Some college student friends and I have been reflecting on a quotation from Baha’u’llah about individual and social transformation:
Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestation would be apparent.1
Reflecting on this quote from Baha’u’llah, we were discussing how our involvement in the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program differed from traditional activism by college students on their campuses. As demonstrated by the central role that students have played in the Hong Kong protests,2 students both historically and today have mobilized and acted around educational and social issues. These expressions of student activism typically take the form of an oppositional response to injustices students perceive in their society. This involves varying forms of protest and other actions that enable students to elevate their voices and demand change from institutional actors.
But other forms of student activism exist, particularly forms of grassroots (i.e. local and emerging from a community itself) community building that do not attract the media attention on which other forms of activism rely. Although these methods have been recognized in some instances such as in the LA student walkouts3 and grassroots social media activism in Chile,4 these forms of activism go largely unrecognized by both the public and academia.
My friends and I were discussing how we’ve been able to reconceptualize what social transformation and student activism can look like through our involvement in the Junior Youth Program. An important emphasis of the program lies in developing our spiritual and material capacities. One friend particularly highlighted how the Junior Youth Program seeks to enable young people to express their voice and their spiritual qualities in non-disruptive ways:
The things that the communities [of the junior youth] face are very prevalent, so this program gives them the tools to recognize that and take action and stop or improve whatever is happening… they’ve developed the capacity to be protagonists and effect change in the community.
Because the program focuses on building consciousness and powers of perception within the junior youth, my friends and I observed that the junior youth began to think deeply about the root causes of the injustices they perceive in their society and to address those injustices by utilizing their power of expression. In thinking about the means by which they and the junior youth are creating change and developing their capacities, we were rethinking the ways in which students can be active in their communities and express their voice through means other than disruption.
My friends were also saying how they wanted to find new ways of creating positive change in their local communities that are open to everyone, not just college students. True “transformation in the whole character of mankind” requires the participation of all individuals, not just a select few who have found ways of amplifying their voice. Expanding opportunities to participate in social change beyond the college campus is necessary, one friend commented, if we are to achieve such a totalizing transformation.
Some of my friends also reconceptualized social change along temporal lines; they sought to ensure their community’s involvement in issues they were facing both now and in the future. Students in Junior Youth Groups are taught skills needed to perceive social injustices and to work to solve them later in life, such as in their high school and college education. Unlike activism that is confined to student populations on college or high school campuses, I have seen how the Junior Youth Program takes people from the local population and gives them these tools to be agents of change throughout their lives. As one friend said,
One of the things the program tries to do is to build these qualities of what we call spiritual perception, which is developing your ability to think a little bit more deeply about the challenges your society or community is facing, as well as their power of expression, their ability to express themselves in many different ways and on a variety of subjects and to share their thoughts at an age when they aren’t necessarily empowered to do that.
In this way, my college student friends felt that, through their involvement in the Junior Youth Program, they are not only being of service to their community now, but also helping young people develop their capacities so that they can be of service to society both now and in the future.
Another friend also expressed that her involvement in the program stems in large part from her desire to be involved in a movement that addresses more than one issue. She felt that the movements on campus did not reflect the issues they were concerned about holistically:
The other forms of activism that I am involved in and encounter as an undergrad are fairly issue-specific, whereas I think the nature of this Program is to recognize how deep some of the challenges we are facing are and to recognize that the solution has to be just as deep; different inequities go down to the foundation of society, so the solution has to go down to foundation of society too. This can look like slightly slower change, but the goal is more transformative in nature.
Acknowledging that this vision of social transformation at the grassroots level might be slower, she nevertheless felt that it better reflected the nature of the issues they sought to address and described grassroots community building as a more effective remedy to a plurality of issues.
All in all, my friends and I saw stark differences between activism on campus and grassroots community building within a community. Put succinctly by one friend, “In other forms of activism [as students] we are very good at identifying problems, challenges, and deficiencies within our community, but we are not as good at developing sustainable models of tackling those.” And we also tried to apply these learnings and reflections to our own participation in different forms of social transformation:
The program challenges you to think about personal activism in new ways—what does that look like? How do I become a more effective individual in those kinds of spaces? What does long term change look like? How far of a vision ahead can we have, not just think about short term solutions to complex issues?
Being involved in service to our communities not only helps the community, but also helps us grow spiritual and develop our own spiritual qualities. This inevitably shapes how we participate in other social spaces and how we view transformation, “both outwardly and inwardly.”
- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan [↩]
- Nicolle Liu, Joe Leahy and Ravi Mattu “Hong Kong’s protests: Inside the PolyU siege,” Financial Times, November 22nd, 2019 [↩]
- Dolores Delgado Bernal, “Grassroots Leadership Reconceptualized: Chicana Oral Histories and the1968 East Los Angeles School Blowouts,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Number 2 of Volume 19 (1998): 113-142 [↩]
-  Romina A. Green Rioja, “‘Until living becomes worth it:’ Notes from the Chilean Uprising,” The Abusable Past, November 1st 2019 [↩]