On Youth Activism, Intersectionality, and the Desire for a Better World
by Amanda Zhang
Last year, a boy I never heard of, with a streak of consistently multicolored hair, messaged me on Facebook. That day I had created an event page for Madison West’s Walkout last year for Tony Robinson. He told me he was from GSA and that he wanted to help me organize. It turns out that organizing is really hard and I had no idea what I was doing. Skylar said he could help with the structure of the walkout. We met for coffee with Karma Chavez at Panera to develop a plan for the walkout. Even with our plan in hand, he talked to me and comforted me on the phone as I cried from stress the night before the action. Looking back, I think he changed my perspective on organizing and is probably the reason I have such an ethical stick up my you-know-what. In the days leading up to the walkout, Skylar coached and guided me on how to be a good ally. It is because of him that I knew to step take a step back, to take care of myself, and ultimately allow black voices in leadership to be heard. Not to mention, he always started his conversations, no matter how stressful a situation we were in, with a cheerful “Yo!”
Skylar was the first person who taught me about intersectionality. Before him, I didn’t know that the systems I had been fighting were an intimately interwoven series of collective oppression. He figured it out long before I did. It’s simultaneously encouraging and discouraging that he could know the mechanics of such a system at his age. Skylar was one of the most inspiringly intelligent young people I ever met. He taught me that young people could do anything. He taught me how to take rage and anger at an unjust system and codify it into meaningful action. The only reason that I firmly believe that young people can effectively make change is because of him. He made me believe that young people are far more engaged and capable than we’re made out to be.
He didn’t want to be canonized or turned into a hashtag. He didn’t want his identity as a queer trans Korean American to be the reason he killed himself. Skylar did amazing work. He faced and overcame obstacles and stigma as a queer trans Asian American. He was also depressed. This is an intersection that I feel like we have not talked about enough. It feels like it’s impossible to make anything change, to make any of the pillars of oppression even just move a tiny bit. There is no immediate gratification, which is a hard thing to learn when all you have is energy and hope and a bit of organizing. We’re obedient to older leadership but fundamentally believe in the viability and efficacy that comes out of a youth perspective and with decades of years ahead of us and few obstacles faced within our life experience, it feels like getting to where we want to is never going to happen. That’s what’s terrible about youth activism. We can only push so much on the older generation to change and it feels like there is nothing we can do when they don’t, because after all, we’re not even voting age.
It seems like we are more progressive, more open minded, more egalitarian than the older generation, and this might be true, but we are also just learning how to cope with mental illness. As the world has failed to change enough and we learn more about the nature of inequality and injustice, we fall prey to hopelessness and anxiety. Ignorance truly is bliss. But perhaps fortunately or unfortunately we’ve become more conscious of intersectionality and generated inequality through engaging in the exact ways Skylar did. But when you’re young and active and motivated, when you care about others too much and forget to care for yourself, you end up hating yourself almost as much as the world you live in. There is more intersectionality than what connects various forms of oppression, there is tangible intersectionality within the relationships that we generate as we collectively fight oppression. Our own relationships to the issues we face pose a detriment to our own well being without the love and support of others. Skylar was loved and supported by a community that encouraged him, but that wasn’t enough.
Skylar didn’t want to be sensationalized. He was humble and gracious, both in life and now in death. He should be remembered for his grace and his light, his tenacity to keep fighting. He won’t be another hashtag because we will change. The world will change for the better because it needs to…it just has to.