Brett Schratz is a volunteer with the ACLU-PA and a senior at Villanova University.
Whether marching at the front of protests, organizing on social media, initiating national school walkouts, proposing sweeping gun reform legislation, or implementing international youth climate strikes, our country’s youth are leading in the fight for change. We are motivated. We are intentional. We are the next generation of activists. But what drives us to go as far as we do in our advocacy work?
During the last week in July, I traveled to Washington, D.C., and represented the ACLU of Pennsylvania at the ACLU’s inaugural Advanced Advocacy Institute. I was looking for the answers to my questions: what does advocacy mean to my generation and where is it going? I met dozens of other young activists from all over the country — all committed to working on important issues in their local communities. Their passions aligned with what the ACLU fights to protect every day: civil rights for all. I met people passionate about protecting reproductive freedom, implementing criminal justice reforms, ensuring LGBQ&T equality, and safeguarding immigrants’ rights. While their motivations are sometimes driven by fear, resentment, despair, and even rage, I found a common foundational core value driving all of our work: love.
During one of our workshops with the Smart Justice Campaign, the instructors asked students to reflect upon the American philosopher Cornel West’s idea that “love is justice in public.” That our love for the other, the stranger, the oppressed, manifests itself as justice in the public sphere. The youth agenda derives not from a political platform nor from identity politics, but rather from a common love for one another and even for those we do not know. We share a mutual vision of a nation in which empathy and compassion dictate our rule of law. Any frustrations and discontent we experience today exist primarily because our current government, and our current society, fail to achieve our hopes for an equal and just community.
While love drives our actions, what will our actions look like as we enter this next wave of youth advocacy? In our current political system, the constant seesaw between political party control has led to vast fluctuations in the protection and status of civil rights. To amend our present system, our work must focus on more than just changing laws — it must change hearts. If our generation hopes to see lasting reform, we must engage with others on a personal level.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a personal hero of mine, speaks of the need to get proximate to suffering in order to understand and change it. We as a collective also need to get proximate to the value divide in this country. We cannot neglect those who disagree with us. We must engage them, seek to understand them, and find a common ground of mutual respect and concern for the other between us.
I understand how vague it sounds to advocate for an agenda of love — to prioritize changing hearts and minds beyond the law. But in reality, we have seen this strategy work before. Marriage equality began on the grassroots level as we expelled misperceptions in communities and built the momentum for a national shift in perspective. We spread a message of love that fostered actual legal and policy reform. So, our vision is not out-of-touch with reality. We can heal these divisions. We can protect and extend civil rights. We can change this country. But we must lead with love.