Youth activists who combated injustice in 2017 tell us how to prepare for the fight ahead in 2018
In what Gloria Steinem described as “the upside of the downside,” the year 2017 began with the historic Women’s March and was followed by a level of activism, enthusiasm, and civic engagement that many of us have never witnessed in our lifetimes. As people saw their rights and autonomy threatened, they fought back and joined “the resistance.”
One of the most inspiring — and encouraging — aspects of the resistance is that young people have emerged as strong leaders and activists who are both educated and passionate about the issues plaguing America and the world. Advocates for Youth, which focuses on young people’s reproductive and sexual health in America and developing countries, is one of the organizations whose members rose to the occasion last year.
Young people of color from Advocates of Youth were standouts as they led the charge to stand up for their communities and strengthen the resistance.
As the year came to a close, Advocates honored their hard work on Twitter with the hashtag #12DaysOfYouthActivists.
We spoke to four of these incredible youth activists about their inspiration, how they became successful activists, and their advice for other people who want to get involved.
Arhegan is slated to facilitate the non-binary POC caucus at The National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference later this month and was named “Student Advocate of the Year” by GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). Arhegan explained that they had “no choice but to become an advocate.”
"Being a minority — specifically being young, black, and queer — the local, state, and federal policies that affect life were not made with me in mind. In 2018, I’m concerned most about voter turnout because I’d like to see the Democratic party take control of Congress which won’t happen if people don’t get out and vote," Arhegan said.
Their activism began on a micro level — at school — and then expanded to statewide and national work.
"I got involved advocating for queer students because I needed to push for accommodations at my school. School-level advocacy turned into statewide advocacy. Over time, I got the opportunity to do national advocacy but it all started with my school not offering me the protections I deserved based on policy, culture, and curriculum as a queer student," they explained.
Arhegan’s advice for others who want to become activists is simple: Don’t wait, regardless of your age. “A lot of the opportunities I’ve had were because I could provide insight as a student who is currently in high school and experiences these issues we’re all talking about,” they said. “Youth voice is so much more important than most give it credit for.”
On National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, Johnson was responsible for getting free HIV screenings at her high school. In addition to distributing free condoms, she also provided sex education to over 1,000 students by hosting informational sessions.
Johnson credits her mom with giving her the confidence and awareness to become a strong advocate for herself and others.
"My mother has always taught me to explore all aspects of myself. She believed it was an integral part of who I will become as I grow each day. My ability to explore my creative and sexual self as small acts of resistance made me want to search for larger actions I can take," she said. "The ability for others to explore themselves and educate themselves when it comes to sexuality and health is currently being undermined and attacked, and this leads me to worry about what the future holds for us."
After handing out free condoms with the Great American Condom Campaign, Johnson found that she was able to openly talk about sexual health with others. She believes that everyone has a calling and our activism should be tailored to issues that are close to our hearts.
"When it comes to activism, search and you shall find," Johnson said. "Take chances, where you’re comfortable, and the door will open for you. Make your advocacy personal, and tailor it to the work you want to do in the future."
After being sexually assaulted as a college student, Peterson took a leave of absence to work on Title IX policy for Vice President Joe Biden.
"The speed and thoroughness of the Obama Administration's response to sexual violence on campus solidified my faith in the power of a motivated federal government to proactively combat discrimination and inequality," Peterson recalled. "But I also saw how grassroots activism created pressure and political space for the government to act."
In May 2014, Peterson joined Know Your IX and used her insider knowledge to train student organizers on the most effective methods to bring about political change.
"Although we’re all in our late teens and early to mid twenties, our members regular testify at the Senate and House legislative hearings and draft sections of promising bills," she said.
Peterson is currently in law school and said that her goal is to “leverage the law and grassroots organizing as tactics to combat discrimination in education and the workforce.” In 2018, she said her most pressing concern is the treatment of people who live in poverty.
"I am most concerned about attacks on anti-poverty programs, under the guise of 'welfare reform.' Cuts to already-meager benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security would be devastating to the millions of people who rely upon these programs to survive," Peterson said. "Weakening these programs would also increase the vulnerability of low-income people to harassment and other forms of abuse by increasing power differentials in the workforce and other arenas."
Her advice to aspiring activists is to use the media to raise awareness about your cause of choice and connect with others who share the same objectives. Peterson suggested forging relationships with national and local reporters, and sharing your work in a manner that will garner attention.
"Press coverage can bolster public support for your demands, draw in other organizers to the cause, and put pressure on the target of your advocacy," she said. "You can also attract attention and build momentum for your campaign by submitting and sharing opinion pieces from your local paper."
Hernandez is from Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost border region of Texas, and was troubled by the lack of comprehensive sex ed and abortion access where she lives. She said she first became involved in abortion rights after witnessing Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster against the state’s abortion laws. Hernandez quickly signed up to volunteer with Planned Parenthood, which led to connections with other reproductive justice organizations.
"I became involved because I knew my community deserved better. The South Texas borderlands are disproportionately impacted by policy on the state and federal level. An injustice in our community is an injustice for everyone across the state and country," Hernandez said. "Seeing a lack of Latinx voices, young people, and working class people working in higher levels of organizing motivates me to stay and move the movement forward for 2018."
When it comes to getting involved, Hernandez’s advice is to “find a cause you’re invested in and just do it.” If you don’t have time to spare, you can still help — Hernandez pointed out that “donating to those on the ground is crucial, especially for smaller grassroots organizations.”
In our current political climate, it’s easy to become fatigued and lose hope.
But people like Arhegan, Johnson, Peterson, and Hernandez are an inspiring reminder that the future is bright and it’s up to all of us — regardless of age — to actively fight for the country and world we want and deserve.