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Becoming Activist

Critical Literacy and Youth Organizing


Elizabeth Bishop

Becoming Activist is a revolutionary study of youth human rights activism and literacy learning. The book follows five urban youth organizers from the Drop Knowledge Project in New York City. Intentionally polyvocal, the voices of the five youth are featured prominently to highlight the shifting articulation of their activist identities in relation to social and economic justice. Becoming Activist explores critical literacy pedagogy beyond the confines of formal education. While it has been historically theorized within English classrooms, much existing research points to the limitations of conducting critical literacy in schools. In search of a space where critical literacy can be more fully realized, this book positions urban youth organizing as an alternative context for powerful community-based learning. A valuable read for educators, researchers, and young organizers, Becoming Activist offers insight into conducting literacy work to promote positive youth and community development. Ultimately, the idea of «becoming» is key to understanding and supporting youth activists as they grow to exercise their political power for positive social change.
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Chapter 5. Organizing a Space for Justice

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Recent youth organizing work is expanding the idea of young people engaging in activism. Activism here is understood as one key component to cultural, political, and social movements (Reed, 1981), in relation to which individuals further develop their sociopolitical identities (Watts & Guessous, 2006). By undertaking social activist projects, social justice-oriented youth organizers reframe ideas about civic engagement to consider how power informs civic and community life. In the process, they foster their abilities to understand, question, and challenge the subtle relationships among their identities, cultures, and politics (Ginwright, 2010b).

In what follows, the context of youth organizing is introduced as a community-based space from within which critical literacy learning takes place. This involves many challenges: first, to define the terms of youth organizing and activism through a poststructuralist approach to question and defer signification; second, to delineate something of a nonnarrative, nonexhaustive history of past and present activist organizing projects; and third, to trace the reach and limitations of youth organizing projects to establish the need for the present study.

Youth organizing is a relatively new field of research, a hybrid space that is activist in content and that actively resists cooptation. Obviously, youth engaging in community organizing and social activism have a long history well before either concept was even considered a “field” for study. Broadly speaking, the contemporary study of youth organizing is an extension of positive youth development, situated in the crux among traditional youth development, youth leadership, and community organizing.

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