In the 10 years since People For the American Way Foundation started a program to support the next generation of progressive leaders, we have seen what can happen when organizations make real investments in young people.
Sure, a weekend-long training can be useful as a springboard to identify and engage new talent, or as a supplemental learning experience. But at PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) program, we’ve learned that these short-term approaches to leadership development are a tiny component of what actually goes into developing a catalytic leader.
Take, for example, Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders. Agnew catapulted into the national spotlight last year when he led more than sixty young people into Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office three days after the jury handed down a heartbreaking “not guilty” verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial. But long before he was a national leader, Phillip Agnew was a business administration major at Florida A&M University who decided to join the inaugural 2005 fellowship class of Young People For.
Focused from the start on collaboration between progressive young people, Agnew’s YP4 fellowship project was organizing a statewide, student-led coalition to lower tuition rates and increase Pell Grant funding in higher education. He worked with other young leaders across Florida to host a training preparing students to lead the advocacy for accessible higher education. Through the YP4 fellowship, he was introduced to critical social issues and learned how to conduct effective community organizing around these issues, including how to champion their message in the media. Agnew became an organizer with the Student Coalition for Justice, a cadre of students from Florida A&M University, Florida State University, and Tallahassee Community College angered by the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at a Florida youth detention center.
Seven years later, in response to the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Agnew built on his past social justice experiences and connections to form the Dream Defenders, which helped bring national attention to the Martin case. From Governor Scott’s office, the Dream Defenders pushed for a repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and a special legislative session on racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline, among other demands. Following 31 days in the Capitol and a commitment from Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford to hold a hearing on the state’s Stand Your Ground law, Agnew announced that the Dream Defenders would leave to refocus on civic engagement in their communities to amplify the need for reform. Dream Defenders, which continues to be led by young people of color, now has chapters on nine college campuses in Florida and continues to highlight racial and social economic justice issues.
When Agnew started showing up on national television for the sit-in he was leading, it wasn’t because he had just woken up that day and decided to organize. He had been working for years with other young progressive activists. He had also been working for years with national organizations that provided trainings. Guidance from seasoned activists. Space to try, fail, and then try again. At YP4, our leadership development programming gives young organizers the unique opportunity to identify their interests, identify community needs, and develop a skill set that empowers them to start creating positive social change where they are. Our allies in this space work together to provide campaign, organizing, advocacy, and leadership training; to build progressive power in communities; and to strengthen local, state and intergenerational networks. We don’t invest in young people for a weekend or even for a year. We are in it for the long haul.
But our hard work is not enough if resources are not committed to sustain the leaders, like Agnew, who fuel the movement. Organizations consistently lack the resources to provide comprehensive training, coaching, and mentorship that promising youth leaders need to embark on lifelong careers in the movement. It has become all too clear to me that as a movement, we are underutilizing and undercapitalizing our best resource: people.
We must learn from the successes of young leaders like the Dream Defenders and recruit, train, and connect thousands more local organizers and activists, particularly in underrepresented communities and regions of the country. We need to recruit inspiring candidates who will shape our country’s policies for decades to come. And we need to focus on sustainability in the movement, working to ensure that each of these efforts is woven together to create a comprehensive leadership development infrastructure that prepares us for the fights to come. Investing in progressive young people is the key to ensuring our movement’s capacity to create and sustain social change for years to come.
Because — I think you’ll agree — our country could use a lot more Phillip Agnews.
Andrew Gillum is the director of People For the American Way Foundation’s Youth Leadership Programs and a City Commissioner in Tallahassee, Fla.