Jacksonville high school student-activists chart their course
By Sophia Garcia
Generation Z - born roughly between the mid 1990s and early 2010s - has already made a name for itself due to its willingness to advocate for myriad social causes, from LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, and immigration to environmental consciousness. This group of young people has also taken on the issue of gun control following a series of school shootings in recent years, most notably at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018.
“(We) go all out for issues we care about, sometimes to a fault,” said Savannah LeNoble, a Jacksonville-area high school senior who participated in a youth-led virtual meeting May 5 where young leaders discussed the challenges their generation face.
LeNoble, a founder of March for Our Lives Jacksonville and advocacy director of Young Leaders of Today, is one of a group of about 20 teens from Jacksonville who are meeting regularly, with the support of the Partnership for Child Health, a Jacksonville-based organization dedicated to advancing the health and well-being of children, and the Center for Children's Rights, a nonprofit dedicated to legal representation for children.
The group, which came together for the first time in April, has since met nine times with the goal of discussing-- and finding solutions for-- issues affecting youth ranging from mental health stigma and depression to racial equity.
The youth leaders plan to meet in person for the first time in July, and will continue to work towards creating recommendations to improve conditions in local schools as well as ways to motivate, support and provide opportunities for young activists, said Betsy Dobbins, executive director of the Center for Children’s Rights.
At a May virtual meeting, co-hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people, youth leaders focused on what unites them.
“Our generation is more aware and takes the time to understand each other and advocate for diversity and not division,” said Deyona Burton, who is her senior class president at Robert E. Lee High School and founder of SPEAR (Showing Political Engagement and Responsibility), a youth-led social and political activism group.
Rodney Wells, a student at University Christian School and one of the leaders of the meeting, echoed that statement.
“One thing 2020 showed us is there’s a lot of division,” he said. “That’s not what our generation is, and that’s not what we’re going to accept as a narrative for our generation. More than ever, conversations about what… that looks like are essential to how we move forward and how we build bridges, and not walls.”
The nearly two-hour discussion was aimed at identifying the commonalities between different human rights struggles and improving the methods used by young activists.
During the virtual conversation, speakers reflected on what’s worked - and what hasn’t - in their quest for social justice, as well as different ways to get involved in student-led activism, how to maintain passion and focus, and how to fight off burnout and fatigue.
Participants questioned the value of “performative activism,” which they defined as a person performing actions that appear helpful but only serve to benefit themselves.
“Performative activism can be worse than no activism at all,” said Trinity Webster-Bass, 18, who is a senior at Paxon School for Advanced Studies in Jacksonville.
Students cited the brief trend in 2020 of people who posted a black square around their profile photos across social media platforms in honor of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers, yet didn’t follow that up with any helpful information.
“If you’re going to post it and you really care about it, go beyond the hashtag,” Burton said, and sign petitions, donate money if you’re able, put up flyers at school, or request a meeting with your principal or even city officials.
Teens also spoke of the classic method of protest: taking to the streets in a peaceful march. But even that method has its limitations, they noted, due to safety concerns, disability limitations and, more recently, the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many students were not able to participate in Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd due to worries about exposure to the virus. But, LeNoble said, she and many others still found ways to stay involved, including helping from home with social media and flyers.
The speakers made clear that solutions do exist, including the use of online petitions through government websites and private sites like Change.org. They discussed successful boycotts of companies and activities that ignore, or actively work against, the civil rights of marginalized communities.
Only by focusing on the hard work of activism, and leaving behind performative activism, will future movements succeed, the students said.
“We need to make sure that anything you do is really beneficial, and not just for appearances,” LeNoble said.
Wells asked the teens to consider the true meaning of activism-- that it doesn’t require starting a nonprofit or leading a movement, but instead is simply about the actions we take each day in pursuit of equity, justice and fairness.
“Start tomorrow,” he said. “It only takes one person, but it’s also that person’s job to bring in 200 others. Because we can’t do this alone.”
Sophia Garcia is a high school student in Miami and participant in the Urban Health Media Project. She worked with UHMP instructor and former USA TODAY national reporter Alan Gomez on this article.