THE BLOG

Who's Listening to America's Youth?

11/11/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Drew McManus, co-founder of Bring Light, an innovative site where donors and charities build communities to fund specific charitable projects, told me that when they were designing their site, they looked at lots of others, trying to get a bead on the new generation of donors. "One day, I came across the MySpace page of young woman in college. She had posted a note to her friends, saying that her rent had just gone down by $40, and she wanted to give that money to charity. She wanted to know if anyone had any ideas of what might be a good cause." Drew laughs. "It took my breath away. When I was her age, that extra forty bucks would have gone to beer."

Are these young people just talking to one another? Is anyone listening, really listening, to them? Trying to discover what the generation dubbed the "Millennials" cares about?

Alexander Steed is. As you read this, he's setting out on a cross-country tour to meet, interview, and report on young men and women who are using the Internet to leverage their social and political power. He calls them Millennial Activists - youth who combine an interest in social causes with digital fluency.

Where did the idea for the tour come from? Partly from frustration about how his generation is reflected in the traditional media. "Some of the questions that are asked seem completely irrelevant to me," he said. "Like the one that got a lot of play earlier this year - 'What's better, sixties activism, or what's going on now?' How can you compare the two when the Internet has changed everything?" He said that was enough to encourage him to get on the road to find out what his generation is really thinking and doing.

So, this fall, Alex is traveling from east to west and back again, convening groups of young men and women across the U.S. He'll be in 30 cities, including Pittsburgh, Nashville, Ann Arbour, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Scranton.

How did he get the word out? Through the Internet, of course. "I started with couchsurfing.com, [http://www.couchsurfing.com] a social network built around people who have free places to stay, and I used message boards like craigslist, [http://www.craiglist.com]" And he contacted networks and blogs, asking people to put him in touch with Millennials who are doing interesting things around civic engagement, activism, and social engagement - and all using the Internet as a tool. More than 200 people responded, and Alex was introduced to 500 in total. And, yes, he's interested in hearing from you. (Should you be wondering how the tour is being funded, it's made possible through donations from people like us. Every dollar we donate will be matched by the Case Foundation. There's info on his site about how much has been raised so far, and how everyone can help.)

What does he intend to do with the information? Written, audio, and video posts will appear on his blog, as well as on a range of activist sites including epolitics, Future Majority, and change.org. He also wants to invite the mainstream media to listen in. "Seventeen magazine will publish some of my road stories. It's really important to get this information out to all kinds of people, including different generations."

You can be sure that I'll share Alex's story with my corporate clients. He's what I call a Next New Radical - someone who wants their first career to be about doing good. It's no secret that organizations are eager to find ways to attract bright young people like Alex. My HR contacts tell me that one of the first questions Millennials ask at job fairs or interviews is, "What's your environmental program?" And, yes, even in today's uncertain economic climate.

My clients and I have conversations about how programs that encourage New Radical Innovation (that is, driving change from inside) can make an organization much more appealing to young people. And that, as Alex makes abundantly clear, it all begins with listening.

Perhaps poet Mary Oliver summed this generation up best when she wrote, "Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?"

Please share your thoughts about the Millennial generation in the U.S. or around the world by commenting below, or email me directly at julia@wearethenewradicals.com.