Hundreds of teens from across the country descended upon #TurnUp, an activism summit hosted by The New School this past weekend to make clear that a shift in generational focus is well underway.
The adults no longer have the answers, and it is time for teens to take matters into their own hands. Generation Z has borne witness to the incompetencies of previous generations, paper towels being thrown at Puerto Ricans as disaster relief, Mark Zuckerberg explaining the world’s most popular social media platform to the United States Senate, a procession of their peers marching into school with clear backpacks with the looming fear of a mass shooter ever present. Thus was the consensus of attendees and speakers alike at #TurnUP, a summit hosted New York City’s the New School, this past weekend, which featured a blend of youth-friendly politicos like Cynthia Nixon, Al Gore, and former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards alongside a new generation of activists including Emma González, the March for Our Lives organizer and gun control advocate, Clifton Kinnie, a student activist from St. Louis, and Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old “Climate Reality Leader.” The summit featured talks, panels, and workshops focused on social justice, climate change, immigration reform, and the rights of society’s marginalized.
The summit, presented by Teen Vogue, reflects a shift in generational focus, a growing disinterest in celebrity It-girls and makeup tips giving way to critiques of capitalismandprotest prep following the 2016 election. Eleven-year-old girls listened intently as Al Gore described economic policy proposals that would benefit the environment, and as Lauren Underwood, a congressional candidate from Illinois, detailed the importance of access to healthcare. Sitting in the crowd was Alexandra Lewis, a 15-year-old activist in New Jersey, who first began public speaking in second grade with a speech inspired by Rosa Parks. Last year, she spoke at a TEDx Talk, presenting a poem written in response to Philando Castile’s murder. “I’m an activist in my community,” Lewis said. “I wanted to see what other people are doing and hopefully spread my voice in different ways.”
During the break for lunch, I spoke with Annika Winans, a 21-year-old student at Colorado College sitting with Lewis. Winans is currently working on a campaign to elect Jessica Morse, a Democratic challenger, to the House of Representatives. A political science and Spanish double major, she hopes to work, one day, in immigration law. Winans’s trip to the summit was organized by her 15-year-old sister, Britta Winans, also attending the summit. Along with their three friends, the Winans sisters raised the money to fly to New York by presenting their plan to various political organizations and clubs in their hometown of Truckee, California. I asked the younger Winans what she hoped to learn during the summit California. “I’m bringing a whole new perspective, I think,” she answered. “I’m going back with more knowledge, having listened to people who have lived whole different lives than me. I have ideas for that and exercising your right to protest—and I’ve learned about running for office.”
Many of the older, college-aged summit-goers are shaping their educations to fit a life of political activism. After the Parkland shooting, 19-year-old Micaela Rebelo, who studies Photography at the New School, concentrated her final projects around the issue of gun violence. Another activist aspirant is Jessie Chen, a rising Sophomore at Loyola University Chicago. Chen says that she was always drawn to politics because her parents are immigrants. “That’s a big part of my identity,” she told me. “It’s how people view me, and how I view myself.” She plans to channel her studies in biomathematics and computer science into skills that could reform the voting process or be applied to a political campaign.
While disappointment and anger at the Trump administration was a running theme, optimism and belief in the power of youth was the overriding message. As Planned Parenthood activist Deja Foxx pointed out in her conversation with Cecile Richards, there’s a lot young people can do, even before they turn 18. One of Foxx’s first tasks after joining Planned Parenthood was registering voters. “I was 16, I couldn’t vote yet, like a lot of you in the audience, but I was still out there.”
Alexandra Lewis, Annika and Britta Winans, Micaela Rebelo, and Jessie Chen are the faces of the future, and the adults in the room knew it. During her panel with fellow midterm candidates, Paulette Jordan, a Democrat running for governor in Idaho, dubbed those gathered “America’s most precious natural resource.” And Cynthia Nixon, whose highly-progressive run for New York governor has already galvanized the millennial voters, lauded the leadership displayed by the summit’s younger speakers and addressed the audience directly: “Our world needs so much fixing and so much improving, and no one generation or gender or ethnicity or class has a monopoly on solutions. So if you feel like you can be a leader, don’t wait. Start leading now.”
In one of the day’s final speeches, Ja’mal Green, who, at the age of 22, Chicago’s youngest mayoral candidate ever, led a call and response with a chorus of teenage girls:
If we want a better world?
It’s up to us!
If we want gun control?
It’s up to us!
If we want better schools?
It’s up to us!
If we want new leaders?
It’s up to us!