Solidarity Organizational Health January 18, 2023

Intergenerational Conflict and Skill-Sharing in Activism

Daniella Lock
Postdoctoral Fellow, Symposium for Strength and Solidarity

Akwe Amosu
Program Director, Symposium for Strength and Solidarity

Sometimes debates over strategy in activism are presented as a matter of intergenerational conflict. These debates and their framing can sometimes lead to different generations feeling out of touch with each other and even excluded from different forms of activism. Is tension along this boundary inevitable? And what would it take, to create conditions in which different generations of activists support each other even if they disagree on their tactics?


Sometimes debates over strategy in activism are presented as a matter of intergenerational conflict. For example, debate has occurred over whether the use of the internet in activism, as younger generations of activists are more prone to, has helped replace face to face consciousness-raising and party political engagement with a form of ‘clicktivism’, based on hashtags and online petitions – see, for example, this 2019 Economist article “Youth movements are the fool’s gold of politics”. Another disagreement seen to have a generational flavour relates to the extent that effective activism should be governed by hierarchical vs non-hierarchical structures, with some youth activism in recent years favouring non-hierarchical structures within their organising, rather than traditional top-down command structures.


These debates and their framing can sometimes lead to different generations feeling out of touch with each other and even excluded from different forms of activism. Is tension along this boundary inevitable? And what would it take, to create conditions in which different generations of activists support each other even if they disagree on their tactics?


The Anti-SARS Demonstrations


An example of where these conflicts have played out is explored in the Strength&Symposium podcast episode 9, with Nigerian activist, Samson Itodo. The episode discusses the anti-SARS demonstrations in October 2021 in Lagos and other Nigerian cities. During these protests, Samson Itodo explains that many of the young activists gathering to protest police violence and corruption – mostly Gen Z – actively rejected the input of an experienced cadre of organisers, partly on the grounds they were too formalised or professionalised a network to be accepted as participants in this new upsurge of protest.  Watching from the sidelines, according to Samson Itodo, these organisers – mostly millennials who had led powerful protests in the past, felt alienated from the protests and believed a more organised approach was needed in the campaign.


It is obvious that conflicts between activist communities on tactics like this can hamper the strength as a movement as a whole, if it results in alienation and one group acting while the other feels it cannot act, as in the case above. When situations like this occur, is the solution for both parties to separate and go at it their own way? In the Nigerian example, would it have been better for the older generation of activists to, rather than standing from the sidelines, organise amongst themselves?


Probably the answer is both yes and no. Groups can most often employ different assets and therefore tactics in service of the same cause in a way which is not necessarily mutually exclusive. Moreover, most successful movements have benefitted from a number of different tactics being employed simultaneously.  What in practice happened, according to Itodo, is that the more seasoned millennials didn’t want to take the shine off the young people who were on the streets but helped with the articulation of issues to the broader public and helped to coordinate the emergence of demands.


The Importance of Intergenerational Skill-Sharing


One issue in this case was that it was not clear that this division of labour was fully acknowledged or consensual and the #End SARS protests, powerful as they were in demonstrating popular anger, had limited practical success. It is true that many less successful movements have been weakened by factionalism and a lack of unity and in these cases, such factionalism was usually defined by a lack of mutual support between groups. Where mutual support between groups is present, unity can be supported despite a disagreement over tactics.


Examples of inter-generational support in activism echo in stories of successful activism around the world – as in Argentina, where generations of feminists worked together in securing abortion rights, as discussed in our previous blog. While older generations of feminist activists helped devise strategies to ensure previous mistakes of the movement were not repeated, younger generations helped equip the movement with other skills, such organising via social media.


Such skill-sharing between generations of activists is crucial at the moment, particularly as youth activism is on the rise. From the schoolgirls in Iran refusing to cover their hair, to soup-throwers in European galleries trying to get attention for the climate crisis, young people can be frequently found at the frontline, defending and advancing human rights and social justice. Young people are also finding themselves increasingly held up as the faces of global campaigns such as education for girls (for example, Malala Yousafzai) or averting the climate catastrophe (for example, Greta Thunburg).


Naturally forward-looking, relatively free of entanglement in, or responsibility for present social, economic and political problems, youth activism can be hugely effective at challenging entrenched political forces. At the same time, youth activists can be just as vulnerable, if not more, as other activists on the frontline, to state and media attacks, and they have less experience at confronting such attacks. There is a long list of young political prisoners currently serving time and the recent Government killings of Iranian schoolchildren is a reminder that the young are by no means insulated from brutal state violence.


Intergenerational Skill-Sharing in Palestine 


In the Strength & Solidarity podcast, episode 27, Palestinian activist and organiser, Issa Amro, gives a detailed description of the way he and other experienced activists in Hebron on the West Bank, train and resource youth activism.  His account places high importance on the capacity and leadership of young people in the fight against the Occupation and the responsibility of older activists to ensure they are successful through intensive engagement that lasts years before the “mentors” come to consider their “trainees” as fully equipped and their equals in decisions on strategy and tactics.


In Issa Amro’s organising, activists have been living alongside a well-organised enemy in Israel’s security forces and armed settlers for several years and they have both time and an interest in building a sustainable and resilient campaign that can’t be easily derailed and dispersed. Passing on skills to minimise state retaliation is a crucial part of the work Issa Amro has done with youth activists in Hebron. Key examples include teaching them how to use video cameras to document their treatment and the treatment of others around them, as well their rights under military and international law, UN language training, presentation skills training and the history of activism. In addition to practical support, Amro discusses emotional work he does to help young people channel their anger to be a tool for constructively exercising political power. Young people are then urged into leadership positions for six months at a time and receive feedback on how they have performed, to gain a sense of the task of carrying responsibility for the group and remaining accountable to the grass roots of the movement.


This approach has a rich tradition in the history of activism. The Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), campaigning for desegregation in the American South, partly owed its existence to the nurturing mentorship of Ella Baker, and was offered the vocal support of Martin Luther King. In fighting apartheid, the ANC in exile helped to establish and support crucial grassroots workers and student organisations, like the Congress of South African Students (COSAS).   through which mentoring and training of young activists was a fundamental element of practice by seasoned anti-apartheid political and activists and trade unionists.


Youth mobilisation is also being backed by organisations globally. All over the US, community organising is a well-established feature of the landscape and has proven key in the emergence of black and minority activism, as well as other mobilised constituencies.   Last year, in the UK, Amnesty International and The Co-operative Bank – historically rooted in a progressive labour movement –  started a training programme for young human rights defenders- called ‘Rise Up’ – to support youth activists trying to achieve social change in their local communities.


Harnessing collective political power across generations in this way not only serves to strengthen the internal muscle memory of a movement overall. It can reinforce a practice of solidarity between generations of activists especially where media narratives – such as the ‘culture wars’ – sow division.


You can listen to the interview with Issa Amro in Episode 27  here.