The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City sparked a national discussion about race and inequality and led to demonstrations in cities across America in 2014. The year also saw the People’s Climate March, which drew more than 300,000 people to New York City and included solidarity marches across the globe.
Assistant professor of communication studies Sarah Jackson’s research and teaching interests examine how social and political identities are constructed in the public sphere, with a particular focus on how race and gender are constructed in national debates around citizenship, inequality, and social movements. Here, she examines social activism, the engagement of millennials, the role of media and new technology, the Supreme Court’s decision to address marriage equality, and what we might expect in the year ahead.
What most caught your attention about social movements in 2014, and, in light of last year’s events, what are you most interested in exploring with your students in 2015?
There were many notable things about social movements in 2014; one was the range of issues that activists were able to bring to public attention, from issues of fair wages to the environment, immigration, and transgender rights to police profiling. While none of these issues are new, and activists have been working on them for a long time, 2014 seemed to be a year in which previously unengaged citizens, politicians, and media-makers started talking about these issues as well. Likewise, the social movement events that occurred in 2014 attracted a huge number and diversity of people. For example, the People’s Climate March attracted more than 300,000 people to New York City in September and was accompanied by solidarity marches all across the globe. This event brought together farmers, scientists, high school students, faith leaders, and more. Similarly, we saw a beautiful diversity of people turn out for marches that focused on issues of police brutality and racial profiling.
These are topics we’ve been talking a lot about in my social movement communication class. It is especially exciting as an educator to see students coming into my course with a newly lit fire in their belly for creating social change now and in the future.
You’ve talked about the intergenerational conflicts present in social movements—specifically, the friction between how people understand the civil rights era as centered on a charismatic male leader and a more diffused grassroots approach embraced by younger activists. How do you see those intergenerational conflicts playing out in 2015 and beyond?
There’s a cultural myth that millennials don’t care about the world around them. It’s impossible to believe if you’ve been paying attention to what has been happening in America and across the world for the past five years, and plenty of data refutes it. Many young people are incredibly engaged in social change issues, but because of changes in technology and political and social contexts, like the rise of neoliberalism and increasing globalization, the way young people engage has had to evolve. Sometimes that means older generations dismiss the strategies of younger generations because those strategies look unfamiliar.
Intergenerational conflicts in social movements are nothing new. Younger and older generations disagreed about the best tactics from the French Revolution to the Feminist Movement. However, I do not think we should ignore how much intergenerational sharing and cooperation is also happening. The current push for grassroots, leaderless, identity-inclusive social movements is not new. There was a similar debate during the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements. Yet many of us were only taught about forms of activism that looked more hierarchical. Young people have always brought new insights to social movements, and elder movement leaders who acknowledge this and work to mentor and legitimize younger generations can make a great impact.
Gene Demby, in a recent Politico story, called Twitter perhaps the best “megaphone for a movement spearheaded by young people of color.” What role will media and new technology play in activism in 2015, and are there any budding social media platforms that will emerge on the social movement landscape in the year ahead?
I am asking these exact questions in some of the research I am working on with my colleague Brooke Foucault Welles. We’ve found some intriguing patterns about the way young people, and particularly young people who are often ignored in political debates, have been at the center of much activism in America in the past six months. We plan to continue examining how Twitter networks in particular help spread the concerns of these young people and how these networks change and shape public conversations about inequality and social change.
It is yet to be seen what new technologies will develop in the coming year and how they will be used, but it is clear that new technologies have become an integral part of the activist tool kit.
The Supreme Court this month announced that it will take up the issue of marriage equality in 2015. What does this decision and the growing public support for marriage equality mean for the larger movement around LGBTQ rights in the coming year and beyond?
The Supreme Court agreeing to address marriage equality this year is a huge triumph for the gay marriage movement, but it is important to keep in mind that marriage equality is only one small part of the larger LGBTQ movement. In fact, there is some contention within the movement about how much energy has been put toward the issue of marriage when there are so many other civil rights issues, particularly those that impact poor and minority LGBQ people and transgender people generally, that must be addressed by the movement. Certainly growing public support for marriage equality means that activists have been successful in shaping their communication messages and lobbying efforts to the particular historical moment. The challenge now is to find equally successful strategies to address things like the hate crimes, economic inequality, and health care discrimination frequently faced by members of the LGBTQ community.