words by Georgie Laming
Youth activism is making headlines right now. From school kids bunking off to protest climate change, to ‘Egg Boy’, a 17-year-old Australian who took the matter into his own hands when a Queensland senator conflated Muslim immigration with the devastating terror attacks on mosques in Queensland. Even UK glossy magazine, Glamour, has dedicated pages to a feature on “Gen GAF”. Across the world young people are proving what some of us have known for a long time, they care.
One of those people who’s been a long term supporter of youth activism is KaeLyn Rich, staffer at the New York branch of the ACLU and contributor to LGBTQ women’s website, Autostraddle. Rich released Girls Resist as “An activism handbook for teen girls ready to fight for change, social justice, and equality.”. I sat down with Rich to talk about the book and youth activism.
G: Your book was written as a nitty gritty guide to organising – and was originally imagined in a pre trump world. Have you seen the book being used in ways you didn’t expect? What’s different about the world of youth activism since you first conjured up the idea for this book?
K: I haven’t seen it being used in ways I didn’t expect because I know girls and young people already have so much to give and are already leading the way. What has been surprising is how much it resonates with young girls. The audience I imagined in my mind was high school and up, but it’s definitely been popular both with educators and with youth who are in middle school or younger. My first fan letter was hand-delivered to me by a 9-year-old girl who was reading Girls Resist! as a bedtime story with her mom. I’ve since heard from other young kids who are reading the book with their parents. In fact, I just answered a bunch of questions for a middle-grade student who is doing a school report on me, which is, like, the highest honor I can think of. The world of youth activism isn’t necessarily different since I conceived of the book, but it is more visible. There is a long history of teen activism in the U.S. and around the world. We’re beginning to pay more attention in this political climate and age of social media, I think.
G: The UK has seen young people leading the fight on climate change – with school kids going on strike. What’s the most inspirational youth movement you’ve seen?
K: Oh, gosh, that’s hard to answer. There are so many young people right now who have done incredible and inspiring work! There’s Marley Dias, who founded the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign at the age of 11 because she was tired of reading books featuring “white boys and their dogs.” She’s since collected over 11,000 books, written her own children’s book, and set a goal of distributing 1 million books to libraries, schools, and community orgs. She’s 13! It’s absolutely incredible. There’s Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint, who I actually had the honor of interviewing while writing the book. Mari wrote to President Obama about the Flint water crisis when she was 8, resulting in him traveling to Flint to meet with residents. She’s gone on to spearhead several major fundraising and donation drive projects to support other kids in Flint. At this moment, with social media and 24-hour news scrolling by constantly, a campaign can really be built around one youth leader with a vision.
I’ve also been impressed, of course, with the Parkland students who made national news organizing the National School Walkout, which over 1 million students nationwide participated in to demand our elected officials address gun violence. The thing I’m most impressed by is the way these students centered other voices including Black students at other schools who have been living with gun violence systemically alongside other institutional oppression. I am so glad young people are leading the way. They get it in ways that other generations have missed the mark on, including my own.
G: You’ve said in the past that lots of books tell young women in particular why they matter, why they exist but that this book is about the How rather than the Why of organising – what do you think is the biggest hurdle to getting started in activism?
K: The biggest hurdle is believing that you already have the resources to start doing something, because you do! Activism feels like this intangible thing and, quite frankly, girls aren’t often taught to take control of our futures or to defend ourselves and fight back. So I tried to provide the basic toolkit to get started. Young people and young women, especially, already know what oppression looks like and feels like, even if they haven’t had the words to describe it yet. They don’t need to be lectured at about that. They get it. The challenge is living with that constant systemic marginalization because you get to a place where you feel disempowered to do anything about it. Couple that with not seeing yourself in leadership roles or even in history and you just can’t imagine how to get started. It can feel like you’re all alone. That’s where having a guidebook that lays it out step-by-step comes in. Once you have the tools, you can imagine doing something about the things you’re already fired up about. You have a road map, so to speak. That’s really all anyone needs to get started!
G: Having read your book and speaking to others in my organising spaces – there’s still this common feeling of being burn out and let down by how activism spaces are still for cis white men and how we struggle with people taking credit for our work. What have been your experiences, particularly as a Queer Korean woman, of barriers in organising? What’s your advice for people feeling like this?
K: My advice, quite honestly, is to take care of yourself first. You are only strong enough to keep fighting if you’re also coming to activist work as a whole person. It can feel impossible to keep up with self-care, though, so I actually recommend community care or reciprocal self-case, which can be a double-win if you’re able to cultivate a group of like-minded people. Whether it’s a queer space or a WOC space or a Korean adoptee space, my favorite groups of people in the world and the ones who make me feel seen and healthy and ready to fight back against the cispatriarchy for another day are the spaces I have to just be me. That can be in real life and it can also be virtual. Some of my closest community members are folks who I’ve never even met in real life, but our support for each other and for each other’s work is very real. My experience is that it can be isolating and exhausting to organize in male and white-led spaces, which are…a lot of the spaces. We still do it because many of us have to, but we also can create our own spaces that nourish us and let us be real. Look for peer support. Start something if there is nothing. Look online. Join a club or group. Go find your people.
G:Have you got plans to write more in this subject?
K: I’m actually back to authoring my column on queer indie site, Autostraddle.com, the column that led to Girls Resist! It’s called Be The Change and you can check out the whole series here. I always welcome guest columnists to submit something if you want to write about organizing in the UK or something else!
KaeLyn Rich is a queer feminist, a direct action organizer, a nonprofit leader, a word wrangler, and a sexuality educator. She can be found at Autostraddle and you can buy Girls Resist! online right now