Catholic march draws crowds but not youth

Kristen Minogue by Kristen Minogue

Left to right: Kristi Haas, Patrick Cashio and Jennifer Betz demonstrate outside the Broadview Detention Center Sunday afternoon - a small but visible representation of the younger generation.

Last Sunday more than 150 people marched on a detention center in Maywood, a suburb south of Chicago, to protest the treatment of incarcerated immigrants. The gathering reached across racial and linguistic boundaries, with just about every sentence translated into English or Spanish and leaders from African-American and Latino communities stepping up to the mic. The pre-march dialogue – which put all the whites, blacks and Latinos into mixed groups to swap stories – had the feel of a college community-building seminar.

So why, when I looked across the crowded church, could I count the number of young graduates demonstrating on two hands?

Compared to our elders, and even occasionally our teenage counterparts, this generation of 20-to-30-year-olds appears to have a rather lackluster record for community involvement. Sure there are Facebook groups and online pledges that give the impression of being actively engaged. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year the 20-to-24 age group had the lowest turnout of all volunteers in the U.S. over 16 (not even one-fifth). The 25-to-34 group did slightly better at 23 percent, but those two segments were still outdone by every other age group in the report.

Worse, a December 2006 study didn’t even see fit to include us in its in-depth analysis of long-term volunteer trends. As it tracked the major rise in volunteers over the last 30 years, it skipped from 19-year-olds to 45-year-olds. Our generation didn’t qualify as one of the driving forces behind the growth. So what’s holding so many young adults back?

There is always the short-term-gratification argument. Obama rose to the presidency largely on the shoulders of young grassroots activists. But while a campaign can last two to three years, it has a clear goal and a clear end: election. Something like immigration reform – the topic of Sunday’s gathering – seems to lack both. The best-intentioned politicians and activists can’t even figure out what it looks like, much less when the “reform” will come to pass. For young idealists, throwing their weight behind something so nebulous can feel a little discouraging.

Then there is the religious element. The Archdiocese of Chicago co-sponsored last weekend’s march and dialogue. Religious groups attract more volunteers than other any other type of organization in the country – except in this younger generation. Religion still ranks highest with people in their early 20s. But from 25 to 44, it takes second to education and youth services.

The Sunday march came at the tail end of Catholic nonprofit Pax Christi’s 2009 national conference in Chicago, which was held to combat racism and promote peacemaking. Of the 300 conference attendees, 15 percent fell into the 18-to-35 age range, and Pax Christi communications director Johnny Zokovitch said that’s higher than normal. Usually they only represent 5 percent to 10 percent.

Still, the young adults who did march down Lexington Street last Sunday knew exactly what they were doing there. Their purpose, their mission, was clear. Like 29-year-old Jennifer Betz, who spent more than two years working in Latin America after college and could fluently cite U.S. policies that are forcing migrants to cross the border. Or 25-year-old Patrick Cashio, who works for Pax Christi as a communications intern and is helping the organization recruit younger members.

For the moment it appears young graduates are a minority in the social justice movement, particularly in the religious sphere. But they are a well-informed, motivated, and vocal minority. Whether they can muster enough momentum to match their Baby Boomer predecessors – a generation marked by mass protests of everything from war to abortion and gay rights – remains to be seen.

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