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November 18th, 2011
08:33 AM ET

Opinion: Seeing 'hope' and 'change' among the 99%

Editor’s Note: Erica Williams is a senior strategist at Citizen Engagement Lab, an incubator for projects that use digital media, technology and culture to engage communities in people-powered campaigns. Previously, she  was co-founder of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress, that develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America.

By Erica Williams, Special to CNN

I am a millennial who has been working to engage people in civic life and politics for six years.

As part of that work, I have been particularly focused on ensuring that young people are not only active participants and leaders in changing their communities, but that their participation is recognized, respected and impactful.

The year 2008 was dubbed “the year of the youth vote” by mainstream media, and it felt like the first time that this generation’s engagement was heralded by the establishment. Youth participation flew in the face of the dominant narrative of a disengaged, apathetic generation. That engagement contributed to a clear political outcome: the election of President Obama.

Now, as the Obama campaign prepares for the 2012 election, the state of young America is radically different than it was in 2008. Millennials, more than anyone, latched on to the idea that the country could be better, and while we remain optimistic, hope and change seem far away.

The energy of most young people who I know looks far less like the Obama campaign, and more like Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

Now, there is a greater specificity about their discontent. Their desire for change is not about voting or hope: It’s about exposing the system that has let them down and created the circumstances for their frightening future.

The biggest concern is not just having a job right now, but their economic future. A recession created by a decade of poor, ill-conceived economic decisions not only resulted in record rates of unemployment and debt, but a system that is broken and ill-equipped to fix itself. A Pew Research Center report released this month said that households headed by people age 65 and older are 47 times wealthier than those headed by people 35 and younger. It's the largest wealth gap ever recorded between the two groups.

The factors that were foundations to our parents’ “American Dream” are notably absent today. There are fewer strong union jobs to usher workers into a middle class, single-income livelihood, and too few strong public schools to give average Americans a word-class education.

The harshest criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is unfocused.

How do you measure success for Occupy Wall Street movement?

But the reality is that its focus on economic inequality is specific in a way that the hope and change of 2008 never was.

My colleagues and I have been using our time and resources – both officially and independently – to support the Occupiers and the 99% movement in any way that we can.

We have talked to organizers, joined with them to build shared tools and technology, and, in the process, have learned a great deal about their purpose.

In my experience with Occupiers, one thing rings true from Oakland to New York to Washington: The youth who are participating are doing so to expose and diagnose problems. They are rebelling against a dysfunctional economy that does not work for them and the political system that limits their agency in solving that problem.  If that is not focus, I don’t know what is.

Do they have answers and desired outcomes yet? No. That is intentional.

For the time being, they are content to diagnose a problem and make the world take note.

Their voices and occupation have created the space in national dialogue to finally have a conversation about the economic inequality and oppression that young people – and many others – have been feeling for years.

The Occupy movement is messy. It is unscripted and is not engaging in the existing system in the expected way.

Occupy Wall Street: Add to our open story

In that sense, it is, in fact, characteristically millennial.

Young people are struggling financially and they are frustrated, confused about the best way to seek change within a system that seems so fundamentally broken.

Instead of viewing them as disengaged or without focus because of their lack of political demands, it might better suit America to listen to what the Occupiers and young people in communities all across the country are saying.

Regardless of the candidate or the leader or the corporation, millennials are not super-excited to blindly engage in the political and economic systems that run this country.

They want to create new ones that actually work.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erica Williams.

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Filed under: Age • Politics • What we think
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Thia

    Good lord. Get a job and quit whining. When you pay taxes, I will care what you think.

    November 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Gene

    Great. The youth vote helped elect President Obama in 2008, and he promptly spent their inheritance. One more term and he can completely ruin the future.

    Hasn't anyone read Lord of the Flies?

    November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • AB

      Baloney, you right wing conservatives opened up the bank and let all the rich grab what they could and run for the hills. Somehow you still find money for them. if anyone spent all their inheritance it was the GOP. not Obama. own up conservatives. if you cant , you dont deserve to run this great country.

      November 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Clinton

    This is such a great article! Please go check out my blog, thank you!

    crusthoven.wordpress.com/.../the-​ultimate-loss-of-innocence

    November 19, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  4. GlennTrahanSux

    My real name given to me personally by the eight-pound, six-ounce baby Jesus Himself is GlennTrahanSux. Don't trust anyone who doesn't say my name.

    November 19, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  5. Robb

    Erica,
    You sound like a naive liberal democrat that encompasses the majority of youth who've attended liberal-arts universities.

    November 18, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Samuel

      "Naive," "Liberal," "Liberal Arts." You lay these words out there without taking issue with any specifics. I don't agree with her either, but you could contribute more to this discussion than laying out your FOX given buzzwords. Don't forget "dirty" and "drug using." Your handler must be off shift since you didn't work them in.

      November 19, 2011 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  6. Glenn Trahan

    I was dead against Cain when he was on top. Now he has fallen as I expected. I was for newt when he was ignored and now he's on top. Even when he had issues recently I still stuck with him. Give me someone other than Obama and I could change my mind, depending on the strength of un named candidate, however that is next to slim and none. I like the idea of feeling as though I make a difference in my opinions. I will stop debating while drinking as I tend to be horribly obnoxious,lol. It's also not fair to others trying to voice their opinions.

    November 18, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Glenn Trahan

    My real name, by the way. I use no masks, hide behind no one. A man with a faceless voice is a man who can't be trusted. I honor the up front values of 'point' and 'counterpoint'. I am independent.........

    November 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Glenn Trahan

    Blood from a turnip maybe? 15 trillion is NEVER gonna go away. The simple truth is that out of all those protesters, NOT one of them has the answer. Your objective is 'Null and void' by the way you go about trying to make your point.

    November 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Glenn Trahan

    Richard Pryor in 'The Toy': "Lifes not fair God!!!" As he explains reality to the spoiled brat....

    November 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Glenn Trahan

    As if this will change anything. What exactly do they think will happen? I guess they think someone is gonna come out and give them a job and say"Oh I'm sorry. I didn't notice you standing there before." This is like se x without the pay off. Eventually you will get tired of it once you know nothing is gonna happen. Heres an idea for you. Come 2012, vote for someone else and learn to vote on the issues as well. Oh, but I bet 98% of them either can't vote, or have no clue as to how you read into the propositions. I didn't vote Obama, so I guess that gives me the right to disrupt his ability to do his job huh???

    November 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. SpenceOC

    I've been trying to find anyone that admits to being represented by "The 99%". So far, no one has anything to do with them but themselves. Maybe the 99% is really the 1%......

    November 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. L

    I get what you are saying but totally disagree. Who are the 99% anyway? Almost 50% of the country pays no taxes – people who make $50K or less. Last time I looked about $50K was the average salary. So who is paying the taxes? People like me that worked my entire life and struggled to get where I am, and the rich. Congress is completely irresponsible with our money. Blame them. Vote out these worthless people if the young people want to really do something to help this country. If you work for your money (honestly), you deserve to keep a portion of your "pie".

    November 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Glenn Trahan

      Heres a reality check. I am the one who came up with the idea of the Tea Party. The vision was before 911. Then I got into it heavily afterward. I actually got motivated because I felt George Bush was slow to react afterwards. My username was Puppypaws. I proclaimed that on Foxnews and have never gotten a response. It doesn't matter. My new movement will be more creative. The B.O.R.G. Yes it has meaning and I am gonna have fun with this one. Losing the vision of the Tea Party was my own fault. In reality the Tea Party sounds stupid anyway, but at first, I was actually gonna call it the Boston Tea Party in keeping the real theme alive. The truth is in cyberspace, so I imagine if I want to push the issue I can prove it. I had major surgery and I abandon the idea due to serious problems afterwards. Remeber the B.O.R.G.. I boast that it will put The Tea Party on the shelf. And by the way. I want the supposed founder of the Tea Party to know I said this and know that the Tea Party movement started by Giving George nine kinds of hE!!. I REALLY TORE into him, so that means the proof is probably easy to find. At least I have a timeline to work with.

      November 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ronald

      Sure Paris Hilton and Kim Kardasian worked really hard for their money. Did you know that 1400 millionaires didn't pay any income taxes in 2009?

      November 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • nich conklin

      Shewed satisics to present a untrue outcome. The 50% who don't pay federal taxes are too poor , they don't evade taxes like the rich,their income is below or on the poverty line. Extremist politicians what every one to have a peice of skin in game. the poor should pay while the rich (job Creaters ) pay even less. Poor people payroll taxes, state taxes, local property taxes,energy taxes (Gasoline/electric) with alot less income. A much a greater percent of their income goes to just survival like food and shelter,the rich have their excess income to invest thanks too historically low taxes

      November 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
      • BiteMe

        Maybe they should have paid attention in school. Their lack of planning is their problem, not mine.

        November 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |