This column contains a correction.
Seventy-year-old Bobby Austin reached into his suit jacket pocket and pulled out his smartphone, a device he admitted wasn’t around when he was a young man.*
“This is changing the world of organizing,” he said. “Just by tapping on this device, young people in this country and young people around the world are pulling themselves together and changing the very idea of civil rights.”
Given the recent headlines covering efforts to improve the plight of African American men and boys, I invited Austin to meet with the Center for American Progress Leadership Institute. Over the past 30 years, he’s worked in a variety of venues, touching on education, social policy, youth development, cultural theory, philanthropy, and religion—nearly all of it aimed at improving the status and civic participation of black boys and men in American society. When I invited him to meet with our budding public policy leaders, I knew he would share his scholarship and experience. But I wasn’t expecting him to be as frank about the differences between the old civil rights establishment and the new, emerging generation of leaders.
“I’m proud of the civil rights movement,” he said. “They’re building a museum for it and that’s great. They should put all the old civil rights leaders and tactics in that museum and the every young person should go see it. Then, they should do their own thing, in their own ways.” That was his preamble to whipping out the smartphone. “I’m not too old to learn to use this,” he said, chuckling at himself.
Austin is something of a renaissance-race man. He graduated from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green with a degree in economics and sociology in 1966—the height of the civil rights movement. After earning a master’s degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a doctorate from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, he became the first black full-time faculty member in the undergraduate college at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1972.*
Since then, he’s risen upward through stints as a teaching sociologist, foundation executive, college administrator, speechwriter, author, and policy consultant in education and the humanities. Notably, he worked as a program director for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation during most of the 1990s. In this role, he founded and directed the African American Men and Boys Initiative, a $15 million effort to improve the lives of African American men and boys. Under Austin’s leadership, the program funded 32 projects across the nation and could be viewed as a precursor to President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
Austin’s latest project is an unfinished, book-length manuscript that explores the challenge of citizenship. He notes that many Americans increasingly live in isolated communities and don’t interact very much with people outside their tribe. Ironically, this is happening at the same time as social media and other emerging technologies make it possible for people to become more connected. Yet, as Austin noted, our civic life and our public politics are starkly polarized.
This has serious implications. Austin said the same black men and boys that people in their families and immediate communities recognize as fathers and sons are often viewed by the police as “other worldly” and “demonic.” If such negative public perceptions are widespread enough, it permits the police to respond with deadly force and politically powerful people in those communities to support them.
“When people don’t see their neighbor as they see themselves, they become fearful and distrustful,” he said. “That’s how you have cases of police brutality and the cops go free.”
While researching this project, Austin wondered what it would take for these pockets of people to come together and find common ties with their fellow citizens who often hail from far-flung native lands and cling to varied backgrounds. Part of his research into this area led him on a journey from college campus to street protests.
Along the way, he discovered that “Americans do have a common culture.” But Austin argues that “the challenge is finding and revealing the kinship we all share against a backdrop of multiculturalism and changing demographics. I think we can see that best in the way young people relate to each other on college campuses.”
The common link, he said, is the young people who are finding ways to bridge ancient divides of race, class, and gender to create new social structures. For example, he said, the idea of a national leadership—especially among black Americans in the mold of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—may have run its course. “There isn’t one leader giving orders and issuing demands,” Austin said. “There are lots of leaders and lots of demands. Mostly, it’s local because that’s where the issues are taking place. Young people understand this and that’s how they work.”
Austin described the 21st century model of social activism as “pop-up leadership” in which people communicate with their smartphones and organize with speed and intensity that was unknown in their grandparents’ day. “They can message each other to say that something is going to pop up at such and such a place. I’m watching a group of young people on college campuses and in troubled communities interacting with each other on Twitter and Facebook,” he said.
To be perfectly honest, I never expected to hear a self-described “old head” from the ‘60s praise the new-age ways of young Americans. Austin is from the generation of Freedom Riders and church basement organizing in which it took weeks or months of preparation to mount movements, including, say, the 1960 lunch-counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. That’s a far cry from the seemingly spur-of-the-moment tactics employed by young street activists at the forefront of the protests over the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
Indeed, I expected Austin to reminisce about the good old days of marching on Washington. At the very least, I thought he might echo Oprah Winfrey, who created something of a social media smackdown when she complained earlier this month in a People magazine interview that the social-media-directed protest movement was leaderless.
“I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it,” Winfrey said in a video interview posted on People’s website. “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’”
That didn’t sit well with some young activists, who accused the television star and media mogul of being out of touch with young people—and even elitist—according to a report in The Washington Post. The newspaper quoted an activist who goes by @brownblaze on Twitter: “Once again a Black ‘celebrity’ shows just out of touch they are. So, while @oprah searches for an outdated leadership model, #weworkin.”
Austin shrugged off any such notion. He waved his smartphone as if to proclaim that he’s in cahoots with the young ‘uns. “They have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the work they’re doing,” he said. “I love watching them do it, and I want to find ways to help them in their own ways.”
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
*Correction, January 26, 2014: This column has been corrected to reflect that Bobby Austin is 70 years old and that he was the first black full-time faculty member in the undergraduate college at Georgetown University.