Growing up in the era of the first black president, the stock market crash of ’08, and, most importantly, the era of connectivity through the media, I’ve been inundated with politics for as long as I can remember. Whereas now I feel lucky that I was exposed to and therefore began understanding political discourse from a young age, I actually resented the entire idea of politics until my around freshman year in high school at age 14. How, in four short years, did my relationship with politics change from abhorrence to adoration?
Though I hated politics for the majority of my adolescence, I can’t say I was disinterested. Despite only being eight years old at the time of former president Barack Obama’s first election, I was incredibly invested in his campaign and amazed by his success. While I didn’t understand fully the complex institutions of racism in our country yet, I knew that african-americans and other minorities (myself included) were treated differently, and I knew that all of our prior 43 presidents had been white. I was excited to see such a major change in the status quo, and I was inspired by his messages of hope and change. I think that his presidency was my first real inkling of passion for politics.
Another important milestone in my discovery of politics was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Similarly to Obama’s election, I didn’t fully understand the context of the protests, being that I was still in elementary school and had never even heard of the stock market or the concept of ‘big business’. However, I remember my parents explaining to me that people were upset because of unfair treatment and wealth inequality, and even more than that, I remember the intensity of the protestors. While visiting my dad in Salt Lake City, Utah, he took me on a drive past a sister Occupy Wall Street protest and even though I didn’t know exactly what they were protesting, or really even what a protest was, I could feel the emotion and determination of the protestors. It was pretty amazing to me that we lived in a country that lets us express anger or disapproval or a desire for change- I guess that’s the first time I really appreciated the First Amendment, and I had never even read the Bill of Rights.
Those moments were my first interactions with politics, but since I didn’t really know what politics were, I was pretty indifferent to politics as a concept. I started to detest politics around 2012-13, when I was 12-13 years old and in my first year of middle school. A lot of events took place that year that really boosted my investment in (and distaste of) American politics. At this point in my life, my friends and I were taking our first real social studies classes, discovering our identities, and keeping up with the news. Two national events happened that were very important to me as well: Barack Obama’s re-election and the Sandy Hook school shooting.
First I’ll discuss the local changes that affected my political views in my middle school years. I had social studies in the second semester of sixth grade, where we talked about the Constitution, the Civil War, democracy, etc. Though we only learned the basics of course, I started to understand how our government works in terms of elections, checks and balances, and a two-party democracy. Identity discovery, as it turns out, is a pretty massive part of both middle school and political alignment. Politics started to affect me directly once I started to observe inequality and hate in my community, which happened through a few incidents. First, as I transitioned from a mostly-white elementary school to a very diverse middle school, I noticed racism and race divisions a lot. I heard comments about how other classmates were “so ghetto”. I knew some white girls who filled their friend’s locker with Snickers bars because she was a “snicker-licker” for dating a black boy. And as a mixed-race girl myself, I was given nicknames like “south of the border” and asked the infamous “where are you REALLY from” question. At the time, I thought these comments were pretty harmless, annoying at the worst, because everyone was doing it. I thought it must be normal. But then my family’s Obama/Biden sign was stolen from our front yard, crumpled up, and thrown into our own trash can. I don’t know if that action was racially motivated for sure, but just the possibility that it was sort of opened my eyes to the fact that racism is still very much alive in our country. That’s something that I would understand more later on, though.
If you’re wondering what happened after the trashed-sign incident, we pulled the sign out of the trash and put it right back in our front yard- crumpled up and all. I guess political boldness runs in my family. But on the topic of Obama’s 2012 run, let me explain how national events affected my view on politics. Like I said earlier, Barack Obama was a figure of hope and inspiration for me since a young age, and
by the time I was 12, I was able to understand his policy and his campaign promises, and I loved him. I also realized the gravity of having the first african-american president in all of American history, and I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed it. Ironically, though I loved Obama and what he stood for, his campaign is one of the things that made me hate politics. I remember how divisive my community felt during his campaign, and it frustrated me to no end. I was so tired of hearing arguments and fights from adults and kids alike, and being that I was only 12, I decided that avoiding politics all together was better since I couldn’t vote anyway. I was annoyed that nobody seemed able to agree on anything and even more annoyed that I was involved when I felt like my opinion didn’t matter when I couldn’t even vote. But then Obama was re-elected, and I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about politics anymore- and then Sandy Hook happened.
Being 12, my parents naturally didn’t give me the gruesome details of the shooting, but being 12, I had access to the internet. I remember being so shocked, not only that someone would be evil enough to murder first graders, but also shocked that school shootings could even happen. I started to wonder if it could happen at my school. My little sister was six at the time. I wondered if it could happen to her. And I wondered what we were going to do about it. I was still too young to fully understand the legislation process, but I knew that laws could be passed to implement stricter gun control, so I assumed that was what would happen. But nothing happened. Now, six years later, I’ve read more news stories about school shootings than I can count, I’ve had teachers promise to sacrifice themselves for me and my classmates, and I’ve worried about the protection of three younger siblings- two of which are too young to even read. I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but the Sandy Hook shooting was what sparked my passion for gun control and my disgust with politicians who don’t prioritize the safety of the citizens.
So what changed in high school? Short answer: a lot. First was my engagement with the LGBT community and the right to gay marriage. Though I am straight, I have always tried to be a good ally to the LGBT community, and in ninth grade, I joined my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. We talked often about discrimination and violence towards LGBT people, we shared our experiences with homophobia, and we thought of ways to combat these injustices. We ended up participating in a Day of Silence in which we didn’t speak for the entirety of the school day to draw attention to how LGBT voices are silenced by bigotry and ignorance. That was my first real protest, and it had a lot of ups and downs. We wore duct tape on our mouths for the day, which obviously drew attention to us and invited lots of harassment. I remember at lunch, while my friends and I ate in silence, a group of boys came up to us. They filmed us while they tried to provoke us by getting in our faces and calling us gay and stupid, but we held our ground, we stayed silent, and they eventually left. I remember thinking that what we were doing must be important if we were getting a reaction simply by being quiet, and it inspired me. Then in 2015, only a month after school ended, gay marriage was legalized, and I remember thinking, “wait, things can change? We can actually make a difference?” It inspired me so much to see that our voices as citizens did matter, and that if we tried hard enough, even those of us too young to vote could help make a difference.
Skip ahead to my junior year of high school. It was 2015-16 which meant two things: I took sociology and Donald Trump was elected president. My sociology teacher was so amazing, and I credit her so much with helping me find confidence in the world of politics. Most of the students in the class were seniors- in fact, all but me and two other girls- but she treated us as equally important even if we couldn’t vote in the 2016 election like most of the class. She taught us about gender inequality, racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, and so much more. But most of all, she taught me that my voice was important, and that voting wasn’t the only way to get involved in politics. She always advocated for the youth, always encouraged us to vote, and to this day she follows my activism with words of encouragement and support.
The 2016 election was the straw that broke the camel’s back. By that time, I followed the news obsessively, I familiarized myself with my local government, and I had established my own political views, but I still hadn’t given myself fully to political engagement. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly Hillary Clinton’s biggest fan, but I knew that anything had to be better than this celebrity who was openly and unapologetically discriminatory, sexist, and hateful. And once he was elected, I couldn’t just be an observer anymore. My mom drove me to the Women’s March in Washington D.C., and really, the rest is history.
Six years ago, I would honestly and emphatically say “I hate politics” often. Now, I have participated in multiple protests, spoken at my school’s walkout, and joined amazing groups like Generation Change, National Die In, and Stand to Save. I am now a full-fledged activist, and honestly, I love politics. The biggest development for me was realizing that every voice matters, that teenagers matter, that minorities matter, and that change is achievable.