By: Chase Melton
Chase is a junior in Southwest Florida. He is currently serving as JSA’s Southeast Regional Director of Activism, as well as Naples High’s Chapter President.
My generation has rejected the divisiveness that slows progress, championing the fight against prominent issues from both sides of the aisle. We have seen the immense gaps in wealth and privilege that plague our country, and have gone out into our communities to use our privilege for good.
It’s clear that a new wave of activism, tackling the issues of privilege and partisanship, is approaching. In a time when activism is bound to migrate online, no one is better suited to usher in this new wave than the Zoomers, otherwise known as Generation Z.
Now more than ever, it’s clear, especially to young people, that party politics and baseless accusations only serve as impediments to real progress. During a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, we assume that leaders would set grudges aside to plan a collaborative response. Instead, it feels like we’ve never been more divided.
Liddy B., a high schooler in Washington State, says, “One thing we’ve learned from the generations before us is partisanship, and not listening to each other. Our generation is tired of that.”
Liddy is a student leader within an organization called the Junior State of America (JSA), a national non-profit organization that works to educate middle and high school students in various areas of politics and civic engagement.
Liddy, along with other student leaders, has created a nationwide Political Pen Pal Program, through which students with different ideologies can share ideas, bridging vast geographic and socioeconomic divides.
Within 3 weeks since its launch, this program has now matched over 600 students, with beliefs ranging from Communist to very conservative.
High school junior Natalie A. and her pen pal Hunter are polar opposites: Natalie is a liberal from San Francisco, while Hunter L., from rural Louisiana, identifies as conservative.
Hunter’s school teaches K-12 and has a total enrollment of sixty students, while Natalie couldn’t imagine life without bustling crowds and public transportation.
“Our communities can be so insular. I think when we all live in our little echo chamber, it’s easy to villainize anyone outside of it.” said Natalie.
During their conversation, the issue of healthcare came up. While Natalie believes in universal healthcare for all, Hunter doesn't support the same ideology. Although she was not surprised by his viewpoint on this topic, as the conversation progressed, she realized that his reasoning was not what she expected.
“He said he didn’t think the government could afford to implement it, since they can’t even afford to fix the roads in his neighborhood.” Natalie said. “I think it reminded me how healthy it is to acknowledge diversity in political thought. Most of the time, the people who disagree with you aren’t out to get you.”
Liddy hopes that this initiative facilitates political compromise and understanding during a time when in-person communication is impossible.
“Once we learn how to actually listen to each other and have productive conversations...that can spread out across our generation and make us more equipped generally to handle politics.”
“It’s the premise of activism,” says Angela W., a Texas-based high school student and activist, “No one is forcing us to participate; we feel an obligation as people with greater privilege to help all that we can.”
Angela W. has a master plan to help families affected by COVID-19 nationwide. It’s a simple remote tutoring system,
for which high schoolers throughout the nation will sign up, note the fields of study in which they excel, and then be matched with a student anywhere in the country who is struggling with that same subject.
Many parents have been laid off, trying to live off a cut salary, or trying to process the sudden loss of a loved one. Angela believes it’s the least that we, as teenagers capable of helping, can do to offer our time and knowledge to help those who are struggling more than we are.
“We are lucky to be bored,” she told me during a phone interview squeezed between two Zoom meetings discussing the initiative.
“The fact that so many of us are bored at home speaks to our privilege. Essential workers, the recently unemployed… they can’t afford to be bored. I guess I thought that all this boredom could be channeled into something helpful and productive.”
This service movement comes at a time when students are already burdened with online classwork and prep for online exams.
At such an unprecedented moment, young people could very realistically be ignoring their schoolwork, trying to comprehend or deny the current situation, grieving their cancelled prom nights or senior graduation ceremonies. But they’re not.
Students like Angela are actively isolating their privilege, analyzing it, and then putting it to work through services for those who can’t afford to sit and grieve.
With no marches or mass demonstrations possible for the foreseeable future, Instagram stories and Twitter hashtags are becoming the new channels for change. Teens are masterfully harnessing social media to spread the news of their initiatives, including organizing digital discussions and promoting online fundraisers.
This kind of activism is specifically curated so that anyone can make a positive change in their community without leaving their home.
Shayna G., another JSA student leader from California, is working for a similar cause; she and a network of young activists across the country have remotely mobilized to design an initiative meant to raise funds for those hit the hardest by the pandemic. While stuck at home, Gerard and her team have researched and compiled a comprehensive list of the organizations doing the most vital work to protect people, the economy, and the environment in this unique circumstance.
“We hope that the willing and able will donate, but we understand that most people don’t have the means to help financially, especially not right now.”
In acknowledgment of this difficult truth, the team has simultaneously drafted a handbook that includes information on groups and individuals in need of non-financial help.
“It’s as simple as going grocery shopping for someone with an immunodeficiency, or walking a senior citizen’s dog.” Shayna relayed. “Just as important as raising money, we need to do what we can to perpetuate a sense of family and community.”
We know our digital activism is effective. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #NeverAgain which started online, have grown into national initiatives, creating some of the biggest changes of our time.
Seeing all that teens are doing now to move society forward, even while stuck at home, there is evidence that the future of our society is marked with fairness and compassion.
And when it’s time for Gen Z to give way to the next generation, we will cede our power readily, because once upon a time we knew what it was like to see beyond the horizons of our authorities.
Until then, senior Khimmoy H. of Miami Lakes Educational Center puts it best,
“There’s going to be much more to do once it’s safe to go back outside.”