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Harvard Kennedy School Research Shows Youth Participation in Major Protests Increases Likelihood of Success

Harvard Kennedy School professor Erica Chenoweth and lecturer Zoe Marks conducted a study in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace on the influence of youth participation on the success of protests.
Harvard Kennedy School professor Erica Chenoweth and lecturer Zoe Marks conducted a study in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace on the influence of youth participation on the success of protests. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writer

Major nonviolent protests with higher levels of youth participation are more likely to be successful, according to a study by the United States Institute of Peace in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School professor Erica Chenoweth and lecturer Zoe Marks.

The study, which examined maximalist campaigns — mass movements seeking territorial independence or the ousting of an incumbent national government — also showed that movements with large LGBTQ+ youth participation tend to achieve more democratic outcomes, even if the movement itself is unsuccessful. Following the conclusion of the campaigns, however, young people in the affected areas do not see improvements in their political standing, according to the study.

“Young people are really important in shaping their country’s political future, and yet there’s still some pretty persistent barriers, structural barriers, to young people achieving political power,” Marks said in an interview.

The reason for the correlation of youth participation with democratic outcomes remains unknown, but Matthew D. Cebul — the research officer of the study — wrote he suspects it may be because young people are largely excluded from political office.

“Nonviolent action campaigns give youth a voice that they don’t otherwise have, and young people use that voice to demand reforms from sclerotic and corrupt governments that are poorly responsive to society’s needs,” Cebul wrote in an email. “Addressing these demands tends to improve the quality of democracy in a country, even if campaigns fail to achieve full regime change.”

The research was proposed by USIP, who reached out to Chenoweth and Marks because of Chenoweth’s Women in Resistance Dataset, which cataloged women’s participation in 338 maximalist campaigns in order to help identify their impacts in movements and their outcomes.

According to Marks, the pair had already planned on expanding the dataset — known as the WiRe dataset — beyond the gender binary.

“That was really the impetus for us to work together because we had the data and they had a policy audience that they thought could benefit from our research,” Marks said.

The study used the WiRe dataset to assess the level of participation of different demographics in each movement. With the help of a team of research assistants, Chenoweth and Marks then researched each of the movements to look for evidence of LGBTQ+ or youth involvement before translating the extent of that participation into numbers.

“I was incredibly excited to get involved in this research especially since it’s incredibly understudied — the extent to which young people and also queer and trans people have been involved in making larger policy demands that aren’t necessarily specific to identity,” said Ketaki Zodgekar, an HKS student who worked on the project.

The study also found that movements with more youth participation tend to be more disciplined than those with lower levels of youth participation.

“Youthful movements are not more violent. In fact, they’re just as peaceful as ones with lower levels of youth participation,” Marks said. “But the state is much more likely to treat them as violent and attack them, basically, with violent repression.”

Cebul wrote the study’s findings support current U.S. government initiatives to empower the youth to civically engage and encourage movements to involve young people in their activism but also cautioned that young people are more at risk in large-scale campaigns.

“The solution is not simply to tell movements to ‘just include more youth!’ That work needs to be done in an ethically responsible way, one that reflects the elevated danger that youth activists face when participating in non violent activism,” Cebul wrote. “The goal should be to empower youth with the skills and experience they need for the long-term, not just to get them out into the streets in the short term.”

In addition to conducting research together at the Kennedy School, Chenoweth and Marks are finalist candidates for the faculty dean position at Pforzheimer House. The couple intends to build a strong house culture and promote diversity initiatives if selected for the role.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont

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