activism

Young Activists Are Turning Their Anguish Into Action


Kids all over the country are inheriting a world in crisis. Instead of waiting for change, they're creating it.



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“Don’t give up on my generation. We have so much to offer and we need you and your wisdom,” pleaded Aniyah Vines, a young Black student organizer, who was working with The Live Movement. The young woman was flanked by a handful of local Washington D.C. organizers from CPD Action (the sister organization of the Center for Popular Democracy), Spaces in Action, and a full band from Long Live Go-Go. They were speaking to all of us who gathered to protest the illegitimate installation of right-wing extremist Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court. The Capitol Police encircled us in a horseshoe, yelling into a bullhorn, “This is an illegal protest!” hoping it would be enough to disperse us—but none of us was paying them any mind. 

Two days earlier, I was in Los Angeles on a Zoom call with several of the organizers, who were desperate for people to flood the streets in solidarity. Instead, the crowds were thin and disconcerting—not at all reflective of what the majority of Americans were feeling about this sham appointment. Everyone on the call was aware that Barrett’s appointment was inevitable,  just as Gorsuch’s and Kavanaugh’s were, but massive dissent was still essential. During the Kavanaugh hearings, thousands upon thousands of people protested, and it nearly undid Kavanaugh’s nomination. Ultimately, he was rammed through by lawless Republicans but those protests achieved an indelible shift in the narrative around him and his past conduct—his misogyny, his lying, his murky financial history and prodigious debt that mysteriously disappeared and the sham “investigation” around these matters. He walked into that job with the permanent stain of illegitimacy. This time, though, there appeared to be little resistance. I got on a plane from L.A., and headed to D.C., and on Thursday, October 15, I joined 200 other protestors of all ages, genders, and ethnicities and took to the streets.

We took up a three-way intersection of 3rd and Independence Avenue, a couple blocks away from the Supreme Court. Wearing a red Howard University sweatshirt, The Live Movement’s Vines had commanded our full attention with her confidence and passion and words, saying that her generation has so much to learn from their elders’ and their experiences, but that she and her generation bring a lot to the table too. “We need each other. Please don’t give up on us,” she pleaded. 

She got to me. The idea that these young kids feel abandoned by us wrapped its fingers around my heart and squeezed. 

The Movement for Black Lives, Sunrise Movement, United We Dream, and March for Our Lives are all youth-led movements to address systemic racism and growing income inequality as well as catastrophes like COVID-19, climate change and rampant mass and school shootings. Because of it, we are seeing not only young people coming out in astronomical numbers to vote in this election, but younger lawmakers and political leaders like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, who are enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity, due in no small part to their ability to connect and reflect the concerns and the anguish of their generation and the ones coming up behind them. 

The D.C. organizer’s entreaty to us to have her back and have the backs of all young Americans reminded me of a conversation I’d had just a few days earlier with a friend whose 14-year-old son, Declan, contracted COVID months ago and is volunteering for the Biden campaign, even as he grapples with persistent coronavirus symptoms. Then I recalled another friend who has a 16-year-old daughter who survived a school shooting at Saugus High School nearly a year ago. Now she is actively pushing gun legislation and teaching preparedness workshops to kids and adults in her community. 

Kids and young adults all over the country know they are inheriting a world in crisis, and will have to clean up a mess they did not make. As these disasters unravel further with no real resolution in sight, young people have a fire in their bellies and are demanding change. Meet the future:

 

Declan *

Declan, who is 14, contracted COVID-19 in late June. Three months later he still experiences fatigue, headaches, nausea, and has little to no appetite. In spite of the virus and the added pressures of school during a pandemic, he has been phone-banking for Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden for the last two months, making calls whenever he can, for several hours at a time, starting his “work hours” at 9 a.m. sharp. To date, he has had over 700 live conversations with voters (which does not include hangups and voicemails)—a big chunk of calls as any phone canvasser can tell you. Declan’s enthusiasm is unwavering, never mind the fact that he will have to wait another four years to fully participate in the democracy he’s diligently fighting for.

The journey to activism began on June 7, 2013—Declan’s 7th birthday, following a shooting rampage at Santa Monica City College that killed five people, according to the L.A. Times. Declan was at school down the street from the college, and was forced to go on lockdown in a supply closet with eight other students for three and half hours. Since that harrowing massacre, Declan no longer regards his birthday as a celebration of life but as another year closer to his death. He’s still grappling with depression and anxiety in the time surrounding his birthday—he still can’t bring himself to celebrate it seven years later, or bear to hear anyone singing “Happy Birthday”—even when it’s sung to someone else. His mother says he’s been working in therapy to grapple with his feelings, and is much improved. But it’s still devastating.

But one thing that has helped him is his being enrolled at the Peace and Social Justice Camp in Santa Monica, which teaches kids how to blend art with activism to raise awareness about local issues in their community.  The first year, Declan went with his fellow campers to City Hall and got elected officials to ban plastic straws. Last year, the kids helped raise awareness around an intense triangle of pollution at Gandara Park where kids play community sports. The park itself is a landfill, a city dump is close by, and the 10 Freeway runs right by it. They marched to City Hall and Declan wrote and recorded a rap song which they played along the route “People may think this is good like carbonara / But let me tell you stuff about a parkway called Gandara.”

Declan says this year feels especially urgent. “I try to fit in as much as I can because this is such a big time in our country,” he explained to me. “We’ve got to put the right people in. Every voice matters. Every vote matters.” His mother, Jenna, reminded him of the countless calls he made for the 2018 midterms and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 when he was just a tween. She said, “Phone banking for Hillary was his carrot. The sooner he got his homework done, the sooner he could make calls for Hillary. He couldn’t wait to go to HQ and get on the phone. He’s fearless, too. He will talk to anyone and he won’t let people get off the phone until he gets the information he needs from them. He was like that at 10 years old.”

He acquired the nickname “Tenacious D.”

Mia

Early in the morning of November 14, 2019, Mia, then a high-school freshman, walked into Saugus High School, when classmate Nathaniel Berhow opened fire with a .45 caliber semiautomatic “ghost gun.” According to Everytown, a ghost gun is a totally untraceable “DIY, homemade gun made from readily available, unregulated building blocks.” The shooter hit Mia and four other of her classmates, among them two who didn’t survive: Gracie Ann Muehlberger (15 years old) and Mia’s best friend, Dominic Blackwell (14 years old).

Before this tragedy, Mia was focused on school with plans to become a trauma surgeon—a dream she’s had since third grade. While she hated that school shootings were a fact of life in America, she said she felt “like most people, that ‘[school shootings are] horrible and sad and they shouldn’t be happening, but that’s far away, right? It’s not going to happen to me.’” 

As Mia recovers and continues studying, she advocates for safety measures at her school. She was the youngest person to deliver a speech at Moms Demand Action’s annual Gun Sense University #GSU2020, a weekend-long training summit where more than 2,000 “gun-violence-prevention movement leaders from every state share best practices, participate in training sessions about effective organizing and prepare for the crucial work ahead in 2020.”  The conference was held online this year and it featured a keynote address from Dr. Jill Biden.  Mia also helps students and teachers get emergency response training with Stop the Bleed at Holy Cross Medical Center where she was treated for her gunshot wound. And she has become very involved with the gun-control organizations Everytown and Moms Demand Action in their push to close the loophole around “ghost guns”—the type of firearm that was used against her and her classmates. 

Everyone in Mia’s community wants to be safe. But as is often the case, there are disagreements around strategy. Before the pandemic, Mia and others wanted her principal to institute a clear-backpack policy to ease a very rattled student body and possibly deter would-be copy cats. Her principal decided against it, citing girls’ possible embarrassment if boys saw their “feminine products” in the clear bags. Mia told him, “‘As one of those girls, I am not embarrassed if some boy knows I have a period.’ My male principal is telling me how we’ll feel about something that he doesn’t have.” 

That disconnect sparked a realization in Mia: “Adults don’t always know what’s best,” she says. “It’s like, Oh, I know more about this than you do. Sometimes you have to experience it to have that level of connection with the topic.”

For example, when the shooting began, Mia ran into a classroom when she and her teacher realized she had been hit. But the gunshot-wound kits, called “Keep the Pressure,” which were located in every classroom were too complicated to use without special training. The teacher had missed the training—she’d been out on sick leave with cancer when they provided it—and was overwhelmed by it, so she grabbed her regular first-aid kit and handed it to a high-school junior who had been trained through the Fire Department program. “It was sort of just lucky,” Mia’s mom said. The junior held pressure on Mia’s wound with abdominal pads, gauze, and Mia’s sweatshirt until the paramedics could get to her. “These kids are so trained in active shooter drills, they wouldn’t open the door for the police and paramedics because that’s what they are told to do. Police had to go find the master keys to get to Mia,” Mia’s mother told me. Students used maxi-pads to put pressure on another victim’s wounds. “You can practically use anything to save a life if you know how,” added Mia’s mother.

What’s worse: There are no Keep the Pressure kits available outside the school building. If a shooting happens on school grounds, ambulatory gunshot victims have to go inside to a classroom to access a kit. “It’s crazy because by the time you get to a classroom, they’re locked,” says Mia, who is pushing to have kits installed outdoors. The school worries visible gunshot kits will perpetuate fear and hypervigilance.

“I don’t want anyone to be in constant fear,” says Mia, “but you should have knowledge and the supplies you need nearby to save yourself or someone else if something happens. Like fire extinguishers. During shooting drills, no one tells us what to do if someone’s hurt, they just tell you to get into a classroom, go under a desk, and turn off all the lights.”

Mia’s experience inspired her to help teach the Stop the Bleed program at Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, CA. “Even if you’re not going to vote to regulate guns, at least provide the proper tools to help people,” she says. The program trains students and faculty in using their gunshot-wound kits on prosthetic legs with fake stab and gunshot wounds, which are much simpler than the Keep The Pressure kits. Mia tells her story at the top of a session and then assists the facilitators. Occasionally, an adult is uncomfortable with accepting instruction from a “kid,” but overall she loves meeting and talking to people and getting them trained with  a life-saving skill.

Since she’s become a more prominent voice in the gun-control movement asking for “safer guns, safer storage regulations, and background checks,” Mia has also become a target of online harassment. She’s been called a “crisis actor” or a “fucking commie.” She handles it with extraordinary aplomb, which she attributes to her parents—especially her mom, “She’s been there for me through everything.”  

Mia has been reflecting lately whether her work in gun control has helped her to heal from her trauma. She told me recently, “Not that this happened for ‘a reason,’ but at least I’m not just sitting there crying,” she said. “I am taking this awful thing that happened and trying to turn it into something good. It’s worth it even if I only reach two or three people or even one person. That’s one more than there was before.”

Raiden

Raiden Gonzalez was born and raised in Kansas and is the president of the Young Democrats at Emporia State University, in Emporia, KS. During the 2016 election season, he noticed Republicans around him were more politically active than usual, which indicated to him that the stakes were exceptionally high, so he began phone banking and knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton. As for many, he says the 2016 election results “took a deep toll on me and some of my friends. I saw a lot of friends of mine crying in the hallways at school, while conservative students had ‘Lock Her Up’ signs in their lockers.” 

Raiden says he found one friend literally crying on the floor. “That’s how bad it was,” he told me. “I picked them up and I told them, ‘You know, we have another shot. The governor’s race is at play in 2018.’” That’s when Raiden decided to campaign for Democrats in the very red state of Kansas. Every Sunday, he and his friends canvassed for Laura Kelly who was running in the gubernatorial race, knocking on doors, creating and distributing flyers and yard signs around town. Kelly won the race, edging out former secretary of State Kris Kobach, a virulent racist who called for a national registry for Muslims and who parroted Trump’s demand for a full investigation into our country’s “rampant voter fraud”—a Trumpian dog whistle for “brown people voting.”

Currently, Raiden is pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science at ESU, where he joined the Young Democrats and headed up their social media, helping to spread the word and recruit more students. He’s also volunteering for Democratic Senate hopeful Barbara Bollier in a three-way race against Republican Roger Marshall and Libertarian Jason Buckley. Raiden met with Bollier in June and shared with her a struggle that is shared by many of his peers: “I’m a low-income student and I can hardly afford college now,” he says. “Governor Brownback’s tax experiment failed us.”  He was referencing the former governor’s attempt to slash income taxes across the board, claiming it would boost the Kansas economy—it did the opposite. Now students like Raiden are having a harder time making tuition payments and it is disrupting their education. 

“Being a college student is hard,” he told Bollier, who recalls the empathy she expressed. “I remember crying about it sometimes because, man, it is stressful. I was stressed. I didn’t know how to pay for anything.” She responded, “I understand the struggles of being a college student because I was one.” He believes her plan to reverse Brownback’s tax cuts will help students like him bridge the gap and make higher education affordable for everyone.

Raiden is also a state representative with Students for Biden. He says it has been hard given Kansas’s conservative politics, “but there are people in the state who are on board with Biden. I really do feel like we can get this nation back on track.” He says President Trump’s divisive, hate-spewing rhetoric—and mean-spirited legislating—has driven Raiden further to action: He plans to run for office, and has set his sights on the Kansas House of Representatives in 2022. Raiden, who is gay, says it’s a deeply emotional issue for him. He tells me that not only does he want to strengthen “the Higher Education Act of 1965 to lower the cost of in-state tuition to half for low-income students” like himself, but, “I want to represent Kansas in a way that can stop this hatred towards LGBT people. Trump ignites hate and strips the rights of LGBT people. I fear this division. I have many conservative friends and some of them won’t see me anymore because I am gay. And they use President Trump’s rhetoric against me.” He knows all too well how dangerous it is to live in a world where people foment hatred and intolerance: He is still haunted by an incident in high school, when a friend, who is trans, was sexually assaulted in the school bathroom. No one from the school’s administration came to his friend’s aid. “I take that personally because … what if that had been me?”

Not satisfied to simply be an activist warrior at the keyboard, Raiden has the courage to make his presence known by occasionally attending rallies for the opposing side. After advocating for Bollier’s platform at a rally for Republican Roger Marshall, for example, Marshall singled Raiden out to the crowd as a “radical leftist” and warned his supporters that 19-year-old Raiden was the future Barbara Bollier would bring—as if Raiden were the fourth horseman of the apocalypse and not a gay kid from Salina. 

After the event, an older man came up to Raiden and told him he had protested during the Vietnam War. He said to the young man, “You are the future. You remind me of me. Don’t ever let that man destroy your voice.”

 

*Because two of the subjects are minors, we were not able to include their surnames. 

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