Youth Participation, Movement Politics, and Skills: A Study of Youth Activism in Italy
Studies of youth participation in social movement organizations (SMOs) have largely focused on the influence of upbringing on the development of activism. Other analyses have considered how young people use competencies acquired through their involvement in SMOs in their wider political activities in more institutional political settings, as well as in their private lives. While young activists’ paths “toward” and “after” movement politics have been considered within political socialization and civic education studies, there is a need for deeper analyses on young people’s paths “in” SMOs. The chapter intends to contribute to this debate by analyzing the specific skills a young individual is required to have to be recognized as a “promising” activist and progress in the SMOs’ hierarchies. The chapter surveys existing literature and, drawing on data collected through an ethnography conducted on one Italian radical-left SMO, analyzes the importance of hard and character skills in young people’s trajectories within movement politics.
KeywordsYoung people Social movements Political socialization Youth participation Skills
Introduction: Activism, Socialization and Skills
Research on youth civic and political participation has shown a growing interest for the analysis of the processes leading young people to develop participative conduct (Flanagan et al. 2012). A vast literature has developed around the concept of “political socialization” (Hyman 1959; Merelman 1986; Neundorf et al. 2013), which describes and analyzes processes of transmission and negotiation of political behaviors and norms between parents and children and, more generally, between adult and young people. These researches have demonstrated, for example, how growing up in politically supportive families and being exposed to certain political norms and behaviors in early childhood and adolescence impact on people’s political attitudes throughout their lives (Neundorf et al. 2013). Growing up in politically active families would result, for example, in higher levels of interest for political issues and political involvement (Torney-Purta and Amadeo 2011; Amnå 2012; Wray-Lake and Flanagan 2012; Martínez et al. 2019).
More recently, the debate on “civic education” (Sears and Levy 2003; Fischman and Haas 2014) has expanded the perspective of classic theories on political socialization (Torney-Purta and Amadeo 2012). The civic education model has contributed to broadening scholars’ attention beyond the time of primary socialization (Gordon 2008). As pointed out by Petrovic et al. (2014: 8), “more attention is nowadays given to the balance between what citizens learn during their youth and what is learned over the rest of the life course [and] the possibility of political socialization as a lifelong learning process has been considered.” In this perspective, the civic education model has contributed to encouraging analyses focused on agencies of socialization for politics which are alternative to the family – such as the peer group – as well as on the processes through which people acquire citizenship skills, knowledge, and expertise during their youth, adulthood, and old age (Fillieule 2013).
The prevalence of a constructivist paradigm within the civic education field has led scholars to abandon the idea of socialization as a one-way process where adults are in charge of teaching participation to young people. Of particular importance, the appreciation of civic education as a wider form of lifelong learning has challenged what has been defined as the “deficit model” of political socialization (Andolina et al. 2003; Torney-Purta and Wilkenfeld 2009; Kahne and Sporte 2008), that is, the idea of young people as “empty glasses” that adults have to fill. In so doing, the civic education model has recognized that “political socialization is something that [young people] do for themselves” (Earl et al. 2017). As suggested by Youniss et al. (2002), involvement in families, schools, and adult-led participative environments can provide young people with “raw materials – knowledge, models, reflective matter – and various forms of feedback, but it is ultimately the youth themselves who synthesize this material, individually and collaboratively, in ways that make sense to them.”
Within research that has focused more specifically on youth participation in social movement organizations (hereafter SMOs), the political socialization and civic education models have been mostly applied, respectively, to (a) highlight the influence of upbringing on the development of activism and (b) shed light on the civic competencies that young people can acquire through their engagement in social movements.
Concerning the first point, social movement studies have analyzed the biographical paths leading young people to become active in movement politics, the influence that growing up in politicized milieus (families, schools, urban areas) has on the involvement in movement politics in later life and the biographical consequences of this involvement (Fillieule 2013; Giugni and Grasso 2016; Filleule and Neveu 2019; Walther et al. 2019). Research has shown how activists’ personal histories often entail an upbringing marked by the witnessing of the intense activism of their parents. Parents would transmit a “propensity to activism” to their children through their example and through a series of daily behaviors oriented by their political values (Torney-Purta and Amadeo 2012). Moreover, the networks parents are involved in would become a socializing agent themselves as highlighted, for example, in a study conducted on the life stories of “red diaper babies” who have grown up American communist milieus during the 1950s by Kaplan and Shapiro (1998) and in the analyses realized by McCurties (2011) on the political attitudes and behaviors of the children of the “old left.”
In relation to the second point, SMOs have been considered as spaces of “civic development” through which young people acquire a series of competencies and knowledge that are relevant for the formation of their civic identity and the exercise of their rights as citizens (Ginwright and Cammarota 2007). From this perspective, SMOs help young people in discovering themselves as active citizens (van Dam et al. 2015) through different processes and mechanisms that foster a shift in the focus from the “I” to the “We” (Martínez et al. 2012). They teach young people to recognize and identify with collective values and beliefs that link one’s conditions to a past and a present (Youniss and Yates 1997) and to a larger social and cultural scenario (Furrow and Wagener 2003). They also teach young people collective problem-solving (Kirshner 2007), encouraging them to work effectively together to have an impact on their and others’ lives. As suggested by Van Dyke and Dixon (2013), participation in social movements allows individuals to acquire an “activist human capital” through the relationships they develop with other activists. The interaction occurring between activists would result in the acquisition of a series of tangible competencies in terms of organizing strategies, leadership skills, and group management that would contribute at sustaining their participation and that would result useful in their private lives as well.
These perspectives develop the ideas that participation in social movements requires certain values and ideological perspectives developed in the home and also require skills, knowledge, and competencies that can be developed through such action (Petrovic et al. 2014: 10). However, this brief review of the literature highlights how scholars’ attention has been mainly placed either on the acquisitions of those skills through processes occurring before the beginning of involvement in movement politics (i.e., the socialization in the family) or on the effects that socialization to politics through SMOs can have in terms of acquisitions of skills that are expendable elsewhere. In other words, the analysis appears largely focused on the “before” and the “after” the actual moment of the involvement in social movements, while the study of the “now” is still substantially underexplored. Indeed, there is a need for more analyses of the specific skills that are valued, cherished, and cultivated by SMOs themselves and of the knowledge and competencies that emerge as functional for effective participation in SMOs (Fligstein 2001; Van Dyke and Dixon 2013).
This chapter intends to contribute to this debate presenting the results of a preliminary analysis of the paths of involvement of a group of young activists within a left-leaning radical SMO based in Bologna (Italy). Leaning on Guzman-Concha (2015), I define radical SMOs as characterized by three distinctive elements: they pursue an agenda of drastic changes which would affect elite interests and social positions; they perform a repertory of contention characterized by the employment of unconventional means; they progressively adopt countercultural identities that frame and justify unconventional objectives and methods. Despite advocating in favor of radical political and social changes and using unconventional (and sometimes unlawful) means of action, radical social movements do not seek to overthrown democracy and its institutions.
In particular, the chapter is interested in the analysis of new members’ “participative trajectories” within the observed SMO which will be considered to answer the following research question: what skills are needed to be recognized as a “promising” activist? The concept of participative trajectories refers to the progression (or not) of the new members in the group’s internal hierarchies. Young people’s participative trajectories will be used to highlight which skills are considered relevant and need to be acquired to be considered a good activist.
The chapter starts with an introduction of the case study followed by the analysis of the skills which emerge as important in determining one’s possibility to access the SMO and progress in its informal hierarchies. The relevance of a series of “hard” (i.e., education) and “character” (i.e., optimism, vision, risk tolerance, etc.) skills is presented, and results are discussed in relation to their broader implications for the study of youth activism and social movements.
The Research: Case Study and Methodology
The data considered for this chapter have been collected between 2015 and 2018 through an ethnography conducted in one radical SMO which will be fictionally named “Lucha”. The materials considered for this chapter have been collected within the research project “Youthblocs.” The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no 701844. Between 2016 and 2018, Youthblocs has investigated young people’s practices and trajectories of activism in radical SMOs. The research has been conducted through participant observations and biographical interviews with activists involved in different leftist SMOs in Italy and Sweden and has explored how youth conditions in the two countries contribute at shaping the contents and the forms of youth participation. A more extended presentation of the project’s result can be found in Pitti (2018).
The story of Lucha begins in late 2012 when a group of young people decided to occupy an abandoned former barrack located in the center of the city of Bologna. The building became the “headquarter” of the organization, but also served as accommodation for many of the activists. Over the following 5 years was transformed in a “social center” where different projects were developed for and with local inhabitants. In the Italian context, the term centri sociali refers to a specific kind of political experience. Social centers are usually abandoned buildings which are squatted and turned in self-managed and countercultural spaces where political and social initiatives are proposed (for more, see Mudu 2012; Genova 2018). Within Lucha, one could find a self-managed shelter for migrants, a weekly farmers’ market, a microbrewery, an organic garden, a pizzeria, a library and a study room, a bike repair shop, and a kindergarten along with seminars, workshops, self-training activities, and cultural events (i.e., concerts, art exhibitions).
Lucha was largely appreciated by local inhabitants of Bologna, but the relationships between the social center, local political institutions, and police authorities have been marked by strong contrasts due to the unlawful position of the centro sociale. The confrontation with authorities has resulted in the eviction of the SMO from the occupied barrack in August 2017. After the eviction, a demonstration has been organized, and more than 10.000 people have gathered in the street of Despina to ask for the reopening of Lucha. Authorities have refused to consider the possibility to maintain Lucha within the occupied barrack but have granted the group with a new space where some of the old projects were restarted along with new ones. For a more detailed presentation of the story of the case study and of the activities organized by the young people in Lucha, see Pitti (2018).
At the beginning of its history, the observed SMO was composed by a group of about 20–30 young activists with strong expertise in contentious politics. However, in August 2017 about 150 people, mostly aged between 20 and 25, were engaged in the activities of the social center. For the purpose of this analysis, it is particularly important to stress that many of these members were inexperienced. In fact, many of the young people involved in Lucha have started their path of activist into the observed SMO not through the engagement in protest actions (i.e., demonstrations, boycotts, etc.) but participating as “volunteers” in one of the abovementioned projects.
For many of them, the involvement in the activities of the self-managed shelter for migrants, of the school of Italian, or of the organic brewery was their very first experience of participation in movement politics. In fact, “calls for volunteers” were launched regularly to recruit new participants outside the movements’ scene in order to involve in Lucha not only those who were already active in the radical left-wing politics. This characteristic makes it possible to analyze who of the new “inexperienced” members had the possibility to progress in the hierarchies of the group and which skills made the difference in their paths.
The analysis is enriched by the in-depth perspective I have acquired on the case study thanks to the conduction of extended observations throughout a period of time encompassing more than 2 years. I have started to engage in the activities of Lucha as one of the many volunteers involved in the self-managed shelter for migrants, and, over the years, my engagement in the group has progressively increased to the point of being now a member. Although I have specified from the very beginning my professional role, the sustained involvement and the similarity (in terms of age, political views, and social backgrounds) to the young activists have led to the development of strong relationships of friendship and trust with Lucha’s activists.
Hard Skills and Character Skills in Participative Trajectories
Through the analysis of the activists’ trajectories of participation in Lucha has been possible to understand what skills influence possibilities to progress within the SMO’s informal hierarchies. In particular, the analysis of the collected data has highlighted the relevance of education a series of character skills on the paths of participation of the young activists.
If you think that from everyday concrete actions together with others is possible to build a fairer world for all, if you think that borders should not exist, if you are tired of cuts to fundamental rights disguised as “reforms”, if you want to commit yourself actively, then participate to our call for volunteers! (Lucha’s call for volunteers, 2016)
This openness resulted in the inclusion of members having very diversified backgrounds in terms of age, gender, ethnic origins, and educational levels and turned Lucha in a multiethnic and intergenerational meeting spot. Moreover, in line with the analysis conducted by Quintelier (2010) on unconventional forms of political participation, Lucha’s “open recruitment policy” fostered a massive engagement in the group of subjects – such young people and women – who frequently remain at the margins of more formal participatory processes.
Despite the substantial lack of entry barriers to the group, the relevance of a series of “hard” and “character” skills – such as education, optimism, flexibility, etc. – emerges clearly if we focus our attention to the progressions of the new members within the hierarchies of the group.
Looking at the stories of those new members who emerging from the base of the “volunteers” have managed to become “activists” and reach central positions in the group’s power structure is possible to notice that very specific hard and character skills have determined the outcome of their paths of participation.
Lucha’s members name themselves “volunteers” or “activists”. “Volunteers” are the new members, who have no previous experience of participation in SMOs. “Activists” are either experienced members (who have a long history of militancy in radical left social movements) or volunteers who have been “promoted” after some months of participation in the group. On a daily basis, there is no major distinction in their activities within the squatted barrack and everybody can take part in the decision-making processes. However, the “agenda setting” is largely in the hands of the “activists.” (Fieldnotes, May 2016)
Concerning hard skills, activists’ educational level emerged as a relevant factor in defining one’s possibilities of progression within the group hierarchies. None of the activists were required to possess a diploma or a university degree to participate in the activities of the social movement which – in terms of class background – was mostly composed of young people belonging to lower middle-class families, but the prevalence of university students and university graduates among those who assumed positions of visibility cannot be interpreted as just a chance.
Moreover, a high educational level usually goes hand by hand with the possession of communicative, dialectical, and argumentative skills. These skills acquire central importance in the interaction with the institutions and in the activity of voice and claim enacted by any social movement. In the case of Lucha, students of political science, philosophy, communication studies, and sociology were encouraged to engage as spokespersons during press conferences or at taking care of the communication campaigns and social media profiles of the group.
Martina and Clara have quickly distinguished themselves from the other volunteers involved in the self-managed shelter for migrants and, after some months, they are de facto coordinating the activities of the shelter. Everybody refers to them as “activists” now. […] They are about to graduate in educational studies and international cooperation and have expertise in providing services to migrants thanks to their studies and traineeships in NGOs so they have competencies which are highly valued in Lucha. (Fieldnotes, December 2016)
The emerging relevance of educational level for participation in movement politics is in line with the tendencies highlighted by Bovens and Wille (2017) in their study on education-based inequalities in participation. The authors argue that education-based inequality represents the most worrying form of inequality in contemporary societies also for its effects on political influence. Bovens and Wille (2017) have coined the expression “diploma democracy” to describe how political influence is becoming accessible only to people having high educational credentials. In this context, movement politics appears to have a paradoxical role: at the same time, it fosters the involvement of politically marginalized social groups (including individuals with low educational credentials) and reproduces education-based inequalities in its internal hierarchies (Quintelier 2010).
Education becomes a relevant factor for progressing into the observed SMO, but the analysis of the collected materials underlines that the possibilities of advancement within the group are strongly determined also by the other skills, which sociological and psychological literature clusters under the concept of “character skills.” The term “character skills” describes a series of personal attributes that represent desirable qualities for certain activities (Heckman and Kautz 2014; Maccarini 2016). Widely used by scholars studying educational and work careers, the concept of character skills refers to a wide spectrum of abilities and traits that complement the so-called hard skills. While the latter refers to the technical abilities and the factual knowledge needed to accomplish a given task, character skills are a series of personal, social, and communication competencies that allow subjects to effectively use their technical abilities and knowledge.
In particular, optimism, vision, sociability, constancy, autonomy, self-motivation, risk tolerance, and flexibility emerged as the most valued skills. These resources were described as crucial for performing activism and played a relevant role in determining new members’ permanence in the group and progression in the SMO’s hierarchy structure.
I discuss with Federica, one of the activists, about Andrea, a new volunteer. Federica says she thinks Andrea has the “right qualities” to “be more active”. She thinks he can aspire to be more than a simple volunteer and become an “activist”. “He is intelligent, has big ideas, he is committed, etc. He has the right character” she says. (Fieldnotes, February 2018)
Analyzing these elements in terms of “character skills” – instead of personality traits, personal attributes, and individual qualities – entails a paradigmatic change in the way we look at paths of participation and processes of socialization in movement politics.
Talking about a member who has left Lucha after being very active for a long time, Serena tells me that the problem was her lack of optimism and flexibility. “She was too much argumentative and pessimist” Serena says, adding that “she always puts down new ideas because she thinks they will not work. In the long run, you stop the group: it doesn’t matter if you are the best at doing something if you don’t have the right character.” (Fieldnotes, May 2017)
On a first level, looking at optimism, constancy, risk tolerance, and other personal qualities in terms of “character skills” means giving full recognition to the role played by social skills in the lived, everyday practice of participation. The concept of character skills sheds light on a series of taken-for-granted capabilities that individuals continuously activate in any form of social interaction and which are crucial for the efficient accomplishment of a task, including a political task.
Existing literature on (youth) participation has discussed the influence that ascribed personal characteristics (i.e., gender, ethnic background, educational level) and networks have on individuals’ political behaviors (Verba et al. 1995; Gallego 2007; Schäfer 2013; Schlozman et al. 2018). These elements allow us to understand why some people participate more than others, but they do not manage to completely explain why some people are simply more “at ease” than others in specific participatory settings.
On a second level, considering these attributes as skills means understanding them as something different from unmodifiable personality traits. While the concept of personality traits conveys the idea that optimism, vision, sociability, and persistence are largely inborn characteristics of an individual, the concept of “character skills” acknowledges the idea that these character elements can be acquired throughout life and recognize individual’s incessant work on their self.
Before meeting with a representative of the Municipality to bargain on the permanence of the Lucha in the occupied barrack, the activists discuss who should speak on behalf of the group. “I think it should be Daniele or Simona” says Tiziano and adds “They are more sociable. We have to avoid conflict this time.” (Fieldnotes, September 2016)
In other words, it means considering them as competencies that can be acquired and transmitted through socialization and social interactions.
“It’s not like I was born activist” Marco tells me. “I was interested in political stuff since I was a teen, but I started to get involved in politics late when I was 20”. I ask him what has changed, and he replies: “I changed. I was too shy, too introvert, and too angry before. You know, being an activist is also about having the right character. You have to work on it.” (Fieldnotes, March 2017)
Moreover, the participation of some of the “promising” volunteers to specific events – such as big and risky demonstrations and sit-in against authorities – was encouraged by more experienced activists because it could help in “building their character.”
Martina, one of the volunteers at the homeless shelter, is very active in Lucha and everybody thinks she is a great resource for the group. However, she does not deal very well with the pressure: since she is taking more responsibilities in relation to the shelter, she is very nervous. […] More experienced activists give her suggestions and feedbacks which rarely concerns how things should be done. They are mostly advices concerning how she should handle the pressure (Fieldnotes, June 2016)
“You learn something in these events. You learn to deal with the risk, you learn to coordinate yourself with others under pressure, you learn to stay calm when the police provoke you. It’s like a school for character” tells me Stefano. (Fieldnotes, May 2017)
Through the analysis of the participative trajectories of the young activists taking part in an Italian SMO, the chapter has sought to underline the relevance that skills have in shaping youth paths of participation in movement politics. In particular, education and character skills have emerged as factors able to determine young members’ possibilities to progress within the observed SMO. Analyzing trajectories of participation in social movements through the lenses of skills has interesting implications for the understanding of both youth activism and social movements.
First of all, this approach of analysis contributes to reinforcing the idea that movement politics is an activity that requires specific skills to be accomplished. In so doing, the study of skills in SMO contributes at questioning a still diffused “romanticized” representation on activism that sees involvement in movement politics as something “naturally” emerging from a combination of vocational and ideological aspects. While the romanticized perspective on movement politics suggests that every young person can become an activist if he has the right cause to fight for, the study of skills implies acknowledging that an efficient performance of political militancy requires a relevant investment in terms of energies and formation on behalf of the young participants.
On a second level, analyzing skills in movement politics implies recognizing SMOs as sources of alternative knowledge production (Hill 2004) which are able to transmit to their members a series of competencies that are needed for the existence of the movement itself. This approach of analysis can fruitfully contribute to the debate around the functioning and structuring of SMOs understanding them as alternative learning sites and informal educational organizations (Walther et al. 2019).
Lastly, considering SMOs as contexts where sedimentation of knowledge and competencies occurs contributes at criticizing the idea that young people’s engagement in SMOs is just a temporary and transitory form of engagement which will give space to more “conventional” ways of being active in the future. Analyzing how skills are produced and reproduced in movement politics means acknowledging that activism for many young people is not just a “phase” or the simple effect of a “biographical availability” that will disappear with adult life. It means, in other words, recognizing social movement as contexts of lifelong learning (Foley 1999).
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