By Hannan Adely, North Jersey Record
In the midst of #MeToo, the Parkland, Florida, high school shootings, climate change and immigration battles, American women are growing more politically active. An unprecedented 256 women are running for seats in Congress this fall. But perhaps the most intriguing group of women emerging onto the political landscape are high school students with a strikingly activist spirit.
Young women, including those who haven’t yet reached voting age, are leading efforts to register voters, canvass for candidates and educate peers about such issues as gun violence, discrimination and the environment.
To tap into the voices of this new generation of politically active young women, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey asked some female high school leaders in North Jersey to describe in their own words what it is like for them to come of age at this moment, why they have become motivated to join the political fray and what they hope to achieve through their participation. Here’s what they had to say. (Essays have been edited for space).
Katherine Gazzini of Ridgewood, junior at Academy of the Holy Angels, Dumont
The 2016 presidential election first inspired me to become politically active. I realized how important it was to be aware of our world and to be actively involved in it. Every political action, no matter how small, affects our lives, through policies and movements either supported or condemned by our elected officials. I believe it is crucial for everyone to be involved in civic life – it is our responsibility as citizens of a democracy to participate and lead.
I am now especially interested in gun and immigration reforms. Gun reform is a common issue for members of my generation to be passionate about, as we have grown up hearing about regular occurrences of violence in American schools and other public venues. It is safe to say that we are almost numb to it by now. I sometimes glance down at my phone, see a headline mentioning yet another school shooting, see pictures of boys and girls my age with bloody faces and lifeless eyes, and not think anything of it.
We are the first generation that actually feels that our lives are threatened by going to school. A friend once asked if she was the only one who sits in class and wonders how she would escape from each classroom if there were an active shooter.
Serious change needs to happen, and I think that we can maintain the principles of the Second Amendment while enforcing tighter restrictions and background checks. It would only make America a safer place.
Immigration reform is also a controversial issue – especially under this administration, in which “immigrant’ is seen as a dirty word. I believe that a reasonable path to citizenship can be created. There is so much violence regarding immigration right now. This horror isn’t necessary. I believe that this issue has surpassed its political context – it is a question of whether the American government is as humane as it claims to be. These crimes against humanity are too devastating for party lines.
There are many things that I would like to see change in our political system. Our current elected officials do not nearly represent the American population. There is a serious lack of economic, religious and racial diversity in our government.
What I think is most important in the current political climate is bipartisanship. Politicians have been putting their party over their integrity, to win votes.
Especially in recent years, government has become an ongoing battle between Republicans and Democrats, and compromise is so often overlooked, even if it is the best decision for both sides and for the people. Our officials have become so focused on putting the other side down that they neglect the responsibility of government: working to create better lives for the people it represents.
Indira Summerville, senior at Morristown High School
Tired. That would be one word I would use to describe my emotions toward the current political climate.
I am tired of having to yell “Black Lives Matter’ every time I see an African-American man being killed by those who swore to protect us, to ensure that their names and faces would not be forgotten.
I am tired of having to type #MeToo to keep men out of influential positions after sexually harassing and assaulting unsuspecting women.
But despite my fatigue at the young age of 17, I know that as an African-American young woman, such action is not only necessary for the country, but is necessary for me to survive and thrive. This is why I am politically active: because I know the implications of staying silent.
I would not have understood the importance of political activism if it were not for Melanin Minds, a multicultural and social activism club at Morristown High School. Its founding introduced me to a world where I would no longer just complain about injustices against people who look like me, but I could actually take action.
A course called African-American History taught by Mrs. Tanya Cepeda also enlightened me on my own history, and how that history has been “left out’ of our mainstream textbooks. As the current president of Melanin Minds, I draw from that history to understand how it affects our modern day. I also draw on my humble beginnings as a naive freshman to promote political activism to those who may come after me.
There are many policies and ideologies that I would like to see changed, but I have learned that to see that change, one has to be that change. Unfortunately, many people my age believe their voices do not matter, whether that voice comes in the form of voting, protesting or simply facilitating a dialogue about injustice.
To make change, the voices of young people are extremely important, as they are able to change the demographics of those in power, especially with the upcoming midterm elections.
Therefore, the change that I would like to see is the expulsion of the myth that the votes of younger Americans do not matter, or that political and social activism are not important for those who are ineligible to vote.
I hope to see students lead with inspiration from the famous words of Angela Davis – “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things that I cannot accept’ – so that we may stop complaining, and start doing.
Erica Williams, senior at Eastside High School in Paterson
As I was growing up, my mom always tried to tell me that when the time came to vote I should vote for the person who was going to help the less fortunate, or the poor. As a child, I would agree with her, not really understanding what she meant. But during the 2016 presidential election, I really became involved, following the candidates and their campaigns very closely.
I wasn’t very thrilled because I felt as if Donald Trump was not for the majority of the American people, but only for the rich.
With this election for president I became politically active. I felt there had been an injustice done to the American people and low-income communities. I started to research the different types of elections, and how the Electoral College works. This was a lot of work, but I felt it was necessary to know, because in a year I would be voting. I wanted to make sure I will participate in every election, because then I could say my voice and opinion were being heard by the officials elected into office.
The 2016 elections caught my attention because I felt that both parties had their share of demons and that having only those two options was unjust.
The lawsuits against Sen. Bob Menendez also stirred my interest, because I felt like the Democratic Party had been let down by a man they had put so much faith in.
I have a lot of ideas about what should be changed in our political system. I am a strong supporter of the #MeToo movement and believe that no man should ever overstep his boundaries because of the political or business power he holds. Women are not objects or things that can be possessed. They are human beings, and they should be treated as such.
I also would like to see more minority female senators and Supreme Court justices, because I believe that if other girls see this they will soar higher and want to excel in school.
By improving the workplace for a woman and giving her more opportunities higher in the government, I believe there will be more compassion in the making of laws and Supreme Court decisions. I believe that with these improvements, the world will finally be moving in a better direction for the sake of the American people.
Belgin Koc, junior at Montclair High School
From an early age our society teaches young people that there is no room for them in politics – especially girls. I was not interested in politics until 2016. I would listen to my parents discuss and argue about current issues and participate in the conversation, but that was it.
I saw the power of politics in 2016 when Turkey, my home country, suffered an attempted coup. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been abusing his power to oppress his opponents and the media, and now it was fortified. A state of emergency was declared, which allowed the president to do as he wishes.
I came to the United States to find freedom in February of 2017; however, I was scared because of President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. I couldn’t believe that a country known for diversity and freedom could do such a thing. This is a country of immigrants, and I was despondent to see the hatred shown toward immigrants because of their race, religion, gender or accent.
I was also amazed at the reaction the ban got, because where I came from, demonstrations against a government official could lead to persecution. This is why I chose to become politically active – for the first time I saw there was something I could do with my voice. I wanted to educate people about the current situation in Turkey and show them the injustices people are facing.
The school shootings that terrorize many students also made me want to become more involved. Although I can’t vote because I am not a U.S. citizen, I went to voter registration information events. I try informing myself as much as possible, because then I can inform the younger generation who will be able to vote in a year or two. The March for Our Lives proved that there is room for young people in politics and that we can bring real change.
The #MeToo movement has also been a reason for my interest in politics. I was shocked to see the disrespect shown toward women and the number of sexual assault cases that have come to light thanks to brave women. I want to see more representation of women in government, because I am sick of men deciding what we are allowed to do with our bodies. It should be our choice, not theirs.
Something that angers me the most is the right to bear or buy firearms at such a young age. It has become easier to buy a gun than to get a driver’s license. This is the reason for the increasing number of shootings in public buildings and places. In fact, it has become such a regular thing that companies are coming out with bulletproof backpacks. It is disturbing that students fear every day to go to school or any other public place.
Elena Perez, senior at Lyndhurst High School
Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a mom who made sure I always knew what was happening in the world. The news was constantly on, and I especially admired the female reporters. They gave me examples of what it is like to be a strong woman. Something else that led to my desire to get involved was reading history books. I especially liked the stories of people who faced hostility and challenges but were able to overcome and inspire. My role models include Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ellen DeGeneres.
The results of the 2016 election also led me to become more involved. It was clear that we could no longer sit on the sidelines; we had to fight for our beliefs.
The mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, really had an impact on me. Sadly, mass shootings have become the norm in America, but this shooting was a tipping point for many people. Seeing the student survivors demanding change to help protect others from having to go through what they did was the spark that led me from being a participant in activism to being a leader.
The first thing I did was help to organize our school walkout in March. Then I helped plan a town hall. I was able to get Rep. Bill Pascrell and Sen. Robert Menendez to join us. I’ve attended educational events here and in Washington, D.C. I proudly walked in March for Our Lives in Washington. I’ve met a lot of other amazing student activists, and together we’ve had many meetings with our elected officials, spoken out about issues like the dangers of 3D-printed guns, and sponsored voter registration drives. We’re now helping other young people who want to take a more active role.
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Things are pretty scary right now, and change is needed. I know it won’t be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight, but I was raised to believe that every human being should be equal no matter their race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation. Our differences make us the nation that we are. Right now it feels like those values are being undermined every day. I almost don’t recognize America at times.
There is an attempt to redefine the word “gender.” This is really just a way to allow discrimination against those who are transgender. It’s a scary thing – if we allow one group of people to be “erased,’ how many more groups will follow?
Environmental issues, changes to public education, LGBTQ+ rights, attempts to end entitlement programs that our seniors and others rely on to survive – I could go on and on. It can seem overwhelming, and sometimes it is easy to get discouraged, but we can’t do that. The good thing is, in the activist community, when one person is getting discouraged, others will help lift them up. We take turns doing that.
One thing that has to change is the idea that all politicians are the same. That’s really not true. There are politicians who really care, listen and then act. It’s important to learn about candidates and make educated decisions.
Right now, the biggest thing to concentrate on is the midterm elections. PLEASE get out and vote. Don’t just vote party lines; really know your candidates and issues you will be voting for. I especially encourage women and minorities to vote. Our ancestors fought, suffered and died to get us this right that so many take for granted. Fill up your car with friends and get to the voting booth.
Gracelda Neri, senior at Teaneck High School
In modern America, there are more than enough reasons why one should become politically active. In today’s society, your identity may not appear to exist unless you make an effort to let others know that it exists. I grew up in a town enclosed in a unique bubble of diversity and culture. My best friends were black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish.
It was only in middle school that I realized the rest of the world was not so diverse. The internet and social media gave me insight into issues that never would have crossed my mind. Police brutality, wage gaps for women and the idea of identity through representation in the media were all topics that I had never thought about in depth. Upon learning of these great inequalities, I decided to become politically active so that I may one day again experience the same blissful naivete that I did in those preschool days when the origin of one’s character would never affect one’s future.
I distinctly remember the moment I realized my actions in politics would have an effect. In the sixth grade, I recall reading about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I remember sitting, frozen in my seat, as I read about the horrific and heartbreaking case of this young man who had his entire life ahead of him.
As the years passed, names such as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner flooded my mind. I took each new case of assault, shooting, racism, discrimination, and anything done with malicious intent with much more attention. The politics that I understood as petty arguments on a television screen were no more. Putting our power into politics might have allowed those innocent souls to be alive today.
In my lifetime, I hope to see many things change. I hope to see the rise of a generation of people who are less racist, less xenophobic, less homophobic, less transphobic, and more open. I want to see a world where the color of your skin or your gender or your upbringing does not have as much control of your future as your actions do.
I want to see a change in the world where good people are rewarded for their good actions and cruel people are served the justice that they deserve. I can definitely see how our generation is able to make real change. One day, I hope to raise children whose only worries about opportunity stem from how much effort they put into something. Until then, I will continue striving toward equality and change through my voice and political action. I cannot wait to see the fruits of my – and many others’ – labor unfold.
Lola Barreras, senior at Tenafly High School
Although I was always aware of politics, it wasn’t until the 2016 presidential election that I really became invested; it seems like that’s the case for most of my generation.
I grew up during the Obama administration and remember vividly when he was first elected in 2008. I was 7, and my parents were telling me how fortunate I was to have a black president in my childhood, to know from early on that that’s a possibility for people of color. My father, a Cuban immigrant who is not a citizen, supported the campaign through donations.
I, like many others, was shocked by the 2016 election results and, like much of my generation, felt helpless when it happened. We didn’t vote for Donald Trump, we didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, we didn’t vote, we couldn’t. It didn’t feel right. It felt frustrating to see the low voter turnout and how the results might have been different with just more young voters when we as minors couldn’t vote even if we wanted to. I felt like I had no say.
When I first heard about the Women’s March in 2017, I flirted with the idea of going to the one in D.C. My dad encouraged me by telling me it would be a good experience and a great memory. That I would want the ability to say “I was there.” So I begged my mother to take me. The Women’s March was my first experience in protest, democracy and politics. My mom and I took a six-hour bus ride at 2 a.m. to D.C. It was life-changing. I couldn’t believe how many people were there. There were a lot of kids my age, too. It made me realize that despite not being able to vote, there was still a way to make a difference.
I remember going to school on Monday and hearing how many of my fellow students also attended one of the marches. I followed in my dad’s footsteps in donating to causes and protests mostly through art campaigns. Then I attended more protests: the Not my Presidents Day Rally and the March for Our Lives, to name a couple. At both protests there were groups encouraging voter registration. At the time, I was too young to register.
At school I was a part of the Gay Straight Alliance, a club dedicated to educating about and providing resources for LGBT+ people. The 2016 election really changed the direction of the club. At first we discussed local current events, but the discussion suddenly became national and broader. I became co-president of the club junior year. We began to branch outside of specifically LGBT+ issues and discussed gun control, abortion, feminism – all issues I’m passionate about.
The majority of members are under 18, but it’s clear we’re a group of future voters. Women’s rights and immigration have always been dear to me, but it wasn’t until my political awakening that I realized the extent of marginalization both groups face.
I live in a liberal town that doesn’t discriminate against these groups and is quick to accept others. For this I’m grateful, but it’s saddening to see the struggles people who look just like me face in other parts of the country. I have already filled out my voter registration form and will send it in on my 18th birthday in March.
Mary McDade, junior at Ridgewood High School
Growing up in a politically active family allowed me to see the importance of being involved from a young age. I went into the voting booth with my parents to press the buttons before I was even in kindergarten, and went to Black Lives Matter protests as I began middle school. My sisters and I were always taught to have informed opinions and back them with a strong voice. As I’ve gotten older, our political environment has changed drastically, and making that strong voice heard has become one of the most vital parts of my life.
Being a teenage girl in today’s world is, in all honesty, terrifying in many ways, and spurs many of the issues I care about, from sensible gun laws to mental health to equal rights. It can feel overwhelming, but also extremely empowering.
Although I truly hope to see change within my lifetime, my motivation comes mostly from hope for the future. I want my future kids, daughters or otherwise, to be able to walk to their cars alone at night, to go to school or a concert, without worrying about their safety, to identify how they like, and to love who they love without fear of persecution.
Although I won’t be able to vote until 2020, coincidentally the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I believe that it’s vital to get involved before being able to vote, so that when you reach 18, you are familiar enough with your own beliefs to make decisions on who should be working for you in government.
Getting involved can be big or small. After the Parkland shooting, I became involved in planning March for Our Lives NJ, and continue working with students within that organization and Students Demand Action to make progress toward safer gun regulation. I’ve worked with an organization my family cares deeply about called Women for Progress, which raises awareness about a broad spectrum of political issues and engages women in the political atmosphere. I’m passionate about mental health awareness and LGBTQ+ visibility, as they’re issues that directly affect both myself and some of the people I love most. I’ve canvassed with my family for politicians I believe in, something that takes up only a few hours of an afternoon. Being politically involved can sometimes feel daunting or consuming, but it can be as simple as educating yourself and going out to vote.
It’s easy to look into the future of our country and feel hopeless, as if our government is corrupt, stagnant and unwilling to change. It’s impossible to escape the disheartening barrage of news and, although my Government and Politics class is my favorite, and I enjoy watching the news, I freely admit our current political state is overwhelming.
Despite all this, I truly feel that the involvement of teenagers, especially those whose futures are in possible jeopardy, will allow America to finally become the greatest it can be.
Follow Hannan Adely on Twitter: @AdelyReporter