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5 young activists in 4 countries on life, work & social media: Part 1

The US students who walked out of schools nationwide in protest against gun violence today, March 14,  have counterparts in many other countries. On March 24, young activists all over the world will be staging events in support of the March for Our Lives movement started in Parkland, Fla., and there are other causes and kinds of social change their peers have taken up, social media playing a prominent role in that work, worldwide. This is a two-part post that zooms in on five remarkable activists in four countries, ages 18-24. They candidly, thoughtfully processed out loud, on stage, what they’ve learned in doing their work both online and offline. Part 1 looks at who they are, what they focus on and how their work is affected by the media of our times….

Youth activists panel

l. to r.: Amika, Camryn, Tábata, Harnidh, Evelyn and mod. Taylor

Social media is so many things for young activists – a platform, megaphone, lab, staging area and classroom for self-directed and crowd-sourced learning, as we’re seeing in the news about the movement started by student survivors of last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It’s also a crucible, as described in-depth by five equally eloquent millennial activists from Brazil, India, the UK and elsewhere in the US at Facebook’s Global Safety Summit in Washington earlier this month (more on the crucible in Part 2).

“For both of my social movements, social media has been very, very important,” said 24-year-old Brazilian Tábata C. Amaral de Pontes, “but in the last years I have found that the real transformation only starts when you realize the difference between mobilizing and organizing.” Tábata – who grew up in “a very poor part of Brazil” near Sao Paulo and, after overcoming significant family challenges, graduated from Harvard University in 2016 – was speaking on a panel at the international gathering in Washington. Like her counterparts in the US, she seems to have been born to make change, even though “there aren’t many women in politics in Brazil,” she said. Her two movements are Mapa Educacao (“Map Education”), which trains youth to demand and struggle for “quality education” and Acredito (“I Believe”), which works to get youth involved in politics that are “less corrupt, more ethical, more just and more inclusive,” she said.

Her equally impressive fellow panelists were:

Evelyn Atieno, 20, from Baltimore, who started Affinity at age 16. It’s a social justice magazine “by teens, for teens,” in both print and digital formats which now has more than 400 contributors in multiple countries, Evelyn said, adding that the digital edition received 9 million views last year. She created it to give teens a space to voice how they feel about things going on in the world. She told us that, when she was getting ready to go to college, she “heard about all the rapes on college campuses” (according to the RAINN hotline 23.1% of female undergraduates in the US experience rape or sexual assault), submitted an article about it for her high school newspaper and had the article rejected because “too controversial.” So she successfully circulated a petition and received permission to teach an after school seminar for peers on the subject “so they could prepare for college”; she also started Affinity as a community as well as platform for teens discuss “controversial” topics.

Harnidh Kauer, 23, from Mumbai, is a poet, feminist and activist (as well as policy analyst in her “day job”) who “uses her writing for community building on social media. I try to foster safe spaces so people can have conversations about ‘the tough stuff’ – mental health, body image, sexual abuse and trauma, PTSD” and the 1984 massacre of thousands of Sikhs in northern India, an event that famously has not been covered in that country’s national media. The young social commentator is currently gathering stories for an oral history that has “Project 84” as a working title and will soon be a book that already has a publisher. “Fellow Sikhs come to me and tell me, ‘I haven’t been able to speak of this in so long because the memories are so heavy to carry, and suddenly I have a voice for them’,” she said. On the subject of youth activism, she pointed out that “people try to talk at young people instead of talking to and with them. That’s essentially what I want to change,” Harnidh said.

Camryn Garett, 18, from Long Island, already has a literary agent. A lot of her activism happens on Twitter, she said. “Writing is a way for me to respond to issues happening in real life but also on the Internet…. In [high] school, we don’t really talk about institutional racism or racism at all. It’s sort of boxed into Black History Month or Martin Luther King [Day]…. I take AP classes, so we don’t have a lot of time to dig into history in a way I’d like to see, especially when [shootings like those of] Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice started happening. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but on Twitter there were a lot of reading resources and people organizing marches and saying ‘we don’t have to just sit and watch this happen.’ That community being made available to me was very important.” Her writing focuses on structural racism and representation of people of color “in film and the media, especially books,” and she writes for the Huffington Post and her own blog, “For all the girls who are half monster.”

Amika George, 18, from London, started the movement #FreePeriods to “break the taboo around menstruation and get rid of period poverty” after she discovered that there are “girls living in the UK [who] don’t go to school because they can’t afford pads and tampons.” She started a petition on Change.org calling on her government to provide free feminine hygiene products to girls already receiving free school lunches. The petition has more than 150,000 signatures on it so far, and she said the peak of media attention came last December, when she led a public protest that was “a testament to the power of social media for good. Even though it does have its negatives, you really can build community,” she said. She told us she recently got a call from people in the Netherlands who want to establish #FreePeriods in their country.

‘Who is your online self?’

Each panelist was asked if the self they present in social media “is the same person in ‘real life’,” and their answers said as much about them as about social media.
Camryn said, “My personality’s louder online just because it’s easier to voice yourself online because somehow there’s less barriers…. People are more likely to take me seriously online…. This sounds weird, but I’m real-er online because you don’t want to talk about racism in a room full of people, because they usually get uncomfortable. I analyze internalized racism in shows and movies. I did a piece for Al Jazeera Plus about [the Netflix dramatic series] Stranger Things and the lack of representation of people of color and women in that show and, even online, people weren’t exactly into talking about it. So if I’d try to talk about that in a school cafeteria, people would be like, ‘Why are you reading so much into it? It’s not a big deal; it’s a show.’ So I think there’s more of an audience for that online, and also I have an opportunity to talk about it.”

Evelyn responded, “I feel like I’m myself but an extension of myself…. I get more support online to really be myself… Because in person, like Camryn said, you bring up something serious and people say, ‘Um, we’re kind of trying to have fun right now, so we don’t want to talk about that.'”

Harnidh, said, “Social media made me louder in person too, because, being more active on social media, I started reading more – seeing so many nuances, so many perspectives. I was forced to confront them again and again, so by the time I got that knowledge out into the real world, I had a cohesive opinion to put forth.”

Tábata responded, “There aren’t many women in politics in Brazil, and around the world, so, whenever I make a post or position myself politically, most of the comments are about me being a woman, both in a good way and a bad way, but most of the time in a bad way. So even though I bring all my passion and all my truth when I portray myself online, I have to be very careful about how my makeup is, how I’m dressing because I want to avoid all those comments about me being a women…. So I’m myself in social media but also more cautious and aware that those comments are going to come.”

Amika said, “I completely agree with everything that’s been said. I’d add that there is this unspoken truth that we do just put our best selves forward in social media, not the boring things. It’s important to acknowledge that because you can put forth an image of yourself that doesn’t necessarily represent your life, because we all have ups and downs, and you never really post the downs. So to answer the question, I am myself online, but you do tend to veer more toward the positive aspects of your life and away from the negatives.

Mobilizing online, organizing offline

Which for her clearly doesn’t detract from the importance of social media in her work. When asked about that, Amika said, “The difference between the digital age we’re in now and the past is that … there’s no inhibitor to what we want to do. Without social media, if we had an idea, if we saw injustice, for example, I wouldn’t know the first thing to do to stop it, whereas now I wouldn’t even doubt that social media would be the place to go to if…there’s something that needs to change. Tweet it, put it on Instagram. It’s guaranteed that someone else will agree. Even if only two or three, there will be people out there who share the same view as you,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be adults, it doesn’t have to be politicians who are making political change. It can be young people with dreams and ideas, and it’s really easy to get them out there if you have a phone.”

As for Tábata’s comment above on mobilizing and organizing movements, she told us it was transformational for her, as an activist growing movements, to arrive at the difference between the two.

“Social media is so powerful now that I know it’s just a start.” It’s the easier part – how to get the word out, connect with and mobilize people to meet and protest, she told us. Organizing, on the other hand, takes time. “You have to share food with people, you have to build this civic friendship so you can actually talk and really try to change things together…. In Brazil we have some very deep and old problems we really need to face there, and you put those people together and they meet in the same room and they actually start to talk about those issues in a safe place…. We start a movement that still meets person to person.”

Tomorrow in Part 2: The social media crucible – inner as well as outer struggles and “strength training”

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