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History of the
National Youth Rights Association
By Alex Koroknay-Palicz
The Freechild Project honors the work and accomplishments of youth-led organizations throughout the world. One of the foremost organizations fighting for youth rights today is the NYRA. Since 1997 they've been a hard hitting, effective, and powerful presence in the area of youth rights. This 2001 paper explores their history.
History of the National Youth Rights Association
by Alex Koroknay-Palicz
In the limited field of the youth rights movement, the National Youth Rights Association is one of the foremost organizations. Founded amid controversy and scandal and stunted by unmotivated leadership NYRA has had its share of the difficulty most organizations encounter when starting a fresh group. Striving to avoid pitfalls that have crippled other youth rights organizations NYRA has organized itself in a professional manner, and is positioned to build further on their limited history of small-scale success. With a clear vision and philosophy NYRA stands apart from other groups and once its resources are developed to their full potential its place in history is secure. Unfortunately the National Youth Rights Association is still a young, struggling organization. Since all contemporarily powerful organizations had to start somewhere, a study of this new organization can provide insight into the origins of other interest groups in America.
The earliest origins of the National Youth Rights Association began with the rebirth of a rights oriented youth movement in America. On page 39 of the book Basic Interests, Baumgartner and Leech discuss the “fluid nature of issues”, youth rights is one such issue that has waxed, waned and adapted to changing times. For decades a truly youth driven movement has been silent, the activism of the late 60’s and early 70’s gave way to protectionist groups once the demographics no longer favored the young due to aging Baby Boomers. The protectionist groups calling themselves Children’s Rights groups proliferated in the last 20 years, but while many had good intentions they were fighting for something much removed from Youth Rights. Contrary to Baumgartner and Leech’s statement that “Many interests that would not be expected to mobilize on their own—such as children, retarded people, and poor people—nonetheless have organizations that lobby on their behalf.” (Baumgartner & Leech p. 75) NYRA was founded and is currently run by the very constituency it serves. Groups seeking to represent underprivileged classes of people such as children rarely listen to the true desires of that group, and are more concerned with advancing their own agendas.
The term, Youth Rights, as it is used by today’s movement can be defined by a June 21, 2000 resolution by the NYRA Board of Directors, “The organization deals only with civil rights -- freedom from oppression or discrimination by government, business or other powers -- rather than entitlement rights. We do not deal with issues like the quality of education or health care young people receive.”(Res. 00-L) With these principles the contemporary Youth Rights Movement “first utilized the internet to help the struggle in 1993, with the creation of the y-rights majordomo mailing list.” (NYRA Webpage) Out of this mailing list Matt Herman and Matt Walcoff met and decided to found an organization called Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions (AS-FAR). With the passage of a Declaration of Principles on August 31, 1996 (ASFAR FAQ) the first contemporary Youth Rights organization was formed.
While primarily an Internet based organization, AS-FAR succeeded in getting modest media coverage and attracting over 150 members to the cause in its first year. Matt Walcoff served as president until mid-1997, and at that time Canadian Josh Gilbert was elected to the position. During his administration the organization suffered from changes in the membership, taking the group away from its original intent. Since all members joined for purposive reasons and since AS-FAR (later changed to ASFAR) was ruled through frequent direct elections by the membership the organization quickly conformed to the new member’s views. These new members took ASFAR down the path toward radicalism and stressed controversial issues such as the age of sexual consent.
Discouraged by the current way ASFAR operated and the direction its policy was heading, ASFAR founder Matt Walcoff, President Josh Gilbert and Vice-President Avi Hein set out to reorganize ASFAR to make it more effective they first began discussing the creation of NYRA in late 1997. When asked about the impetus behind creating NYRA Josh Gilbert had this to say, “NYRA was a replacement for ASFAR. The true intention was to create a new organization without problems that plagued ASFAR. Specifically, the constant infighting, the monthly votes by membership, the lack of power for officers to carry out their duties, the extremists, the pedophiles (NAMBLA folks), etc.” (Interview with Gilbert) Walcoff, Gilbert, and Hein all agreed that even the name of Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions sounded radical, and a softer name like the National Youth Rights Association would gain the group more respect by legislators and media as well as potential members. Unfortunately very vocal members of ASFAR strongly resisted any changes, and when the issues to change ASFAR into NYRA came to a vote the measures failed. (http://list.asfar.org/1998/07/) Josh Gilbert said, “There was a huge amount of tension between ASFAR and NYRA initially. In fact, Avi's involvement with NYRA basically made him the receiver of constant threats to "impeach" him, especially from Eric Anderson and Justin Mallone, the two individuals who, coincidentally, became president and vice-president respectively after Avi's resignation.” (Interview with Gilbert) Accusations and criticisms were rampant on both sides and after the failure of the vote discussions centered on making NYRA an independent organization from ASFAR.
First mentions of changing ASFAR into NYRA were at an online meeting December 22, 1997(http://list.asfar.org/1997/), the scandal occurred when these conversations were made public to the membership on February 17, 1998. (http://list.asfar.org/1998/07/) Reacting to perceived shortcomings in ASFAR and problems brought up by the scandal the newly independent NYRA reflected these differences. Seeking to create an organization that was moderate and realistic NYRA was formally incorporated on June 17, 1998. The expressed purpose of the organization from the Articles of Incorporation state, “The specific purposes for which this corporation is organized is to promote awareness of the legal and human rights of young people in the United States by means including but not limited to publications, reports, discussion and outreach.” (AoI)
While this description is very tempered from what the organization hopes one day to accomplish this route was chosen to get 501(c) 3 status, and operate as a charitable organization. NYRA’s Mission statement passed by the Board of Directors on January 25, 2000 is as follows:
"The National Youth Rights Association is dedicated to defending the civil and human rights of young people in the United States. We believe certain basic rights are intrinsic parts of American citizenship and transcend age or status limits. As the world's leading democracy, the United States should not lag behind other nations in granting first-class citizenship to its young people. NYRA aims to achieve its goals through educating people about youth rights, working with public officials to devise fitting policy solutions to problems affecting young people and empowering young people to work on their own behalf."
The National Youth Rights Association differs from Children Rights groups by seeking only rights denied based on age, other injustices or problems affecting young people are out of the scope of NYRA. NYRA further differs from other Youth Rights organizations that share its approach to Youth Rights, in that it has opted for a scaled down practical approach. The organization realizes that even modest lowering of current age restrictions are radical enough to the general society, to advocate a complete abolishment of age restrictions, as ASFAR does would be political suicide. NYRA addresses several Youth Rights issues including age discrimination, curfews, the drinking age, driving restrictions, economic matters, entertainment, free speech, status offenses and the voting age. This list is by no means inclusive of all possible Youth Rights topics, but to adopt more only stands to alienate possible allies.
The initial Board of Directors from the incorporation of the National Youth Rights Association on June 17, 1998 included Bennett Haselton, Avi Hein, Matthew N. Herman, G. Justin Mallone, and Matthew A. Walcoff. Josh Gilbert, though involved in the organizations founding decided to serve on the Board of Advisors instead so he could focus on the creation of the Canadian Youth Rights Association (CYRA), Bennett Haselton moved on to focus on his organization Peacefire and still sits on the Board of Advisors too. The Board of Directors is the chief ruling body in the organization. Directors are elected yearly by a vote of the full membership and have the power to conduct all the business of the organization. The Board of Directors makes all official decisions and appointments. (NYRA Bylaws) The number of directors is fixed by a vote of the board, and is required to be between 3 and 10, currently there are 5 directors for the National Youth Rights Association. The results of the last election placed Alex Coatia, Adam Fletcher, Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Dustin Manuel, Beau Daniel Sanchez, and Joe Zefran on the board of directors. Since the election both Adam Fletcher and Alex Coatia have resigned from the board and have been replaced by board appointment with Manda Joseph and Robert Grant.
Day to day administration of the organization is handled by NYRA’s four officers, President Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Vice-President Beau Daniel Sanchez, Treasurer Robert Grant, and Secretary Manda Joseph. They were each appointed by the board and serve one-year terms. Other staff of the organization includes the communications director, Joe Zefran, Webmaster Dan Taylor Jr. and legal council, Keith Mandell. All NYRA staff and positions are voluntary and receive no compensation for their work.
Currently the National Youth Rights Association has over 400 members in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Membership is open to all US residents and there are no age requirements to join, though a majority of members are high school and college aged. There are no dues or cost to join the organization. Currently all members join for expressive benefits, Baumgartner and Leech describe Robert Salisbury’s account of expressive benefits as something that “one can feel good about one’s contribution to a group because the group expresses values that one holds dear.” (Baumgartner & Leech p. 69) Solidary benefits are limited due to how spread out the membership is, though in local chapters where personal contact is more common solidary benefits are factors in pulling in members. Solidary benefits “include such intangibles as social relationships with other group members and increased status in the eyes of nonmembers.” (Baumgartner & Leech p. 69) The benefits of solidary and material reasons to join an organization should not be discounted; NYRA’s membership has been stunted by lack of incentives in each of these areas. By relying too much on member’s expressive purposes for joining, other people not as committed have not been pulled into the organization. NYRA leadership has expressed a desire to establish more incentives for attracting members.
Membership in local chapters is strong; currently 17% of the total organization’s members are also members of the three local chapters. Chapters are important to the well-being of the organization as a whole, since much real world action is best carried out on the local level. For an organization like NYRA large national campaigns are difficult to generate so NYRA-USA focuses on just spreading the word and administrative duties while allowing the chapters freedom to pursue concrete action at the local level.
NYRA has benefited much from individual entrepreneurs who have invested themselves into the organization for the good of the cause and ideology it supports. All leaders of NYRA past and present who have worked hard and cared passionately about the organization fit the description that Roger Salisbury puts forward. “Entrepreneurs whose groups succeed benefit by having a job, by controlling potentially substantial resources, and by having and opportunity to further their own political agendas as the leader of an organization rather than as a private citizen.” (Baumgartner & Leech p. 69-70)
These entrepreneurs who have been involved have also been the organization’s biggest patrons and have contributed what meager budget the organization has had in the past few years. Since NYRA does not charge dues from its membership patronage is very important. Expenses such as the costs associated with the webpage, direct mailings, and other material holdings have been paid for out of pocket. Until NYRA files for and obtains a tax status it is not allowed to establish its own bank account or possess its own funds. Fundraising and grant seeking will not begin in force until its 501(c) 3 has been established. Current assets of the corporation are detailed in a report put out by the president and include such items as Internet domain names, t-shirts, a button maker, and other smaller items, total worth of the organization’s assets are estimated at around one thousand dollars. Larger and wealthier patrons will be aggressively pursued by the organization once its IRS tax status is filed, the ability to offer patrons a tax write off will be a large incentive in securing money for NYRA. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyra_bod/files/reso01.doc)
NYRA is still in the beginning stages of its development, and despite occasional attempts to do so its strategies do not include any significant push to influence legislation at this point. Building of the organization takes precedence now in order to have the capacity to lobby effectively at some later date. Recruitment drives, chapter formation, fundraising and the establishment of a solid dependable inner structure are the organization’s current goals. In addition to such inwardly focus strategies NYRA intends to continue making a name for itself by media exposure and public education campaigns.
Such media exposure has been among the National Youth Rights Association’s biggest accomplishments. Most recently NYRA Communications Director and board member, Joe Zefran was featured on radio shows along the West Coast in response to the school shooting in Santee, CA. Before that a large effort by the organization involved the Lower the Vote 2000 campaign last November, where NYRA joined together with the voting rights organization Youth Speak to advocate a lowered voting age. Protests were planned in many states across the country, and the organization attracted much media attention for its efforts. Radio shows in major markets such as Washington, DC and Detroit, MI featured interviews and programs about NYRA’s efforts. Dozens of newspaper articles centered on the local protests circulated around the country, from Maine to Texas to Oregon. The protests were a substantial success for the organization. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyra_bod/messages)
Other accomplishments of the young organization include the establishment of 3 local chapters, one of which was responsible for the organizing of the DC Curfew Protests, which attracted local and international media attention. NYRA President Avi Hein and Director Alex Koroknay-Palicz spoke at the second DC Curfew protest in October 1999. Another speaking engagement by the organization includes a speech by Alex Koroknay-Palicz to 500 high school students at a model congress in Long Island, NY. He was keynote speaker to the politically motivated and involved crowd. NYRA representatives have been invited into DC schools to speak with classrooms about Youth Rights and the organization on several occasions.
Efforts to influence public policy have been limited though fairly successful. Early in life of the National Youth Rights Association founder Matt Walcoff appeared before the Maryland legislature to testify against bills proposed that introduced further limitations on driving privileges to young people. Two driving bills in the Maryland Senate on March 11, 1998 and on in the house on March 3. Several newspapers approached Walcoff for interviews following his testimony. More recently NYRA’s chapter in Ottawa County, Michigan was involved in an effort to fight the youth curfew in Hudsonville, MI. A petition was circulated around the small town to get the issue put on the ballot. The wording was incorrect on the initiative, and it was not allowed to count to be on the ballot, but the signatures were instead used in a presentation before the city council. In a Hudsonville City Council meeting in fall of 2001 NYRA’s arguments were listened to and then many exemptions and safeguards were added to the law in response to our complaints.
Another prized accomplishment is gathering together an esteemed Board of Advisors to gain prestige and guidance from. The assemblage of this luminary group was the result of much of the organization’s early efforts. Today it includes ACLU President Nadine Strossen; president and a founder of the American Council on Science, Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H; author and homeschooling advocate Grace Llewellyn; Peacefire founder Bennett Haselton; author Mike A. Males; drinking age reform advocate Dr. Roderic B. Park, Ph.D.; drinking age reform advocate Dr. David J. Hanson, Ph.D.; and CYRA President Josh Gilbert. This collection of established minds lends credibility and respect to the actions of the organization. (http://www.youthrights.org/articles/boa.html)
Unfortunately a hostile political environment and a lack of competent, driven leadership have held NYRA’s efforts back. Literature on interest groups mentions the impact of issue salience and popularity on the success and influence of a group. Currently the issue of Youth Rights lacks both salience and popularity. Though being able to adjust both is within the control of the organization with a determined effort behind it. Since the issue of Youth Rights hasn’t been considered in almost 30 years, long before NYRA’s main constituency was born, most people haven’t even considered the possibility that young people deserve civil rights and they are worth fighting for. Persuasive and far reaching education of young people across the country is needed to resurrect the non-issue of Youth Rights and bring back the national spot light to the needs and demands of the young. Salience is hurt by the inexperience and busy schedules of the young. Those who care about the issues don’t know how to do anything about it, and those who do often are lured into other fields where they can expect a paycheck or social advancement.
Theories abound that describe the formation, influence and nature of interest groups. While by the measurement of accomplishment and prestige great separations exist between the long established, successful interest groups and the newly formed groups in a theoretical sense all groups big or small, old or new, involve the same factors and principles. Political scientists have created a wealth of literature to study the wealth of politics that interest groups have created.
Assets Report. NYRA-BOD page. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyra_bod/files/reso01.doc
Gilbert, Josh. Personal ICQ interview. 25 March 2001.
NYRA Resolution 00-L. Written by Matt Walcoff. Passed 21 June 2000.
NYRA Mission Statement. Written by Matt Walcoff. Passed January 25, 2000
Baumgartner, Frank R., and Leech, Beth L. Basic Interests. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998
NYRA Document. NYRA Webpage. http://www.youthrights.org/articles/boa.html
Discussion list archives. ASFAR Webpage. http://list.asfar.org/1998/07/
Discussion list archives. ASFAR Webpage. http://list.asfar.org/1997
NYRA BOD Email list archives. NYRA-BOD page. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyra_bod/messages
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