Student Rights

"One pen and one book can change the world." - Malala

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ELLA YITZHAKI

@

MKM Student Rights Director Jasmine Lunia talked to 17-year-old Ella Yitzhaki from San Fransisco, CA. They discussed the importance of youth and student activism and her work with ACA 4 in Congress. 

Jasmine: When I was doing some research before reaching out to you, I was really impressed with all of your work! What got you involved in youth and student activism specifically? What has it been like organizing events?

Ella: My introduction to activism wasn’t as linear as many would expect. My introduction to politics was in 5th grade as the 2012 presidential debates glared from my family’s TV. I didn’t understand what frankly any of it meant, but I was enamored. After endless questions to my mother about what the two men in front of me were talking about, I was invested in politics. 

When 2016 rolled around, my love for politics only increased. This time I wasn’t just watching the candidates argue the issues, I was forming my own opinions on them. I continued to watch the debates alongside my mom and debate the details of healthcare, immigration, etc until a lightbulb turned on. I realized that by 2020, I would be 18 by the general election. As a smile burst across my face, I soon learned my hamartia. My July birthday obviously allowed me to vote in the general, but the March primary was unclear. A part of me assumed that California, a progressive state that encourages everyone to be a part of the political process, would have already dealt with this issue of partial ineligibility, but another part of me recognized that this is a somewhat obscure issue. Much to my dismay, California did not let all those who are 18 by the general election to vote in the primary election.

I tried to quell my anger as I continued my last days of middle school which included a trip to D.C. Fortunately, our representative, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, found time in her busy schedule to meet with my class. My teacher, knowing my love of politics, asked me to be a representative of our class. Being in the middle of the 2016 election, I knew I would have to ask her something in regards to her opinions on the intense election. When the moment to ask her questions came following our photo-op, she answered in a polished, professional manner, but then she did the unthinkable: she turned the question of me. As all eyes in the room glared at me, I took a breath and began to explain my criticism and my compliments of each of the candidates. Much to my surprise, she responded by saying, “Wow, you seem to know a lot.” Her words filled me with newfound hope and optimism for myself and my future. With this newfound confidence, I knew I had to take on the issue that was frustrating me most: my voting ineligibility in the 2020 primary. 

Following the meeting with Pelosi, I transformed my passion into action. I helped form an advocacy committee, completed hours of research, made a commitment to meet with legislators whenever I could, and made sure to chat with my peers and my community about the issue. Through my work, I learned it is a nonpartisan issue with nearly half the country having laws in place that already deal with the exclusion of young people in the primaries even if they can vote in the general election. After nearly 4 years of phone calls with journalists, town halls after school, and endless dialogue with those around me about how they felt about the exclusion of young people from the primary, I was invited to testify before the State Assembly Elections Committee for a bill, known as ACA 4, that would allow all those who are eligible to vote in the general election to vote in the primary to be able to vote in the primary election. While preparing my remarks, I looked back on the debate of fifth grade, the meeting with Speaker Pelosi, and the fateful night this whole endeavor began. I was introduced as the youth’s perspective on the issue. Taking a moment, I looked around at a similarly tense room I had seen in that meeting with the Speaker, the key difference being that I was the change maker. ACA 4 passed out of the assembly committee! While this wasn’t a green light, it was a sign that people still cared about my “little eighth-grade project.” If the bill passes onward, it will make it onto California's 2020 ballot for the voters to decide. Although it will be too late for me to participate in my state’s primary, my work has helped unlock the political potential for hundreds of thousands of teenagers. In the end, my work won’t be over when teenagers have a new voting opportunity--my political work has only begun. 

Jasmine: What was the response surrounding your effects from your community and your peers? Did you find similarly minded activists who were also willing to take on important issues like student rights?

Ella: My peers and my global community has been incredibly supportive of not only ACA 4 but also my activism in general. Many folks are simply encouraged to see a young woman proudly sharing her political opinions. I didn’t find any other similar activists, but I found a body of my peers who were just as frustrated as I was. This propelled me to continue the endless town hall meetings, the long conversations with community leaders, etc.

Jasmine: What do you think our society and our lawmakers in particular need to do better when it comes to youth and anything else?

Ella: Other than ACA 4, I think lawmakers and young people need to strengthen their patron-client network through a stronger dialogue between the two bodies. Specifically, though, I’d love to see more young people in our government. As much as I adore and respect many leaders within our national government, far too many of them are of older ages. I’d love to see a society in which it isn’t considered surprising to see a 30-year-old or even a 25-year-old run for public office. I think the more representation for young people, the better for they will understand the gravity of issues like climate change, student debt, and poorly- funded public education. 

Jasmine: Why do you think it’s important to connect with other young people, even young people who previously were not activists when it comes to creating change?

Ella: In order to verify that any issue that you believe is important to young people actually is, you must create a strong dialogue with your peers about the issue you want to focus on. When I talked with young people, I learned how to deal with folks assuming that ACA 4 is merely lowering the voting age. I learned how to make sure I explain what we are working efficiently and effectively to those who are affected by it. Once my peers understood what I was focused on, many cheered me on as they began to realize their own exclusion from the system we are encouraged to be a part of. 

Jasmine: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you would like to talk about, or plans for the future?

Ella: As a college student, I hope to continue to message of ACA 4 to other states that exclude those who can vote in the general election but cannot in the primary election. In fact, Cornell University is located in New York which is one of the 27 states that do not allow those who are eligible to vote by the general to automatically vote in the primary. My dream would be to use my time in New York to advocate for young people just as I’ve done in California. 

Jasmine: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?

Ella: I would refer them to one of my favorite Robert F Kennedy quotes, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve a lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

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ELIOT NEBOLSINE

@e.neb

MKM Student Rights Director Jasmine Lunia talked to 17-year-old Eliot Nebolsine from Alexandria, VA. Eliot is also MKM's new Immigrant Rights team member! They discussed  Women’s March Youth, immigration reform, and volunteer work.

Jasmine: When I was doing some research before reaching out to you, I was really impressed with all of your work! What got you involved in youth and student activism specifically?

Eliot:  I started getting involved in activism when Trump was elected. I had lived my life in a trance and didn't even realize that people had different beliefs. I was in the bubble of my family, and of Northern Virginia, and had only seen those views. Then Donald Trump was elected. I came to school and cried. I had never cried at school. But I saw peers, teachers, people I saw as role models, celebrating over the election of someone I knew was going to ruin our country, and define my four years of high school. I did not want that to happen. I wanted my four years of high school to be defined by hanging with friends, doing well in sports, having new experiences, and learning new things. I refused to let these years of my life be defined by the negativity and tyranny of Donald Trump. So I didn’t. I decided to make a change.

        I attended the first 2 women's marches and was inspired by those who were speaking on the stages- that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the one leading change and leading effective activism. Prior to the 2018 March, Women’s March Youth advertised on their Instagram that they wanted to plan a pre-march event. I put down my email and thought nothing of it. Then, the previous youth leader reached out to me, and I was hooked. I loved feeling the effective change, and I loved being able to see my hard work benefiting others in a way that was tangible. From there, I knew I needed to do more- and that it had to be with the women's march. I reached out to them, learned how to start a chapter, and just ran from there.

Jasmine: What has it been like organizing events?

Eliot: Stressful, rewarding, amazing, confusing, though- there are really no words! Building up to any event is tough. You are putting in hours and hours of work, and you really don't see the results, until the event. That's the tough and stressful part. But the second that your event starts- you realize why you are doing this. During the fall, our chapter held a panel discussing youth activism and gun violence. We worked SO HARD on this, and it took so much planning and logistics, and the whole time we had the worry that people wouldn't come. BUT, we had more than 50 people come, we had 7 different speakers, and had such a powerful and moving discussion. The moments where I could see people's faces where they had a sudden realization of what change could be and the power of youth was so powerful. I think the other tricky part of organizing all of this, is the after. You just put in all of this work, and then it's over. You see such AMAZING results and feel worried you can't top it. For me, I feel stuck and not really sure what to do next. But, the incredible community I have built is always there to support me and help me find out what's next :)

Jasmine: What was the response surrounding your effects from your community and your peers?

Eliot: The response has been so positive and supportive. We would not have been able to make any change without the support of our community. Our school has been amazing in providing us with resources. Our community has provided us with speakers, and an incredible support system. Our peers have provided us with a drive. They are the reason we are trying to change things for the better.

Jasmine: What do you think our society and our lawmakers in particular need to do better?

Eliot: There are so many things that I think need to be changed. I feel particularly passionate about immigration reform, gun control, women’s rights, and climate action. However, I think that all of these cannot be worked on or resolved without the youth voice. Lawmakers are continuing to just consult with people their age, and with that, we are stuck in the same place. When lawmakers consult with youth, you get absolute power and absolute action. Look at United Students against Sweatshops, the Flint water crisis, March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, and SO MUCH MORE. These are all movements that have triggered the change, and best of all, is backed by youth.

Jasmine: Why do you think it’s important to connect with other young people, even young people who previously were not activists when it comes to creating change?

Eliot: What most people (especially adults) fail to realize, is that youth is our future. We are the ones who will be affected by decisions now, and we are the ones who need to be working for change. Adults consistently are coddling young people, saying “I'll tell you more when you are older”, but when we are older is when we are making the decisions. Instead of trying to cover and shield our youth, we need to embrace the power that we have and bring youth into all of the places where decisions are being made. Ultimately, these are the people that will be running the country. We need to make sure that young people learn how to make effective change, and that they have an established passion for activism.

Jasmine: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you would like to talk about, or plans for the future?

Eliot: With everything currently happening, we are more focused on unifying and making sure those close to us are safe. I have been volunteering online for the candidate I support in the 2020 election, doing some random online volunteer work where I can, but mostly I am trying to be there for those who need it.

Jasmine: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?

Eliot: Do it. When I wanted to get started with activism, I really didn't know-how. There was no one who was telling me what to do, and I felt really discouraged in the fact that I just didn't know what to do. So, I started looking at Instagram and finding activism accounts. I would DM them, fill out forms to put my email in, google places to volunteer, use protest finders, and just consult with organizations within my school. Once I started, I realized that I really wanted to make an outlet for people to come to that was obviously for activism in my school. It can get hard, and there will be people saying “ you’re too young” or “ maybe you should let other people handle this”, ignore them. This is your future, and we are the ones who are going to be in charge soon. We are responsible for the direction this country goes in, and we need to make our voices heard now.

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TAYLOR WANG

@_taylorwang

MKM Student Rights Director Jasmine Lunia talked to 16-year-old Taylor Wang from Seattle, WA. Taylor is also MKM's new Art Activism partnership! They discussed art activism and Student Art Spaces.

Jasmine: When I was doing some research before reaching out to you, I was really impressed with all of your work! What got you involved in youth and student activism specifically?

Taylor:  I think young people have so much power! We are the first generation that can rally for change on a global level, turn Instagram pages into social movements, and do things our ancestors thought impossible—all while studying for AP exams. As a queer Asian girl, I often wrestle with my identity. Youth activism has taught me to value myself not because of how I look or how I present myself, but what I can contribute to the issues I care about. 

Jasmine: I would like to talk to you more about your work with student activism regarding the arts. What got you so involved? Can you identify a specific catalyst?

Taylor: I’m an artist myself, and I have been since I was very young. Growing up in a Chinese American community, my unconventional passions for art and activism were not exactly supported. While family friends were off studying for medicine or computer science, I was entering art contests and exhibiting work. As I tried to gain exposure, I realized just how many galleries and publications required a hefty submission fee (upwards of $100), piled on with a plethora of other fees. Not only was the art industry restrictive toward teen artists from low-income backgrounds, but it was also taboo for artists of color to enter. I co-founded Student Art Spaces to combat these financial barriers, as well as uplift artists who may not be receiving that encouragement from their families and communities.

Jasmine: What has it been like organizing events?

Taylor: It’s been the best and most stressful experience I’ve ever had. From helping teens showcase their work for the first time to seeing older generations admire our youth galleries, I am endlessly grateful for the connections I’ve made through organizing these events. What blows my mind the most is the fact that this project is truly teen-led, in every sense of the word. About a year ago, my co-founder Alice and I were holed up in a Starbucks looking up what the IRS is. Now, we’re a nationwide network of volunteers and artists, with chapters in Dallas, NYC, LA, and more every day!

Jasmine: What was the response surrounding your effects from your community and your peers? Did you find similarly minded activists who were also willing to tackle such issues?

Taylor: After hosting our first gallery, we received tons of messages from other teens asking how they could get involved, or what they could do to start something like Student Art Spaces in their city. Overwhelmed with support, we got started brainstorming our second phase. Our team sat down, wrote a volunteer handbook and a chapter playbook, and distributed it to all the new faces. I was awestruck at the amount of people who wanted to uplift young artists—it felt like we were truly igniting a nationwide movement. Our Texas chapter, led by Frisco high schoolers Srin and Shreya, has already secured a space for their first equitable teen gallery!

Jasmine: What do you think our society and our lawmakers in particular need to do better at when it comes to students rights?

Taylor: Listen to the youth! We know more than you think. Instead of talking about us, talk TO us. Older generations often criticize young people for being social media obsessed or disrespectful towards authority, but these traits are actually the reason why our generation is so educated and active. We use social media to promote our causes to peers across the world. We don’t let our knowledge go to waste, but instead, we use it to fight for what we believe in—even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

Jasmine: Why do you think it’s important to connect with other young people, even young people who previously were not activists when it comes to creating change?

Taylor: It’s so important for young people to get their start in activism through other young people. When I was in 9th grade, my friend roped me into canvassing for a local political campaign. Later on, I joined an art equity council at a nearby museum, composed entirely of teens. Even though it was a completely new experience, I felt at ease both of those times because I felt like I could be treated as an equal. My ideas were not invalidated because I was too young or inexperienced. Instead, I could contribute to the conversation without fear of judgment or belittlement. The world of activism can be daunting at first, but it’s much easier to get involved when you’re surrounded by like-minded peers. 

Jasmine: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you would like to talk about, or plans for the future?

Taylor: Many plans have been canceled lately due to COVID-19, and Student Art Spaces is not an exception. We’re not letting it keep us down though! In response to the growing anxiety surrounding our current circumstances, we’re hosting an open call for writing, art, and just about anything else that’ll fit inside an email for our first teen anthology publication: Art During a Pandemic. Visit https://www.studentartspaces.org/anthology to submit before April 11, 2020!

Jasmine: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?

 

Taylor: Make the first move. If you are a young person who sees an issue in your community, and there hasn’t been anything done about it, do it. Google things, DM other activists for advice and go full force into it. You’ll need a team because you can’t do it alone, so gather your friends and don’t be scared to reach out to local influential leaders. 

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ARIANNA NASSIRI

@arianna.a.nassiri

MKM Student Rights Director Jasmine Lunia talked to 17-year-old Arianna Nassiri from San Francisco, CA. They discussed local politics, interactions with politicians, and Vote16.

Jasmine: When I was doing some research before reaching out to you, I was really impressed with all of your work! What got you involved in youth and student activism specifically?

Arianna:  Before my career began, I spent most of my free time involved in competitive athletics, primarily skiing, tennis, and dance. I began my political activity within the city community in eighth grade, when I interned in the office of London Breed, who was at that point the supervisor for my city district. Those months of insider experience in policy writing and community fortification really catalyzed what my role has developed into today. 

When experiencing the typical policy agenda of local politicians, I realized little attention was being paid on how representative policy was with who it would impact. With further investigation, it became clearer that young people were a large population that had no seat at the table when legislation is being penned. From then on, I’ve focused my work on making sure that youth issues were being considered when governing takes place.

Jasmine: I would like to talk to you more about your work with student activism regarding Vote16. What got you so involved? Can you identify a specific catalyst?
 

Arianna: As aforementioned, comparing the median age Of American voters with respect to the median age of the population makes clear that there is a discrepancy between the needs of the population and the manner in which it’s being represented in US elections. This represents a major crisis regarding the integrity of US democracy; given that, I decided to involve myself in fortifying the democratic principles outlined in the foundation of our country. It’s an issue that crosses party lines; it’s less an issue of what policy is being passed, but a question of whether election results can be considered legitimate if a large portion of adept and educated voters are being disenfranchised.

Jasmine: What has it been like organizing events to lower the voting age and get youth activists more involved in politics? 

Arianna: Discussion around lowering the voting age is surprisingly more difficult than I thought it would be entering these campaigns. Both young and older citizens have adopted the stigma around changing a system that has seemingly existed for centuries. However, I try to remind people of why the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 after war with Vietnam; government realized that drafting young adults and not allowing them to vote in elections was a breach in the rights of citizenship. It is obvious that currently, young people are a lot more involved and passionate around politics than they once were, so Incentive is not an issue when organizing youth related events. And in my opinion, debate around lowering the voting age is a lot more valuable than a discussion between people who agree; having that room for conversation and discussion regarding principles of American democracy and the political maturity of young people allows both myself and others involved in the conversation to greater realize the unmet needs of young people with regards to election results.

Jasmine: What do you think our society and our lawmakers in particular need to do better at when it comes to young people?

Arianna: I think American lawmakers need to at least consider the needs of young people in order to provide a level of legitimacy and representativeness to their legislation. it would be a lot more streamlined to lower the voting age and allow for young people to incorporate their needs into the general demand of the American population, but facilitating discussion at the policy writing table is a step in the right direction.

Jasmine: Why do you think it’s important to connect with other young people, even young people who previously were not activists when it comes to creating change?

Arianna: When it comes to American democracy, every individual is as equal a citizen and therefore deserves an equal level of consideration on the legislative level. By this logic, youth issues impact all young people, and it is critical to have as many voices to mobilize as possible. Even if you think that you are not interested in politics, I can guarantee that every subject based interest can eventually come down to political issues.

Jasmine: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you would like to talk about, or plans for the future?

Arianna: I’m currently working on publishing a Research report on the nuances of American democracy and the need for reform of the American election system. I’m also currently involved with two political campaigns that are set to be on the November 2020 ballot in San Francisco. Project that I’ve just begun working on involves discussions with both members of generation Z and baby boomers around the current state of our global climate, and what steps every member of our communities can take to alleviate some of the impact that we are experiencing from global warming.

Jasmine: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?

Arianna: I would tell any young person who seeks change to just remember that all reform starts with one catalyst. Greta Thunberg’s impact on globalization issues of climate change should serve as a testament to just how impactful one young persons voice can be.

© 2019 by Meddling Kids Movement