Boston — Jayden Hasberry, a 19-year-old from Johns Creek, Georgia who uses he/they pronouns, is an actor, filmmaker, student, and importantly, a writer.
That’s why it was natural, they explained, to write about their own experiences with racism and post it online in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year. Scrolling through social media, they could see their peers reckoning with race, and as a Black person, they wanted to contribute to the momentum in a medium they felt comfortable in. The response to their post was overwhelming.
It inspired Hasberry to join up with peers to start a youth-coordinated organization focused on unity called We Are America. On June 9, 2020, he says over 600 people came to their first protest.
Last summer taught Hasberry about the power — and importance — of youth organizing.
“There's gonna be a time where we're going to be parents, grandparents, presidents and people in government buildings,” they told YR Media at the time. “We have to start educating ourselves now, because it cannot be to the point where other generations are still fighting for the same things that we are.”
Almost exactly a year later, Hasberry is part of a wave of young activists using their knowledge of their community to lead local fights for Black Lives Matter across the country.
Youth activism, both offline and online, has been on the rise for years, according to a 2018 poll from Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). But in the year since the murder of George Floyd, youth-led movements often powered some of the most viral Black Lives Matter protests, from to Portland, Oregon to San Francisco and Indianapolis. Their organizing inspired peers to engage in racial justice issues in droves: 45 percent of young people in a recent CIRCLE poll said they took concrete action for racial justice in 2020 while 29 percent participated in a march or demonstration.
The wave of activism since May 2020 has led to legislative victories across the country. Minneapolis city council members famously began discussing defunding their police department only weeks after George Floyd was murdered in their city — six months later, they passed a budget that reallocated $7.9 million from the mayor’s allotted police funding to use towards crime-prevention and mental health resources. Colorado passed a broad, bipartisan bill in June 2020 that enforced body cameras, limited police use of weapons and required departments to report data about police activity. New York also passed legislation requiring the publishing of policing demographic data and for police to self-report their weapon usage and provide healthcare to those in police custody.
The momentum to defund the police was apparent in November’s elections, too. Los Angeles County’s Measure J, which reallocates at least 10 percent of their general fund towards community racial justice efforts, passed by almost 15 points. Portland, Oregon, passed a measure to create a new police oversight board with 82 percent of the vote. Similar boards were overwhelmingly approved in Columbus, Ohio, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
We Are America also saw tangible effects of their organizing at a local level. Their protest last June quickly turned into a lineup of local events that lasted throughout the summer. In partnership with Johns Creek United, a similar organization, they demanded the termination of then-Johns Creek police chief, Chris Byers, who posted racist comments about the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook. He resigned in August 2020, just over a month after their protest. Even before that, Hasberry said town council members had reached out to them and their co-leaders asking to help them with police reform measures in Johns Creek.
A key tool to their success, Hasberry said, was social media outreach. They were able to spread the word about We Are America events through a network of activists and activism social media accounts that would repost their fliers. A year later, they still repost social justice-related infographics on their Instagram story.
Hasberry’s approach to organizing reflects a nationwide shift towards online activism — a trend especially prevalent among young people of color, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. The study found over half of participants ages 18 through 49 were looking to social media for information about protests in their area. The internet has proven to have the power to build movements: in the two weeks following the murder of George Floyd, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used an average of 3.7 million times a day on Twitter alone.
And while the idea of online “slacktivism” is often frowned upon, the stereotype that young people’s activism ends in reposted infographics has been disproven. In 2018, CIRCLE found that people engaged in online activism were more likely to attend protests and remain politically engaged in-person. In the wake of the 2020 election, their polls suggest an increased focus on digital outreach contributed to the rise in turnout amongst voters ages 18-29, and that most young people brought voter and political engagement information offline through conversations with friends.
Starting in the fall of 2020, We Are America had to take a hiatus, Hasberry said, while its three leaders were in college. But Hasberry has been pursuing activism on their own, through both social media advocacy and by starting The Sunset Players, a space for BIPOC theater creatives in Columbus, Georgia.
As COVID-related shutdowns come to an end, Hasberry said they’ve seen more incidents of racial violence, especially against Black and Asian Americans. It’s disheartening, they said, but a reminder of the importance of youth-driven activism. They’re already planning marches this summer with the We Are America co-founders.
“There's so much work left to do,” Hasberry said. “I'm so proud of the progress that we have made this year, the conversations we've begun this year. But when it comes to the grand scheme of things, it just really reminds me that we have a long way to go.”