so I had several phone calls with people in other cities - Oakland, Philadelphia, Chicago - to get an idea of what a Youth Organizer does. What I learned from those calls was that, ultimately, I had to figure it out on my own.
A lot of older organizers told me, “You can work with youth because you’re young.” I was 21 at the time, and believed that to be true - Youth Organizing meant being young and organizing youth. Maybe it’s because I’m now 28 (and love what I do in a permanent way) but I’ve learned that there are a lot of unique skills that go into Youth Organizing - skills that can be practiced at any age. The trickiest part, though, is balancing what I think of as three identities. The Soccer Mom, the Organizer, and the Mental Health Supporter.
The Soccer Mom is the part that’s responsible for pizza delivery, reminding people to stay hydrated, providing chauffeur services, and telling everyone to bring their coat to the protest. I think this is what most nonprofits are imagining when they hire a “youth coordinator.” There’s a sense that youth leadership means all you have to do is provide for the physical needs of the young people and the rest will just happen. Of course, this is rarely the case.
The second, and most complicated, part of being a Youth Organizer is the Organizer. This is the part that I have in common with all my reproductive justice, climate justice, and racial justice organizer friends. We have a common vocabulary: 1:1s, Direct Action, Strategy Charts. Becoming an organizer means internships, conferences, and a ton of reading.
Organizers as a whole don’t get paid enough - and the best organizing is often completely unpaid - but Youth Organizing gets a special kind of dismissal, even within groups made entirely of paid organizers. Adult-run organizations will often receive a small grant for “youth engagement” (especially during an election year) and use it to hire a part-time “youth organizer” whose job is primarily to register voters. This is not what a Youth Organizer does, and it’s frustrating when adult-led groups take up so much of the limited funds meant for youth organizing for their own missions.
The last part of Youth Organizing is the secret sauce, the hardest part, and the piece I’m always still practicing — the Mental Health Supporter. This is the part only other Youth Organizers, and maybe some really good teachers, understand. Youth Organizers don’t have the professional boundaries school teachers and therapists have, yet our work touches on some of the same difficult, deeply hidden, and emotional aspects of life. This combination means that I can expect to get a text or call at several times a week and any time of the day to talk through a serious emergency.
"The most unique role of a Youth Organizer is taking the many crises of adolescence and connecting them to tangible, systemic issues."
I never turn these calls down. Partly because it’s my responsibility as a trusted adult, but also because the scary, difficult personal problems are the building blocks of a good grassroots campaign. The most unique role of a Youth Organizer is taking the many crises of adolescence and connecting them to tangible, systemic issues controlled by decision makers who can be lobbied and voted out of office. We may be the only adults in their life to say, “You are not too emotional. Your feelings are valid and you are powerful.”
Adrienne maree brown says that our first experience with organizing can often feel a lot like a first love. We have some of the same early feelings of overwhelming joy and certainty, a belief that this organization is going to solve all of society’s problems, just like a first love seems like it will solve all of our personal problems — that it will save us.
A good youth organizer can help midwife a young person through this experience, moderating both the highs and the lows. We’re the first adult a young person encounters in their (hopefully) lifelong commitment to Organizing. We must balance three very different identities in order to fully show up for the shifting needs of young people. We should fund this work like the highly-skilled, emotionally taxing, and incredibly vital movement building work that it is.