Sophia Garcia, Sarah Gandluri, Rick Hampson and Radiah Jamil
| Special to USA TODAY
In his 2017 song “American Teen,” Khalid lamented young people “don’t always say what we mean.” But now, after a school year shadowed by pandemic, young people are speaking candidly about what matters to them, including racism and their own mental health.
It’s not just talk. This summer they’re also trying to do something about problems that undercut physical and mental health, including the digital divide, unequal school funding and food deserts.
Youth interest in civic engagement is soaring among the generation that the global volunteering nonprofit Points of Light says was already the most active in history. More than half (53%) of Generation Z individuals said they wanted to get more involved in their communities post-COVID, which was higher than any other generation, according to a 2020 Points of Light survey. (Gen Z includes those born beginning in 1997, so they’re 24 and younger.)
“If there is something that is harming us directly, we should be the ones to take charge,’’ said Isaiah Llamas, a recent high school graduate who helped facilitate a spring youth leadership session in Albuquerque.
The New Mexico meeting was one of six around the nation co-hosted and funded by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups working to improve conditions for young people.
Young activists in many areas had already been busy during the pandemic. In Rochester, New York, they had slipped pink slips inside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office door to protest education budget cuts; received training from the New York Civil Liberties Union to become leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement; and organized protests, rallies and marches against systemic racism.
After the six city meetings, students worked in a variety of ways to improve conditions at their schools and in their communities:
- In Cherokee County, South Carolina, students are spending the summer collecting video stories from their peers; planning student-led professional development for teachers and school staff; scheduling meetings with local leaders; and preparing a podcast for the start of the school year.
- In Albuquerque, the student-led advocacy group Voices in Action is focusing on some students’ lack of WiFi and other digital tools. The group helped create more WiFi hotspots and established a partnership with Comcast that provided WiFi at a discount rate of $10 a month.
- Building on earlier efforts by Rochester youth, the city’s nonprofit Children’s Institute has a Youth Leadership Council that is meeting weekly to train a group of 10 students to become community leaders. Children’s Institute partners with schools to improve children’s well-being.
It “helps deconstruct preconceived notions and ideas that youth (can’t) understand what’s happening,” said Ashton Hall, a 2021 Rochester high school graduate.
Pandemic as opportunity
The virtual meetings, which were covered by high school and college students who are part of the journalism training nonprofit Urban Health Media Project, offered insight into the state of American youth, for whom the past year has been an emotional crucible.
Cortez Dawkins, a rising senior at Gaffney High School in South Carolina, recited a brutal litany of the problems he and his peers face: “Depression, stress, drug and alcohol abuse, academic problems, bullying, violence and lack of adult support.”
But young people – and adults who support them – say they’re trying to use the pandemic as an opportunity to organize, connect and plan for a better future.
Dig deeper on race and identity: Subscribe to This Is America, USA TODAY’s newsletter
The discussions produced a number of ideas, from having school safety officers in St. Louis trade uniforms for casual wear, to extending Black History Month in Rochester beyond February.
And one belief cropped up almost everywhere: Adults need to listen more.
At a session on Staten Island, student panelists focused on mental health and racial justice – in part because the two intersect. “Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma,” said Qawiyat Adesina, a senior at Curtis High School.
The Staten Island students also told of their personal trials.
Fathia Qandeel, a senior at Port Richmond High School, is a Muslim and wears a hijab. She described how it felt to be attacked: “People have tried to take off my hijab, yelled things at me, cursing me out.’’ Teens of color like herself, she added, “feel like they’re more restricted because they’re afraid that they’re going to get hurt.”
Justin Soyka, who graduated from Curtis High School in 2020 and now attends Borough of Manhattan Community College, recalled being so anxious “I couldn’t walk on the bus. … I felt like all eyes were on me. I pushed myself into a corner where I couldn’t breathe.”
Unity is a prerequisite for effective action, students said.
“Our generation is more aware and takes the time to understand each other and advocate for diversity, and not division,” said Deyona Burton, senior class president at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and founder of SPEAR (Showing Political Engagement and Responsibility), a youth-led social and political action group.
Rodney Wells, a student at University Christian School and one of the leaders of the Jacksonville meeting, echoed her assessment: “One thing 2020 showed us is there’s a lot of division. That’s not what our generation is, and that’s not what we’re going to accept as a narrative for our generation.’’ He urged conversations about “how we build bridges, and not walls.”
But students didn’t let their peers off the hook. Participants at the Jacksonville session criticized what they termed “performative activism” – actions that appear helpful but only reflect favorably on the “activist.’’
“Performative activism can be worse than no activism at all,” said Trinity Webster-Bass, a senior at Paxon School for Advanced Studies.
One example: People who posted a black square around their profile photos on social media platforms to memorialize George Floyd, yet didn’t follow up by doing anything useful, such as signing petitions, donating money, putting up flyers or meeting with the principal or municipal officials.
“Go beyond the hashtag,” Burton urged performative activists.
The student leaders admitted to facing their own psychological or emotional challenges.
“We get burnt out by organizing,” said Janelle Astorga-Ramos, who co-founded a student advocacy group of Albuquerque students in 2015. “It’s hard to see how organizing does create change.’’ Especially, she added, “when you’re doing anything virtually.”
Part of the problem is adults in authority who don’t take you or your opinions seriously. Such adults – in the words of Galicia Monforte, a student organizer of the Albuquerque session – view youth organizing as merely “cute.”
60 years of activism: From the Freedom Rides to BLM, generations discuss work, parallels
Jayven Cruz, a sophomore at World of Inquiry School in Rochester, said it’s important that adults admit that they’re not always right; that alone can improve their relationships with young people.
“For teachers – if a student calls you out on something, it’s OK,” he said. “Because if a student never calls you out on something, you’ll never know if you made a mistake or if you did something wrong.”
But even if they wanted to, adults cannot solve all the problems, students acknowledged. Dawkins cited school bullying as an example: “It’s not all on the teachers” or administrators, he said. “We also as students have to accept each other.”
Students got some encouragement for their efforts from an adult at the South Carolina session, Christina Cody, who heads the Cherokee County schools’ wellness initiative. “Not all youth can step up,’’ she said. “They’re struggling. So you carry a torch for a lot of people behind you.”
What comes next?
As the panel discussions wrapped up, Azariah Estes, a junior at Ritenour High in St. Louis, said that one question was “floating around – ‘What next?’’’
There were plenty of ideas.
In Rochester, they include creating high school clubs to focus on issues and joining community organizations that do the same.
In St. Louis, they include increasing licensed therapists in schools; requiring a parent or guardian at all school safety discussions; creating “calm rooms” where students can center themselves; and having school safety officers – many of whom are former cops –in plainclothes rather than uniform.
Rodney Wells told the Jacksonville meeting that activism doesn’t necessarily involve starting a nonprofit or leading a movement. He said it’s also doing little things every day to advance justice, equity and fairness.
“It only takes one person,’’ Wells said, “but it’s that person’s job to bring in 200 others.’’
Whatever their plans, the students agreed it was good to talk – especially about things that often go unmentioned, such as mental health. South Carolina students said that they’ve watched youth suicides and attempted suicides increase, but that the problem is rarely discussed.
“It’s sad that it takes a lot of people dying for us to bring up the topic,” said Elly Tate, an eighth grader at Ewing Middle School in Gaffney. “Nobody’s talking about it.”
And students agreed having the support of peers around the nation is invaluable.
“I am glad I have this platform to share my story and meet other people who have experienced similar things,’’ said Fathia Qandeel of Staten Island. “I learned this is a global issue, and I am not alone.”
Rick Hampson is a former national reporter for USA TODAY and a contributing editor and instructor at the Urban Health Media Project. Garcia, Jamil and Gandluri are high school students in Miami, New York, and Baltimore who reported the story for UHMP. Former USA TODAY reporter Alan Gomez, a UHMP contributing editor and instructor, contributed to this story, along with student-journalists Kayla Johnson, Malaya Mason and Angely Pena-Agramonte.