The following is guest blog written by our new Director or Engagement, Tim Cywinski, and appeared in Icitizen -- an organization that helps people influence and inform decisions that improve their lives through online polling and data analytics.
“Millennials are narcissistic, selfish, entitled, know-it-alls obsessed with avocado toast.”
— Grumpy Not-Millennials
We’re all acutely aware of these Millennial stereotypes. As the Communications Director of Virginia21, an organization created to help young Virginians influence politics, I often have to set the record straight about the positive qualities of my generation and our potential to create a better world.
My argument is not grounded on stereotypes but on a little thing called history.
So, I think a good way to celebrate our country’s anniversary this year is by giving a shout out to a few of the civically engaged young people who were at the forefront of every transformational movement our country has ever experienced.
The American Revolution
People who were instigators and leaders of the American Revolution were the same age as our generation is today. Perhaps you’ve heard of this guy named Thomas Jefferson? He was actually in his early 30s when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He signed the document alongside more than a dozen others who were under 35 – and many were in their 20s.
Then, there’s Abigail Adams who was 32 in 1776 when she famously warned her husband John Adams that if the laws of the new country were unjust to them, the “ladies would foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
The Abolitionist Movement
Harriet Tubman was only 27 when she escaped enslavement and led other people to safety using the Underground Railroad.
The list continues. William Lloyd Garrison was only 25 when he founded the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Frederick Douglass was about 27 when he wrote, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave in 1845.
Voting is often described as a cornerstone of civic engagement, but there was badass group of independent young women who didn’t need a ballot to shape our civic rights. Susan B. Anthony was out canvassing abolitionists to sign antislavery petitions when she was only 17.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was barely 30 when she helped to organize the Seneca Falls Convention. Charlotte Woodard Pierce was 20 when she signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Janet Rankin, who in 1920, was the first woman elected to Congress, began campaigning for Women’s Suffrage while in her 20s.
Civil Rights Movement
Okay, so this one is a no-brainer. The first sit-ins? College students. The Freedom Riders? College Students. Freedom Summer? Predominately run by people our age.
A great deal of progress during the civil rights movement was the product of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which was founded and governed by young people. I mean, Rep. John Lewis was only 25 when he helped lead the March on Selma on Bloody Sunday. Need I say more?
United Farm Workers Union and Stonewall
Cesar Chavez was only 35 and Dolores Huerta was only 32 when they founded the United Farm Workers Union in 1962.
Most of the Stonewallers who participated in the rebellion that launched the modern LGBTQ movement were under 30. Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman who was one of the original Stonewallers, was only 24.
History negates the unfounded stereotypes against young people. It also disproves another over generalization of youth – the classic “you’re the future” line.
But if America’s past shows us anything, it’s that we don’t have to wait our turn to make an impact, and it’s never too early for anyone to start challenging the status quo.
We Millennials are the largest, most educated and diverse generation since America’s first Independence Day. We can make a difference right now, and I am excited to see how we create our own history.