Content warning: mentions of police brutality, self-harm, body image issues and anxiety
In early August, the internet was erupting with hashtags, tweets and posts denouncing the barbaric killing of Black folk at the hands of the police. The names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks – to name just a few – had become shorthand for the fatal, endemic racism that lies within America’s police force.
I, like many of my peers, was feeling emotionally exhausted and mentally fatigued. As a person of colour, I knew I had to support and uplift Black people by any means necessary. Watching people mobilise and generate social discussion was compelling. However, the fact that it had taken the circulation of a horrific video to send shockwaves through the media was a reminder that all too often, people care more about Black death than they do Black life.
During this period, different organisations and publications were hosting online spaces to discuss racism, activism and the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). I tuned into a British Vogue conversation where social justice advocates, actors and writers – including Janet Mock, Patrisse Cullors and Yara Shahidi – were discussing how they activate social change through their creative work.
Yara spent the conversation vouching for our generation. Through her socially conscious work on and off screen, including her voter empowerment initiative Eighteen x 18 and joining the SeeHer Advisory Board to improve the visibility of women and girls in the media, she is showing that Gen Z is very much involved with civic engagement.
Towards the end of the video stream, Yara paused to talk about how the apathy of Gen Z towards the socio-political landscape is a myth. “I don’t know a person who doesn’t feel deeply affected by this. I was born into a dystopian world. I was born into a world in which we didn’t even have the myth of utopia to distract us. We didn’t even have the tangible feeling of hope,” she asserted.
Yara is an inspiration for young marginalised people. As she went on to mention, a lot of the grassroots work she does is about finding hope in Gen Z, and trusting the sustainable changes that we are capable of making in an era of depressive news cycles and systemic injustice.
“We are more likely to believe in climate change, acknowledge the systemic racism that exists in multiple spaces, and be familiar with gender neutral pronouns”
We are living through a time where Covid-19 is widening inequality gaps across society, people are more concerned about being accused of racism rather than being actively against it, and our every move can be scrutinised on social media. We’ve been dubbed the “unhappiest generation ever” as we’re likely to have a host of mental health struggles, according to research from UCL.
Gen Zers are described as being part of the “snowflake generation”. We are painted as over-sensitive, self-centered, screen-obsessed, narcissistic and are therefore seen as not being tuned into the world around us. Despite being boxed into such limiting stereotypes, and living amidst one of the most tumultuous periods of history, we are the most fluid generation ever.
We are more likely to believe in climate change, acknowledge the systemic racism that exists in multiple spaces, be familiar with gender neutral pronouns, recognise the pitfalls of nationalistic attitudes, and use more inventive language to accommodate a diverse spectrum of people, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. We are dismantling binary forms of identification and embracing more inclusive expressions of gender, sexuality and identity.
In the years leading up to the recent US election, there was a spike in youth civic engagement thanks to political beacons of hope, like Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Gen Z voters signed up in droves to work at polls on election day and at early voting stations. About half of young eligible voters cast ballots in 2020, a 10% rise from 2016, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
“We’re incredibly tech-savvy, resourcefully using every platform from Instagram to TikTok to share donation pages, petitions, safe spaces and educational tools”
We’re incredibly tech-savvy, resourcefully using every platform from Instagram to TikTok to share donation pages, petitions, safe spaces and educational tools to inform ourselves on pressing issues such as racism, climate change, gender-based discrimination and the dangers of fast fashion. 75% of us say that being politically or socially engaged is very important to our identity, according to a survey by the online network Irregular Labs.
Over the last few months, I have been inspired by thinkers, creatives, activists and writers in my generation who have used their online platforms to trigger social change.
Activist group Girls Against was founded in 2015 by five teenagers; Hannah Camilleri, Anni Cameron, Anna Cowan, Ava Cadenhead and Bea Bennister in order to give people a safe space to talk about sexual assault and misogyny within the music industry. They have since been endorsed by bands like Hinds and Circa Waves, have co-organised fundraising events for campaigns vouching for safer nightlife and trying to prevent sexual violence, and have been featured by platforms including NME and The Guardian.
I am also in awe of Isra Hirsi, a 17-year-old environmental organiser, TikTok star and BLM activist. In 2019 she co-founded the US Youth Climate Strike to unite more than 100,000 young people to demonstrate for climate justice. From doing a TedTalk on the importance of intersectionality in the climate justice movement, to sporting the cover of Teen Vogue with her mother, congresswoman Ilhan Omar, she is a complete inspiration.
Somebody else that should be on your radar is 18-year-old Helena Gualinga, an indigenous human rights and environmental activist. She has been advocating for the Sarayaku community to keep hold of their land, warding away Big Oil’s attempts to deplete the local environment for corporate gains. In January 2020, Helena co-founded the youth movement Polluters Out, which aims to remove the tentacles of the fossil fuel industry from lands and indigenous lands.
Daphne Frias is a 22-year-old disability justice advocate and anti-racism activist. In 2019 she helped bus more than 100 students from her university campus to the nearest March For Our Lives protest after the Parkland shooting in 2017. Since then, she’s helped empower eligible voters to take part in the 2018 US midterm elections and has advocated for marginalised communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change in her local neighbourhood of West Harlem in New York.
A little closer to home is 21-year-old Amika George, a British activist who founded the Free Periods movement in April 2017, which aims to end period poverty in schools. After coupling with the Red Box Project in 2019 to launch a legal campaign, they persuaded the government to commit to funding free period products for schools in England. The scheme launched in January this year.
Amika has recently facilitated a conversation for British Vogue with fellow changemakers Munroe Bergdorf, Adwoa Aboah and Agnes Mwakatuma and has chatted to publications like Harper’s Bazaar about her work. Now, she is gearing up for the release of her book Make It Happen, which is a practical guide for anyone who wants to be an activist.
All of these activists are a true testament to the resourcefulness and radical curiosity of Gen Z. Girls Against, Isra, Helena, Daphne and Amika have all used their individual stories to drive community-focused activism, constantly thinking about new ways to make the world a better and more habitable place for those who need it most.
I’m so proud to be part of a generation that is activating sustainable and productive social change. Whether it be on a small or large scale, our ability to practice compassion and embrace difference is steering us towards a brighter utopia.
Sana is a journalist and pop culture fiend. Her first love is literature because she believes it can be an artistic form where stories from the fringes of society can be brought to the fore. @Sananoorhaq