For nearly every incendiary piece of legislation, attempt to restrict access to resources, or rollback of digital protections and safe spaces proffered in 2023, a multiplied wave of activism has followed in its wake.
The year proved to be a test of will between those in power and the communities they represent, a show of force that pits institutional might against the force of human compassion.
Communities virtually linked arms in solidarity amid debates on the rights afforded to Americans, with an intertwining of mutual aid efforts to fund abortion networks, transgender healthcare, and Indigenous-led climate change solutions among the many calls to pool resources to generate action. Social movements had their wins, like the union efforts of creatives and performers nationwide, while many still continue the fight for basic protections.
And on the ground, youth voices once again rang through, leading calls for action.
As the previous generation of youth activists age into adulthood, more have taken on the mantle.
Credit: Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Gun reform activists take over Las Vegas.
Students Demand Action continued addressing the gun lobby directly, visiting industry bigwigs at their annual trade show.
Credit: Everytown for Gun Safety
In January, a group of activists from youth-led gun violence prevention organization Students Demand Action took on the gun lobby directly at a series of activations and protests in Las Vegas, demanding the industry leaders finally prioritize the safety of young people and communities nationwide.
The activists projected 50-foot signs, erected billboards, and passed out flyers to attendees of the Las Vegas National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)’s annual trade show, known as the SHOT Show. In the words of organizer Sari Kaufman, “It’s amazing that young people from across the country are the ones leading this fight. I also think it sometimes creates a challenge, because older folks will look at it and think, ‘Oh, they’re young and naive.’ That bothers me the most. Yeah, sure, we’re young. But we are sophisticated in our thinking.”
Florida Walkout 2 Learn movement calls out bigotry and censorship.
An educational movement arose in response to state efforts to censor public education.
Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Responding to the political efforts in education of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative decisions of the state’s conservative majority, Florida students organized a mass walkout of public schools in April, building on similar protest movements from 2022.
The group, known as Walkout 2 Learn, decried the censorship of LGBTQ history and discriminatory policies in schools, the rejection of Black history curriculum content, and a variety of other recent bills that limit the freedoms of students and educators statewide. Activists were backed by youth-founded organization The Social Equity through Education Alliance, actor Beanie Feldstein, Florida Democratic leadership, and numerous TikTok fan favorites who joined virtual and on-the-ground rallies. Walkout 2 Learn’s events also modeled a unique tool for democratic protest: a five-minute history course for all participants, in addition to access to a virtual, college-level African American studies course.
Young activists descend on Nashville in pro-democracy rally.
Nashville became the center of the pro-gun reform, anti-fascism cries of 2023.
Credit: Seth Herald / Getty Images
April also saw one of the largest pro-democracy demonstrations so far this year, as youth gun reform advocates joined Tennessee activists in demanding accountability from the state’s leadership after the March 27 Nashville school shooting and subsequent ousting of pro-protester lawmakers.
The grounds of Nashville’s capitol building were the organizing site for thousands of young people, many from Students Demand Action and March for Our Lives, who would later gather in the rotunda to put vocal pressure on legislators to retain Democratic members threatened with expulsion and to pass safety legislation.
The “anti-fascism” demonstration made headlines nationwide, and encapsulated the frustrations and perseverance of social justice advocates.
Reproductive rights activists see emergency contraception wins in Washington.
Post-Roe reproductive justice organizing continued in 2023, with students and advocates working together to come up with unique ways of providing services and support to their communities.
One of the many groups working within this grassroots movement has been Emergency Contraception for Every Campus, a student-led advocacy campaign from the American Society for Emergency Contraception (ASEC). While the movement for these student access machines has been around since at least 2017 (the first machine was documented in 2012), the last year has seen a responsive push for even more locations.
Emergency contraception vending machines have been installed at more than three dozen college campuses since the group was founded in 2019, Axios reported. The group is joined by other youth-led sexual health campaigns like that from Advocates for Youth, as well as student protestors rallying for reproductive justice around the country.
In April, Washington state became one of the first to approve funding ($200,000) for such vending machines on additional college campuses in the state. And other states are following the path blazed by student leaders afar, like the machines proposed at Miami University in Ohio and installed at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
While the climate crisis ages, its movement remains young.
Climate action protests continued in 2023, with many fed-up young activists going straight to their slow-to-move leaders.
Credit: Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images
This year’s Global Climate Strike took place on March 3, a tradition started by young activist Greta Thunberg in 2018 to unite young people around the world in calling for climate action. In the United States, young protesters took over state capitol buildings and paraded through downtowns.
But surrounding that event were continued global demands for political accountability and action. Youth climate activists with the Climate Defiance group protested outside of the May 1 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, in an attempt to block attendees and demand President Biden fulfill his campaign pledge to stop fossil fuel extraction on public lands. The activists were joined by Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones.
Abroad, students across Europe occupied (and later shut down) schools and universities in May to protest the lack of climate action from their leaders.
Climate actions continued throughout the year, connecting the issues of environmental justice and just climate transitions back to other social justice organizing. Most notably, a group of young people successfully took the issue of climate change to court — the first constitutional climate case to successfully go to trial in the United States — and won. Montana District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in what is considered by many to be the first climate litigation win in the United States, but certainly just the beginning.
Trans prom takes over the nation’s capital.
The Trans Youth Prom was a vibrant protest against the erasure of LGBTQ history.
Credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Anticipating a particularly poignant Pride celebration this year as LGBTQ rights are erased nationwide, young LGBTQ community members staged their own defiant high school dance on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 22.
The Trans Youth Prom was both a celebration and a protest, put on by transgender kids for transgender kids as a glittering public testimony against a flurry of anti-transgender bills surging across states. They dressed to the nines and marched across Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, supported by activists like the ACLU’s Chase Strangio and holding up signs proclaiming the year’s leading message: “Trans kids have always existed.”
Youth advocates score a long-awaited jobs program win — but more is still needed.
In September, President Joe Biden announced a first-of-its-kind federal works program that would provide young people and early career adults with green economy jobs, with the goal of fostering a new generation of clean energy, conservation, and resilience workers. Behind the announcement lay years of work and advocacy from climate activists, who had long urged federal leaders to step up to the plate.
“This is inspired by New Deal-era concepts, but reimagined by young people and put into motion by them,” explained Ali Zaidi, assistant to the president and White House national climate advisor, at the time. A month later, more than 42,000 people had signaled their interest in the program. Two-thirds of them were individuals under 35.
Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
TikTok takes on humanitarian aid.
TikTok once again assumed the role of central organizing and information hub for young people during times of conflict, as the ongoing humanitarian crisis following the Israel and Hamas conflict on Oct. 7 drew young users to the app. Watermelon emojis were everywhere.
Creatives and influencers galvanized millions and raised thousands of dollars in donations using the app’s own creator profit model and AR filters. Others used their platforms to share breaking news, reading lists, free resources, and other ways to get involved and help those in need, both on the ground and here in the U.S.
The widespread response and eagerness to learn about the decades-long geopolitical conflict came to represent the year’s overarching mantra: The time to act is now.
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UPDATE: Dec. 27, 2023, 3:42 p.m. EST This article, originally published in June, was updated in December.