what new contemporary activist movements

What is new about contemporary activist movements?

Every month starting December 2022, we at Youth Talks will be publishing a four-article series about a key socio-political topic, intending to trigger discussions with our readers. This month and for our first series, we explore the topic of activism(s), its history and meanings, as well as the young people and global initiatives that are shaping its new forms.

What better topic than Activism to kick off our blog series? Indeed, young people are increasingly taking such matters into their own hands to make their voices heard, in part thanks to online tools, a global trend that is perfectly aligned with the values and objectives of our consultation: listen to what you need, to provide you with an education that matches your aspirations, enabling you to shape a more sustainable world of tomorrow, a future world which belongs to you.

With that in mind, this first article’s purpose is to provide you with basic knowledge about activism and, hopefully, encourage you to share your thoughts with us by participating in our consultation.


📚 Activism: what does it mean exactly?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, activism is “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one” and an activist is “a person who believes strongly in political or social change and takes part in activities such as public protests to try to make this happen.”
In short, activism is when people take action to push political and/or social change forward, for example by asking a government to change its laws.


How does it work?

It is important to make the distinction between the two following main categories:

Traditional activism, where activists engage through an intermediary that is a public actor, a political party or a union. Here, all actions are always framed by the rules of the political apparatus.

Activism where activists use direct action, meaning they challenge an organization (e.g. governments, universities, companies, etc.) without going through the traditional intermediaries described above. It can be many things, like tweeting political representatives or striking in front of headquarters. It’s also a moral attitude, where actions are guided by values, even if it means making compromises, such as disrespecting the law.


Is direct activism necessarily illegal?

No, at least not in democratic countries where movements of opposition to the government are allowed. Basically,

Direct activists want to overthrow the power in place. They are typically violent and lead illegal movements (e.g. anarchists, terrorists, independentists).

Activists mostly want to change their society’s way of life and consumption and are typically non-violent (e.g. environmentalist, human rights, and anti-capitalist movements). 

Furthermore, many contemporary leading activist figures encourage non-violent forms of activism. For example, Sarah Durieux, the former executive director of change.org, a platform that allows people to create online petitions, explains in her activism guidebook that she believes it is the most effective way to make your voices heard.


Why is that?

She thinks that non-violent activism is not only ethical but also tactical, as violent action allows governments to caricature counter-movements by accusing them of being illegitimate while legitimizing its status quo. Indeed, nonviolent resistance has been shown empirically to be twice as effective as armed struggle in achieving major political goals.


What are the other characteristics of non-violent activism?

Sociologists coined the term New Social Movements (NSMs) to speak of them. They are characterized by the emphasis they put on identity, lifestyle, and culture, (e.g. women’s rights) rather than on economics or politics (e.g. workers’ movements). They emerged in post-industrialist western countries in the 1960s, are social networks composed of supporters rather than formal organizations with members, can have an international echo rather than focus on hyper local issues, but adopt historical counter-power movements’ tactics.


✊ What are their means of action?

There are many different ways to lead non-violent activist movements, for example: 

  • 19 years old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg founded Fridays for Future, school strikes where students demand that their governments are more accountable on climate change issues.
  • Extinction Rebellion is “a decentralized, international and politically non-partisan movement using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency” thanks to “happenings”.
  • Multiple forms of online activism, such as petitions on change.org, peer-to-peer social media campaigns like #MeToo.
  • Boycotting certain products or events to defend a cause, like some European cities did by canceling their fan zones to protest the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
  • Sit-ins, such as the Occupy movement, which‘s main focus was to protest economic inequalities.


We will get into more detail about different types of activisms in an article that will be published in a couple of weeks, stay tuned!


Are they completely new?

Non-violent tactics themselves are not new, the most famous pacifist leader being Indian independentist and anti-colonialist Mahatma Gandhi, who, in the 1930s, led peaceful marches, refused to pay taxes to the British government, organized sit-ins and hunger strikes, to fight for India’s independence from the British Empire. 

However, with the Internet, activists are more autonomous and decentralized than before, as social networks and instant messaging enable them to share their methods of action to anyone, very fast, from anywhere. In short, it is now possible to create an international movement with a hashtag while remaining anonymous, whereas before the Internet, activists had to meet in person to organize protests. Activist movements are easier to create and can become powerful, have an impact, more rapidly.


🐝 What about Gen-Z?

Another consequence of our increasingly connected world is that people online become aware of movements at a younger age, which causes them to engage in activism quite early. However, they perceive online tools as a part of a bigger picture, where offline movements are equally important, if not complementary. According to a survey led by Vice Voices among 30 000 readers in the United Kingdom and United States in 2019:

  • 76% of Gen-Z respondents identified as activists
  • 79% said they will attend protests and rallies
  • 70% said they will use social media to express their concerns and create change
  • 80% said they will join organizations that fight for the issues they care about

If you’d like to get an idea of what protests are taking place around the world, you can check out Carnegie’s Global Protest Tracker.


Why does it matter?

It matters because even though activism is capable of creating social change for the greater good, its increasing popularity is also a sign that traditional political institutions are less trusted. For instance, only 57% of the Vices Voices respondents declared they want to get involved in politics, much less than the 79% wishing to attend protests and rallies. 


How effective is it?

There is no official data to give that question a comprehensive response, but Sarah Durieux explains that the best indicator of success is the budget traditional politics allocate to the causes brought under the spotlight by activists, as well as the space the media gives to their actions. 

For instance and at a global level, climate action has become a key issue in political campaigns around the world. At a macro-level, we can take the USA Sunrise movement as an example. Led by people under 30 to push the government to adopt a Green New Deal, it started as a small sit-in in a political representative’s office, was noticed by the media, then became an eponymous congressional resolution presented by then in office Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.



New activist movements are innovative because they shift the public’s attention towards new topics.

In short, new activists create social and political change by taking direct action to call on governments and other representative organizations, without political parties or other traditional entities. Even though they adopt tactics that were already used in the past, and notably by anti-colonialist activists of the 18th century, their contemporary fights are mostly about identity (e.g. women’s rights), culture (e.g. freedom of expression), lifestyle (e.g. anti-consumerism) than about historical economic conflicts (e.g. workers’ movements). Thanks to the Internet, these movements spread faster and wider than they used to, succeeding in placing previously alternative issues at the heart of national debates.


🧠Food for thought

In May 1968, the French student and activist movement, which began on the Nanterre campus, challenged multiple authorities from the campus and its rules to the French government and police forces to the consumerist lifestyle disseminated by capitalism. The impact of the movement was such that similar movements were born around the world, echoing it: in Mexico, in Spain, in Pakistan… 

→ Do you think that activist and student movements today can have the same impact, on an international scale? What cause do you believe is international enough to mobilize young students across all five continents?

Then you are just where you need to be to take action !

📢 We need you

  • From October, 14th to April 30th, young people (15-29yo) worldwide are invited to take part in Youth Talks, a massive collective intelligence consultation.
  • The Higher Education for Good Foundation, which is launching this initiative, is expecting tens of thousands of respondents. 
  • Thanks to an online platform and offline activities, the youth can share their ideas, concerns, dreams, and expectations for the future.
  • The results of the consultation will help the Foundation imagine new higher education models to grow future generations into empowered individuals able to overcome the challenges of their times.