Despite the pandemic, Generation Z activists took to the streets. Are the polls next?

Feature image: Allyson Smith helps lead a June 5, 2020, protest that proceeded through Cooper-Young and denounced police brutality and racist systems. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Of the cohort born after 1996, nearly 24 million are eligible to vote. They’re expected to be a powerful force in the November election.

By F. Amanda Tugade, for MLK50
Photos by Andrea Morales

Organizing a protest was not a part of Allyson Smith’s summer plans, but the deaths of George FloydBreonna Taylor and Tony McDade pushed the 19-year-old to her feet and up front in the Memphis fight for justice.

Smith helped lead a march with 200 protesters through the Cooper-Young neighborhood on June 5, chanting the names of Black men and women who died at the hands of police and white vigilantes.

The anger and the sadness that came with reciting the victims’ names felt too familiar for Smith, who is Black and begins her sophomore year at Howard University this fall.

She remembered others. Trayvon MartinMichael BrownSandra Bland and Philando Castile — these were deaths that changed Smith’s childhood, she said, and awakened her and others of her generation to the pervasiveness of racism and injustice in America.

“We really didn’t get to be children,” Smith said. Those moments “made us a tight community but in the worst way possible because someone lost their life.”

Smith belongs to a generation that has seen dramatic changes and pivotal moments. Generation Z, those born after 1996, has experienced at least two major social movements (Me Too and Black Lives Matter), high-profile mass and school shootings, and now are facing a global pandemic.

But the recent surge of racial justice protests has become a turning point for Gen Zers, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C. And this energized, socially aware group may turn that passion into power at the polls in November. Nearly 24 million of them will have the chance to help choose the nation’s next leaders, according to the Pew Research Center.

That is why Brookings called the protests, which continue to see younger activists, “consequential.” They are taking place “in the midst of a fundamental demographic transformation” where social, racial and economic inequalities steadily draw a divisive line between the haves and the have-nots.

“We just have this sense of power in what we say and what we think,” Smith said about Generation Z. “We’re just very passionate, and I see that across the globe in different countries.”

Gen Zers, however, face a big challenge. They are likely to be more severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a March Pew report. Just over 9 million employees ages 16 to 24 work in retail, restaurants and other service jobs, all greatly impacted by COVID-19.

Workers in the service sector are not only at a higher risk of losing their jobs, but are also in danger of being exposed to the infectious disease. In a survey conducted by Pew, half of the eldest Gen Zers — those who are 18 and 23 — said they or someone in their household lost a job or took a pay cut because of the outbreak.

Charles McKinney, an associate professor of history at Rhodes College, studies the key players, organizations and issues behind movements, especially the civil rights movement. His research shows that youth participation plays a vital role in driving activism forward, he said.

Experiencing or witnessing discrimination and injustice can be strong motivators for young people, said McKinney, who is also the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana studies at Rhodes.

During the civil rights movement, young Black people saw how segregation affected their lives, families and their futures. “It limits their capacities to do the type of work they want to do, to go to the types of schools they want to go to, to live in the neighborhoods they want to live (in).”

Carolina Calvo, 13, (right) sits for a photo at I Am A Man plaza with her siblings Santiago, 12 and Anna, 15, after they marched together in a protest on June 2, 2020. Photo by Yancy Villa-Calvo.

Young shoulders, big issues

Potential exposure to coronavirus didn’t stop 13-year-old Carolina Calvo from attending a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Memphis. Equipped with a face mask and a sign, the White Station Middle School student joined her family and other marchers on June 2 at Clayborn Temple.

“I stopped thinking about myself and started thinking about others and how it was such a bigger issue,” said Calvo, an eighth grader.

Calvo credits her parents, who are Mexican immigrants, for her interest in uplifting those from marginalized communities. Her father, Mauricio Calvo, is the executive director of Latino Memphis, while her mother, Yancy Villa-Calvo, is an artist and creator of Barrier Free, a traveling art installation that told the story of unjust immigration laws and mass incarceration.

Growing up, Carolina and her siblings, Anna, 15, and Santiago, 12, were volunteers at Latino Memphis. They tagged along with their parents, who often visited undocumented families around the city. Sometimes, they’d bring food baskets, gifts or other provisions. Carolina remembers playing with the other children, leaving the adults to talk.

When they returned home, Yancy said, she and Mauricio would talk to their children about the issues their community faced. “You never know what kids are going to understand, but I think that taking them to a situation where (a) family was hurting, it also made them understand a little more about what an immigration raid is, what family separation or family justice is.”

In the Calvo home, these conversations happen at the dinner table. This is where Carolina gets most of her information, not from social media or TV, which makes her an outlier from a generation known as “digital natives.”

Under her parents’ rules, Carolina isn’t allowed to have a social media account or a cell phone until she’s in high school. She understands their decision, she says, and hopes when she does have them she doesn’t lose sight of “what really matters.”

Allyson Smith (right with bullhorn) helps lead a June 5, 2020, protest that proceeded through Cooper-Young and denounced police brutality and racist systems. Photo by Andrea Morales.

For now, she browses through her mom and Anna’s news feeds. In the car, she listens to NPR, and sometimes searches for articles on CNN or in the New York Times. She is also a member of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) youth council, where she and other like-minded people are working to create changes around their city.

Smith and fellow youth organizer Marissa Pittman use social media to move the messages of equality forward.

While Smith uses Twitter to show her political stance or support for Black-owned businesses in Memphis, Pittman, 18, has turned to Zoom to host a healing circle. That event, Pittman said, was held days after Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, a 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, was found dead in Tallahassee, Florida.

“It really hit home for me and a lot of my friends, and I realized something needs to happen,” said Pittman, a Dillard University-bound freshman. The White Station High School graduate founded Pumps and Politics 901, an organization that encourages young women of color to vote, run for student council and become civically engaged.

Last month, about 30 of Pittman’s friends and Pumps and Politics members met online to reflect on Salau’s death. They meditated and did yoga. They also wrote in their journals and watched an episode of “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

A recent poll conducted by Business Insider and online platforms Yubo and StuDoc revealed that 90% of Gen Zers support the Black Lives Matter movement, and a majority of them have leaned on Instagram and TikTok to showcase their stance. In June, TikTok users made headlines after pulling a prank that contributed to a poorly attended Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Pittman and Smith said they’re moved by how their peers are responding and excited to see what comes next. Smith believes technology has the power to unite people in Memphis and across the world.

“Students are the movement,” Smith said. “Students aren’t going to stop the movement because they see the effect in real time.”

F. Amanda Tugade is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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