A Conversation With: Austin Thompson

In your essay, “Mobilizing Youth Movements to Achieve More Equitable Outcomes for Children, Families, and Communities at Scale,” you talk about the demographic shift underway in the United States. Why is that so important for the future of our democracy?

We’ve never really seen what a truly multiracial democracy looks like, anywhere in the world. The U.S. today is no exception. White men are roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population, but White men represent 67 percent of Senators and 91 percent of sheriffs.1 Now we have a laboratory experiment on what it means to have a just and equitable society that’s increasingly racially diverse and pluralistic. Demographics have a lot to do with how policy decisions get made. The people who govern are majority White and over 65, and it’s not that they’re bad people but it makes little sense to have such a narrow set of perspectives shaping policy in a democracy. These same folks are the most likely voters, particularly in non-Presidential years, so there’s limited opportunity for younger, more racially diverse folks to shape a more reflective democracy and influence policy. That’s being borne out in the policy decisions being made on health care, education, housing, and criminal justice reform. There are so many examples in the COVID-19 era, it’s almost overwhelming. 

For instance, why is there no commitment by our government to have a robust safety net at a time when the population has become more diverse? Why were undocumented youth written out of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act? Why wasn’t there a policy change to cancel rents during the pandemic, when we know that younger people of color are far more likely to be renters than homeowners, compared to previous generations? Why, over the last 30 years, have there been cuts to state funding for higher ed and training, at a time when the students in higher ed systems are increasingly people of color, compared to the past, when state funding was assumed? Again, policy decisions are overwhelmingly being made by people who are not necessarily directly impacted or even informed by these experiences. 

These are examples of where there’s a lot at stake in terms of racial equity, now in this moment, particularly in how policies are being formulated and implemented. But the bottom line is that while America celebrates diversity as the source of its strength, demographics are not destiny. In South Africa, when there was a demographic reality where Blacks were the majority and Whites were the minority, they still obviously had trouble establishing a true multiracial democracy. That’s one of the reasons why we need youthful movements.

You make the point that life experiences are very formative when people are young, and that’s a plus for youth organizing. But there’s also a stridency to young people’s thinking that can be problematic. Do you think we put youth on a pedestal, when actually we need to help them continue to grow?

The most effective way to fight against patronizing young people and their campaigns for change is to realize that the reason we want to organize youth isn’t because of their youthfulness but because of their newness. We are not looking for them to lead everything. We are looking for the unique insights they can provide about the moment that we might otherwise miss—the insights young people get from being new to a system, a process, an organization, or in this case our fragile democracy. As Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”2 

This is part of what I mean when I say we shouldn’t think of youth as a constituency per se. We need to have youth insights, perspectives, and energy as part of a multigenerational movement of people that draws from the wisdom of past campaigns for change and the insights of current activists and organizers  who have been in the struggle for a long time.

What are the implications for youth movements of the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which are likely to be with us for many more years? 

One implication is that we need to draw a better connection between the very popular direct services people received to withstand the fallout from COVID-19 and the need for continued advocacy and organizing to sustain those services for people who need them. The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning but hunger, housing, and long-term unemployment will linger on much longer. So, I think it’s important to leverage the energy and attention and dollars that are going into providing immediate relief for people to include education about the need to continue to be advocates for the extension of these services. Otherwise, they will go away. 

Should we be trying to get funders behind systems change, instead of just ameliorating crises through programmatic solutions? 

I definitely advocate that funders move their resources toward the underlying causes of the problem: the lack of commitment to a 21st-century social safety net, the imbalances around multi-racial democracy, and other inequities in our society. But philanthropy is not always set up to deal with the root causes of problems. I think funders need to revisit their theories of change and recognize that the struggles for multi-racial democracy and permanent policy fixes to deal with things like the healthcare, education, and housing crisis that were exacerbated by COVID-19 are critical in this moment.

It would be fine if the status quo allowed us all to live well. But we’re in moment where the status quo sets us up for the extinction of our species. The virus reveals our fragility, the fact that at any moment our species could die and wither away—not in a hundred years but in an instant. And the sad news is that Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor, and low-wealth people are the most vulnerable. 

If the species is heading for extinction, and the status quo is taking us there, why do you think we’re stuck in the status quo? 

I think American self-reliance is a good thing, and I respect those who warn against an over-reliance on government (particularly when it comes to policing and incarceration). However, in the U.S. we don’t have a culture of collective action and public trust. Look at our recent inability to take a coordinated national response to COVID-19 rather than allowing each individual state to do its own thing; the armed backlash to basic public health and safety guidelines; the amount of disinformation many people had about mask wearing and vaccination. Human survival requires cooperation, solidarity, and mutual trust.

Do you feel despair or hope when you think about the future?

I feel it’s important to allow some despair to settle in, because hope has to be rooted in despair. We underestimate the extent to which lasting change begins with a level of despair. That’s what led to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56—the despair of people who were so sick and tired of how they were treated that they were willing to organize themselves to keep the boycott going for more than a year. 

There needs to be enough despair about the status quo, followed by hope that things can be different, for people to be moved to act for change. We see U.S. multi-racial democracy at risk. We see our ecological systems, including U.S. farmland, collapsing all around us. Seventy to 80 percent of the worlds’ species are dying. And we know that unless we ensure permanent relief for the most vulnerable people post-pandemic, millions of children and youth will face odds unlike those we have seen in a very long time. All of these things tell us that we need to have a radical imagination about what’s possible and inspire people to take action together toward a different future. The status quo is not working.

Is this a human despair or an American despair? Could it be that, in this moment of vulnerability, youth movements open up space in this country for us to learn to do better?

I think, in this moment, you are seeing a rising awareness of the importance of global interdependence and the limitations of American exceptionalism—from global pandemics, for example. The United States’ geography allowed us for a long time to escape the meaning and reality of interdependence in ways that Europe could not. But with COVID-19, it became clear that the U.S. is not disconnected from the rest of the world even if we want to be. Personally, I learned if I stay indoors and do everything I’m supposed to do but my partner goes out and doesn’t follow the rules, I can still get sick. And the United States will still get sick if it doesn’t think about the whole of the humans species and other living beings. Young people are thinking about interdependence and how to contextualize it. They are waking up with Greta Thunberg, they are leading us in this direction through things like the Sunrise Movement on the issues of global climate change. The Movement for Black Lives is drawing connections between overpolicing and incarceration here in the U.S. and in places like Nigeria and Brazil. It is an exciting moment for the world and for America. And this is where despair becomes hope.

1 “Research and Analysis of the 2020 Primary Elections.” Reflective Democracy Campaign, 26 May 2021, wholeads.us/research/system-failure-2020-primary-elections/
2 Suzuki, S. (2011). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. Shambhala Press, https://www.amazon.com/Zen-Mind-Beginners-Informal-Meditation/dp/1590308492.