At this point in our nation’s history, it’s not hyperbole to say that America is in crisis. Between COVID, mass unemployment, environmental destruction, foreign and domestic assaults on our democracy, the erosion of women’s rights, and nationwide civil unrest sparked by deep systemic racism, this country is crying out for help. But there is hope. The following young citizens—all under 35—are making big strides in their chosen areas of activism. And no matter what happens during this new administration, their inspiring work will carry on.
Jamie Margolin (@jamie_s_margolin)
Jamie Margolin was just 15 when she co-founded Zero Hour (thisiszerohour.org), a group of young activists committed to combatting government inaction around climate change. They hold protest marches, spearhead online education campaigns, and, pre-COVID, organized in-person events including Youth Climate Lobby Day—during which 100 young activists delivered a list of environmental responsibility demands to Capitol Hill. “I got involved with climate activism during the 2016 election because I saw that if Trump was elected, he would do extreme damage to the environment,” says Margolin, now 18, “which is what we’re seeing right now.” Three years after starting Zero Hour, the Seattle native even testified before Congress alongside Greta Thunberg, during a hearing titled, “Voices Leading the Next Generation on the Global Climate Crisis.”
This year, the NYU freshman released her first book, Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It. “I was getting so many questions online, like, ‘How do I organize?’ And, ‘How do I take action?’” she says. “I decided I was going to answer all these questions in the form of a book, so it could be a permanent guide, instead of me just responding individually via Instagram DM.”
Considering how much time, energy, and passion Margolin has dedicated to saving the planet, she scoffs at the idea that it’s because she loves climate science. “It’s so funny when people say, ‘Oh, you’re interested in climate change.’ I’m not interested in climate change! I would prefer never to think about it—ever. But it’s a crisis that I’m going to take action on. I’m not a very scientific person in general, and I’m not actually interested in it. I just see an emergency and I’m acting on the emergency. I’d much rather be doing something else.”
Nelini Stamp (@nelstamp)
Born and raised in New York City, Nelini Stamp, 33, is the National Organizing Director for the Working Families Party (workingfamilies.org), where she fights to get progressive candidates elected. She is also the co-founder of the Resistance Revival Chorus (resistancerevivalchorus.com), a collective of over 60 women and non-binary singers who have been bringing protest music to street corners and concert halls alike since the Women’s March in 2017.
Stamp’s awakening as an activist was sparked by witnessing the effects of a failed economy first-hand. “My whole family was impacted deeply by the 2008 financial crisis,” she says. “I remember thinking that we need something to change, particularly for my generation. I have seen economic inequality push out my neighbors, friends, and family here in New York.”
She co-created The Resistance Revival Chorus with fellow activist Sarah Sophie Flicker three years ago because, she says, “We were tired of being bombarded with bad news. When we began in 2017, there were all these big marches and demonstrations against the new administration; we decided we needed a revival, because joy is an act of resistance.” The group’s message has become so popular, in fact, that they released their debut album, This Joy, in October.
A relentless organizer, Stamp has been an on-the-ground point person for activist uprisings ranging from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in 2011 to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted coast-to-coast in 2020, always with a focus on racial and economic justice. “The through line with all the work I do,” Stamp explains, “is that I fundamentally believe none of us is free until we are all free. And in the United States, we can’t be free without repairing the evils of genocide and slavery. I am here to build a new society and a new way of being that isn’t based on capitalism or patriarchy or white supremacy. It’s based on community.”
Selena the Stripper (@prettyboygirl)
A dynamic 28-year-old stripper, sex-worker advocate, and podcaster, Selena the Stripper is based in L.A. and sits on the board of Soldiers of Pole (soldiersofpole.com), an organization working for labor rights and unionization for strippers across the United States. “People are terrified of labor organizing because this country has a terrible history of union busting,” says the Oklahoma native, whose pronouns are fae/faer. “A lot of workers feel disempowered—particularly those in marginalized industries, such as sex workers.”
Among the many issues Selena and SOP are working to address are practices like “house fees” (money club owners charge strippers for stage time); job hazards—both in terms of protection from customers and ensuring stages, poles, and railings are safe; discrimination against Black and Brown dancers; and lack of access to benefits. “We need reform,” says Selena. “Strippers need to have greater control over our work environments and we need protections.”
Last year, Selena launched Heaux in the Kneaux, a podcast for sex workers and allies. “I realized how hard it was to find reliable information on sex work,” fae says. “My podcast is about the history of hoeing across time.” The series also reveals the realities of the industry today. “We’re getting into the nitty gritty of the business in a way that only sex workers can do amongst ourselves,” says Selena. “There’s generally this outside-in gaze with a lot of the storytelling around sex work. But all those salacious details are not really that interesting, if you’re actually in the field.”
Jess Morales Rocketto (@jesslivmo)
As Civic Engagement Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (domesticworkers.org)—a community of nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers who have joined forces to make their work and lives better—and as the Executive Director of Care in Action (careinaction.us)—a nonprofit that provides tools to domestic workers to push for fairer labor practices—Jess Morales Rocketto advocates for millions of hardworking women. She is also Chair for We Belong Together, the NDWA’s feminist campaign for immigration rights, which fights against what Rocketto calls ICE’s “sadistic treatment of children and families” via the practice of separation at the border. In 2020, the 34-year-old California native now living in Brooklyn focused most of her efforts on getting politicians elected whose policies would most benefit these workers. And in 2021, she will be reminding public servants of the promises they made that helped them get their current jobs.
A former Digital Organizing Director for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Engagement Program Manager for Barack Obama in 2012, Rocketto says, “This year has really shown me that maybe I need to get more imaginative about what worst case scenarios are.” But she also has a practical plan for staying active and engaged even when things get overwhelming. “I really believe there’s a relentless attack on our rights and it is super important to stay motivated,” she says. “Organizing brings me such comfort because, ultimately, I have a purpose that is bigger than me and that is a direct attack on feeling like nothing matters and on feeling like the world is terrible.”
Figuring out the specific part one can play in bringing about change is key, explains Rocketto. “I like to think about what my unique role is and what my best and most purposeful use is in this moment. I hear from people all the time who ask, ‘How do you keep going?’ I definitely lose energy sometimes. But I keep going back to that idea—I just have to do my one part. Once you get clear about what your part is, you just have to go after that and do it the best way possible. It’s always so grounding.”
Raquel Willis (@raquel_willis)
An award-winning writer and editor whose work puts LGBTQIA issues front and center, Raquel Willis, 29, made history when, in 2018, she became the first Black person and first transgender person to be named executive editor at Out magazine. “We talk a lot about ‘firsts’ without talking about the barriers that prolonged that first from happening for so long,” says Willis. “We have to talk about the systems of oppression that cause there to still be so many firsts for Black people, or women, or queer and trans people.”
While a national organizer with the Transgender Law Center, Willis launched Black Trans Circles (BTC), a healing justice space and program for Black trans women to develop the leadership and organizing skills necessary to address anti-trans violence. In 2016, Willis designed the Black Trans Flag—a variation of the pink and blue flag that replaces the center white stripe with a black one.
Now the Ms. Foundation’s Director of Communications (forwomen.org), Willis says this is a great time to be working for one of the country’s oldest feminist organizations. “I’m excited for us to have a more expansive conversation on feminism,” she says. “Feminists need to be allies, advocating for other feminists. So, if you are a cis feminist who understands the honor and dignity of trans people, it’s time to show up, honey! If you are a white feminist, and you have not been doing your due diligence to elevate Black women and women of color, it’s time to step up.”
Jamira Burley (@jamiraburley)
Jamira Burley’s pathway to activism began with personal tragedy. “I started my activism at 15 after my brother was shot and killed in Philadelphia,” she says. “I was so determined to try to figure out what I could do as a young person with limited resources.”
As a teen, Burley, now 32 and Head of Youth Engagement and Skills for the Global Business Coalition for Education (gbc-education.org), began organizing gun violence prevention programs. Her life had been impacted by gun violence from her earliest memories, with members of her immediate family repeatedly being both victims and perpetrators of these types of crimes. She went on to work with Amnesty International on an initiative combating gun violence and addressing criminal justice inequities, and in 2016, was the National Deputy Millennial Vote Director at Hillary For America. More recently, you may have seen her this past August during the Democratic National Convention when Burley took part in a conversation about racial justice with Joe Biden.
“When I first started my activism journey, it was simply around the issues of gun violence and criminal justice, because that’s what I was directly impacted by,” Burley explains. “But as I became more involved and started asking more questions, I began to realize that there were deeper systemic problems. When young people in the U.S. and around the world don’t have access to quality education, it prevents them from truly being able to participate in society. It also puts them at a disadvantage and makes them an even more vulnerable population. My goal over the last few years has really been to center the voices and experiences of those who are the most vulnerable—young people who can’t vote, who don’t have money, and who can’t run for office.”
Brea Baker (@freckledwhileblack)
Brea Baker was just a 17-year-old student living in Long Island, NY, and preparing to go off to Yale when Trayvon Martin, also 17, was killed on his walk home from a convenience store. This was a defining moment in her life and ignited her passion for activism. It was the first time she took to the streets to protest, something she has done countless times since in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I saw myself in him,” says the now-26-year-old living in Atlanta. “That was my wake-up call. I realized that this country was not built for Black and Brown young people to succeed and thrive. I was definitely radicalized in that moment.”
She went on to first become a member of Yale’s NAACP chapter, and then, its president. “My engagement just snowballed from there,” says Baker, who, in 2017, was the youngest national organizer for the Women’s March (womensmarch.com). Baker advises those looking to become more involved in social justice work to move beyond the keyboard. “Digital activism should be a complement, not the totality of your activism,” she says. “Engage offline, make sure you talk to your family, and ensure that you’re volunteering with organizations that are doing the work.”
Today, Baker is the Director of Politics and Programs for Inspire Justice (weinspirejustice.com), a group that educates, organizes, and trains celebrities, influencers, and media companies on how to leverage their platforms to create positive social change. “We are a bridge between influencers and those on the ground who don’t have large platforms,” Baker explains. “We make sure our clients understand their lane, and make sure they’re not speaking for people, but instead are passing the mic. People think, ‘Oh, I’m speaking for the voiceless!’ And it’s like, ‘Well, the voiceless actually do have a voice, they just don’t have a microphone.’”
Naelyn Pike (@naelynpike)
As a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe based in San Carlos, AZ, 21-year-old Naelyn Pike grew up watching her grandfather—often outfitted in a bullet-proof vest—protesting against a foreign mining corporation’s takeover of Oak Flat, which is sacred land to the Apache and other Native American people. By the time she was 13, Pike had joined in the fight, taking her activism all the way to Congress, where she was one of the youngest people ever to testify.
“Oak Flat is foundational to our cultural history and our religion,” explains Pike. “It’s a direct connection to our Creator.” Along with her mother and grandfather, Pike leads Apache Stronghold (apache-stronghold.com), an organization dedicated to protecting sacred land and religious rights by organizing letter-writing campaigns to public officials, circulating petitions protesting mining operations, and leading a Save Oak Flat mother-daughter walk from Washington State to Oak Flat to raise funds and awareness. “I’m so passionate about this,” says Pike, “because I know that the U.S. government is still trying to assimilate our people.”
The connection to her ancestors that Pike is fighting to protect is the same one she draws strength from in situations that could otherwise intimidate a young person. “When I first testified before Congress, I wore my traditional outfit, not just for myself, but also to show them, ‘We’re still here. What you planned failed and we’re still here,’” she says. “Congress had no questions for me. I always thought that was kind of funny, because these are grown men and women—elected officials who are supposed to protect our people and they have nothing to say. They looked scared, so I felt like, I intimidated them.”
By Sabrina Ford
Illustrated by Aeva Karlsrud
Top photos: Loni Fredryx (Brea Baker); Ann Schertz (Jamira Burley); Cole Witter (Raquel Willis); Diana Bowen/Demand Justice (Jess Morales Rocketto); Steve Pavey (Naelyn Pike); Nelini Stamp (Kristen Blush); The Bernie Sanders Campaign (Jamie Margolin); @6775Antonio (Selena The Stripper)
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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