When I first came to the United States as a student, I set up a life plan so that by the time I was 25, I could proudly bear the title of “activist.”
As a freshman, I read everyone from Arendt to Marx and watched all the documentaries that were taglined for social justice. I subscribed to the relevant email bursts, memorized the names of prominent activists and signed online petitions for grassroots initiatives. I patiently awaited the day I could take on a real, serious position in the prevention of human rights abuses, particularly against refugees.
It took me one whole year to realize that there is no such thing as a guidebook to activism: The door was wide open from from the day I put a foot down in the United States, in a community no less ferociously justice-inclined than Berkeley, California.
I wasn’t the only one of my peers who pined for a serious pro-refugee role with a sincerity that would have put puppy dog eyes to shame. In essence, believing that the big jobs are reserved for adults is hammered into us from our first days of school. We are experts of a daily routine of listening and learning in a classroom setting. We have perfected the art of preparing for the future, such as knowing the names of our dream graduate programs and delivering prompt answers to the archaic question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” We are surrounded with simulated versions of the real world, be it internships and costly training programs, model debate or UN and student government.
But with activism: No manicured resume is going to restrict you from recognizing a plain human rights abuse. A carefully plotted life plan is not necessary for you to lead social change. And years of remarkable note-taking, attentiveness and every other skill we rattle off to the adults above us are not essential prerequisites to simply get involved. There is no age too young in a field that relies upon one pure premise: the ability to empathize with other human beings. In other words, we were born ready.
From the day of my realization and onward, as long as there wasn’t a physical barrier to my attendance at a City Council meeting, I was going to be there in solidarity with refugees. As long as I had a phone and a mailbox, I was going to coalition-build with other refugee advocates. It was no longer in my best interest to shadow my older cohorts until the coveted “aha!” moment hit me. It is in the best interest of every young person in the United States to take their future in their hands, right this second.
In the field of human rights, both organizers and the victims we champion don’t have the luxury of letting movements wilt until us youth spot our first gray hairs. At the end of the day, my involvement is not spurred forth by the stout belief that adults are doing it all wrong or that my UC Berkeley education inclines to me toward conspiracy theorizing; it is the belief that democracy and human rights must be owned by every generation.
Now more than ever, as we witness the revocation of resettlement programs for refugees fleeing war, a loss in empathy toward those most vulnerable and the political normalization of a Muslim’s inferiority, the activist movement needs a profound shakeup, the likes of which only youth energy can sustain.
For every fatiguing moment when I want to use my student status as an excuse to defer to an adult and resume a joyful life of click-activism, I am emboldened by the reminder that our elected officials are ultimately bound to represent the will of the people. On that token, to get involved in activism means adding one more spirited voice declaring to our government where we stand on discrimination, exclusion and xenophobia. I never feel more typically American than when I oppose the president’s attack on American values of equality, our history of welcoming refugees and the spirit of warmth that I knew to be a national characteristic when it first embraced me as a foreigner.
In my past three years of organizing, I learned it was possible for student activists to step into a congressperson’s office and articulate their opposition to a blatant violation of human rights, just as routinely they step into the classroom. Activists can change narratives by educating and instructing others, despite not having a degree to that effect. Be it hitting the streets or climbing the Hill, this field is turning into a cross-generational force that speaks to the fact that empowerment is ageless.
It is worth reminding that the celebrated Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, founded in response to the shooting of Trayvon Marvin, was started by a college student. The leaders of the coalition that lobbied our very own university to divest from Wells Fargo for its financing of private prisons last month were students. The organization of the historically unrivaled Women’s March on Washington was staffed with dozens of youth activists.
The past 30 days, which have seen the serious mobilization of America’s youth, is bold evidence to the fact that youth activists are no longer being relegated to poster-making and cookie-selling. Even if you’re not old enough to drink, you can make a difference in this country.