Teen Activists: No Waiting

Juwaria Jama; photo Sarah Whiting

Minnesota youth have been affected in extraordinary ways in 2020. Most are attending school virtually or in hybrid models. In spite of these challenges, or perhaps because of it, youth are mobilizing with intensity. They are confronting systemic racism, police brutality, social inequity, and climate change. Here are a few of the teenagers who made an impact in 2020.

Juwaria Jama is a junior at Spring Lake Park High School and the state lead for Minnesota Youth Climate Strike. She is part of Youthprise’s MN Young Champions program, working to get unemployment benefits for previously working high school students.

Jama was inspired by the community response to the murder of George Floyd. “Seeing the protests going on all around the state, it’s shown that there’s so much people power,” she says. Adjusting to online activism has been difficult, she admits. However, “the pandemic has shown us that there is always going to be a solution.”

Nyagach Kueth led teen activists in organizing numerous demonstrations, including an emergency protest after police officer Derek Chauvin was released on bail. She raised over $80,000 on GoFundMe for businesses on Lake Street affected by the uprisings.

Kueth, a senior at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, calls out the pressure on young activists. “The youth are told that we are the future. That is a huge title to uphold,” she says. “We have what it takes to [change the world], but to give us that title is kind of absurd.”

In the wake of Floyd’s murder, Monique Walker — a high school senior from St. Anthony who is taking a full load of PSEO classes at the University of Minnesota — created an anti-racist curriculum and hosted a mix of online and socially distanced trainings. “The trainings were to inform the white people in my community about the horrible history of racism in the United States and to unlearn white supremacy.” She also raised around $4,000 from the trainings, which was donated to Black-led organizations.

Monique Walker and Semhar Solomon; photo Sarah Whiting

Walker has been organizing with other youth at St. Anthony, seeking to disrupt patterns of racial discrimination. They have successfully lobbied the school’s bands to diversify their repertories, which previously consisted of almost entirely white composers.

“What inspires me is trying to make things different for people younger than me,” Walker says. Middle schoolers in her hometown of St. Anthony have more diversity than the upper grades, she says. “But I want to make sure that their voices are being heard.”

Semhar Solomon, also a senior at St. Anthony High School, had a busy summer of organizing. Following the uprisings, Solomon created a network of supply drives that raised $10,000 and sent 50 carloads of donations to affected communities. She spoke at several protests and organized a rally in honor of Philando Castile, who was murdered by St. Anthony police four years ago.

Solomon admits that all her work took its toll. “I would not be at my house all day,” she recalls. “Then I would come home, eat, and go out again.” She eventually came down with a stress-induced flu and had to take a break.

Solomon experienced a major disappointment in August, after she organized the first annual Black Village Fest, which was intended to showcase Black-owned businesses. She had to scrap the event when the city council, who had previously approved the event, handed her almost 30 pages of guidelines less than 24 hours before the event was scheduled.

“I don’t discredit the fact that those COVID guidelines need to be addressed,” Solomon explains. “But giving that information less than 24 hours [in advance]? It was one of those losses that made me feel bad about myself, made me feel skeptical of our city council. I have a group chat with activists, and they were like, ‘yeah, this has been happening a lot recently.’”

What has Solomon learned from her 2020 organizing experience? “Making yourself the priority so that other things also can be a priority is important,” she says.

There is a sense of urgency to the work. “I don’t think waiting is something any of us want to do,” says Solomon. “I want to see the change now.”

Suggests Monique Walker: “Activism comes in all different ways. If you do not have the time to protest in the larger community, be an activist in your specific community. I want people to be brave and use their voice no matter how hard it is.”

Watch Semhar, Monique, and Juwaria discuss activism.

Semhar Solomon:
Organizing a rally in the age of COVID-19 and growing a network of activists
Monique Walker:
Creating and conducting anti-racism workshops in St. Anthony
Juwaria Jama:
Organizing bipartisan support for unemployed youth and suing the state of Minnesota
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