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#GetWoke Why Young People Will Save Us: The Place of Youth in Organizing

The “Young People Will Save Us: Youth in Organizing” panel was held on Friday, Nov. 3, and was organized and sponsored by the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness (OADI), Weissberg Program and Funding Board. Panelists included youth organizers and activists who discussed the work they do and the impact that work has made.

Dr. John McMahon moderated the panel and began by noting that the older generation and politicians “seem to like talking down to young people as ‘too naive,’ ‘too idealistic,’ too concerned with ‘identity politics’…and so on, and so on.” Nonetheless, he explained, young people have always seemed to be at the forefront of radical change.

The panel was also made up of young people involved in various movements. Panelists consisted of Joy Diaz, Grace Gerloff’19, Autumn Gant’19, Nza-Ari Khepra, Sebastian Kocik and Rafael Martinez-Salas.

Diaz is a senior at Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS) who is passionate about various social justice issues. She works to inform peers and the community about often overlooked issues. She is also the treasurer of the Gay Straight Alliance club at BMHS. Kocik, also a student at BMHS, is the vice president of the Youth League of the United Latin American Citizens Council (LULAC).

Gerloff is an executive board member for Students for an Inclusive Campus (SIC). SIC works towards equity on campus and meeting the needs of the marginalized population at Beloit. Gant is another hard work Beloit College student. She serves as the student event coordinator at OADI and co-facilitator of Dreamgirls, the African American women’s support group on campus.

A senior at Columbia University, Khepra founded Project Orange Tree as a junior in high school after one of her friends, Hadiya Pendelton, was shot and killed in a random shooting. Project Orange Tree is an awareness campaign that inspired a national campaign: Wear Orange. Now, Pendelton’s birthday marks National Gun Violence Day and Wear Orange Day. The campaign continues to inform people on and fight against gun violence across the United States.

Salas is a sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-facilitator for the youth group Regeneracion. The group focuses on helping Latinx students learn about social justice and critical thinking from a Latinx perspective. The group has hosted their own youth conference with Latinx youth organizations from high schools all over Madison, and has also organized rallies. 

The panelists were asked what they think about the term “activist” and what it truly means. Most  panelists believed that an activist’s job is to inform others about various topics. “It means you are the first initiator of the conversation. You’re fine being uncomfortable and fine pushing the boundaries in order to make progress,” Khepra explained. Kocik added that, to him, an activist is “someone who takes charge…[and] really pushes something forward.”

Gerloff pushed back against being called an activist. She stated that her feelings about being called an activist are “really complicated” and that she personally does not identify as one. “I think of it more as organizing… I feel that…activism isn’t something you should strive to be an identity,” she said, likening the label to terms such as “ally” or “woke.” The labels “often have the connotations that your job is done because you have reached this certain level of activism, allyship or wokeness, [but] the truth is your work is never done.”

Nonetheless, every panelist has been active in their respective communities in trying to bring forth change. McMahon asked the panelists why youth in activism is important. “As cliché as it sounds, we are the future,” Diaz said. Gant expanded that “young people can break the pattern” of bigotry long seen in history. Salas explained that one has to think about the “longevity of creating change…It doesn’t take two decades, it takes various decades. It took forever for us to abolish slavery and even more years for us to get what is considered civil rights and even right now we’re still trying to push forward equality…” This long work is thus sometimes best suited for younger individuals in order to ensure that it continues for years to come.

While being a young activist can be a stuggle, considering it often means juggling school and organizing, the movements that the panelists are involved in are impactful and important.  The panelists also recognized that trying to act as a role model and leading your peers can be challenging, but they do not regret the work they have done.

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