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The Gen Z Activists Sparking Change in South Jersey (and the World)
By Elyse Notarianni

Say what you want about Gen Z, but they’re going to have something to say right back. These are the kids born between 1996-2009 who are coming of age when extraordinary events happen seemingly every day – a pandemic, extreme weather, school shootings and social-justice reckonings. You name it, they’ve seen it, and they probably made a TikTok about it.

But they’re not content just to watch history happening on their phones. Gen Z’ers are on a mission to make their voices heard. When they heard “kids are the future,” many took that to heart.

 

Rebekah Bruesehoff – Being Herself

Rebekah Bruesehoff

Rebekah Bruesehoff always something felt off. When she was 8 she came out as transgender. At 10 she became an activist to help other kids like her.

“The first day I went into the world as Rebekah was amazing,” says the Camden County seventh-grader. “It was like putting on my favorite pair of jeans. It just felt right.”

Finding herself, however, was not an easy journey. Her mom, Jamie Bruesehoff, once wrote on her blog, “Her anxiety was crippling and her depression was becoming life-threatening…We were faced with a 7-year-old kid who wanted to die.” Then Rebekah heard the word “transgender,” and something clicked.

“I always knew that this is who I am,” she says. “Finally I had the language to explain it.”

Socially, Rebekah had an easier time transitioning than most, she admits. Her parents, teachers and classmates have always accepted her for who she is. But she knows this is rarely the case.

The realization that she has more support than many others led her to speak out when the rights of transgender kids seemed threatened. In 2017, the federal government rescinded guidelines that protect transgender students in school, leaving her wondering what that meant for her. With her parents’ blessing, she went to a rally in Jersey City holding a sign that said, “I am the scary transgender person the media warned you about.”

“I was just this little girl with pink pigtails and a pink coat,” says Rebekah, 13. “I was anything but scary.”

Her mom posted a photo online, and it went viral. Suddenly, she became the voice of a thousand kids like her.

Rebekah then connected with Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest LGBTQ organization. She testified before the state legislature in support of a bill mandating LGBTQ-inclusive lessons in history classes. It went into effect this school year. The daughter of a pastor, Rebekah was also the first openly transgender person to speak at the youth gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She even turned into a superhero – sort of. She is “The Mighty Rebekah” on Marvel Heroes Project, an animated TV show streaming on Disney+ that follows young activists making a difference.

“I feel so strongly about speaking out for transgender kids just like me,” says Rebekah. “But honestly, in my opinion, being transgender is the least interesting thing about me.”

She wants to be known as the nerd, as the field hockey player, as the girl who loves to read – as just a kid. But she also knows that sharing her experiences is an opportunity to make a difference.

“It’s also really empowering,” says Rebekah, “being able to stand in front of the world and say, ‘This is who I am, and it’s okay to be who you are too.’”

 

Ebele Azikiwe – Making History

Ebele Azikiwe

In June, Cherry Hill 7th grader Ebele Azikiwe sat down to write a letter to the principal of her school. All around her, protests were erupting over George Floyd’s death, drawing attention to issues in the Black community that moved many to take action. She challenged her district to do a better job teaching Black history.

“We learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman,” says Ebele. “It’s the same every year, ever since my mom was in school. But there’s so much more. Black history is U.S. history. We deserve to learn that in school.”

The conversation about law enforcement, she says, was nothing new in her household. One Sunday morning a neighbor called the police on her stepdad. He was jogging through the neighborhood, and they said he “looked suspicious,” she says. Her mom sat down with Ebele and her 2 brothers, then 8 and 5, to talk about how to stay safe from the police.

“I could tell how scared my mom was just looking at them, and how scared my brothers were having to listen to this conversation,” says Ebele. “I don’t want to continue this cycle for the next generation.”

Ebele has always been outspoken, so she wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion. But she was surprised at the response. Her letter struck a chord almost immediately. After she spoke at a Black Lives Matter protest in Cherry Hill, local media reached out to learn more about her proposal.

She doesn’t just want her peers to learn about slavery. She’s talking about a deep dive into Black Wall Street, Black authors, Black movements that made an impact on American history. She wants you to be able to walk through historic areas of the country and recognize the influential buildings built by slaves or listen to music and know it came from Black culture.

“African Americans have gone through some hard times, but there have also been great times,” says Ebele. “We shouldn’t overlook the positive impact we’ve had on this country.”

Last October, Ebele was asked to speak before state legislators in support of a proposal to weave more comprehensive Black history lessons into K-12 curriculum. Starting next September, the lessons will be implemented not just in her hometown, but statewide.

“I want people of color to realize that their history matters,” she says. “Many Black people don’t know their exact roots, but they know they are part of Black America, and that’s not nothing.”

 

Avani Giri – Creating Space for Conversation

Avani Giri

Like most kids last summer, Moorestown’s Avani Giri couldn’t go out with her friends or hang at the pool. With a pandemic raging, she found herself at home with a lot of time on her hands, and she didn’t want to waste it.

“I never used to be interested in politics,” says Avani, 17. “But there have been so many social justice and political issues happening this year that you have to pay attention. I realized that it’s really difficult for young people to get involved in the conversation, and I wanted to change that.”

Recognizing the best way to get through to Gen Z was to meet them online, Avani created GenZChange.com. Through the website, Avani hopes to spark practical conversations about society, regardless of political affiliation.

“There were so many conversations going on, but it felt like the voices of younger people were being drowned out,” says Avani. “I felt like we needed to find a way to come together and become more united in fixing these problems.”

GenZChange provides information on Black Lives Matter, gun law reform, Covid-19 and mental health so teens can educate themselves on these issues and discuss their views with people their own age. She challenges teens to think critically: How can we come together as a generation to break the divide about gun law reform? How can society understand each other’s perspectives about Black Lives Matter?

Using this information, she’s been gathering a group of teens to participate in focus groups called “Agents of Change,” to discuss matters most pressing to Gen Z.

In addition to sparking conversation, GenZChange provides ways for teens to take a step to create the future they want. The website is linked to ways to donate to nonprofit organizations raising money for Covid-19 relief, suicide prevention awareness and Black Lives Matter, and she hosted her own fundraiser, collecting donations for a Covid relief fund.

“2020 really opened my eyes to the issues in the world,” says Avani. “So much can be done just by starting to take action in local communities. That’s how you spark change.”

March 2021
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