Perspective: These teens are upstanders, not bystanders

Though it is a right protected by the First Amendment, most Americans have never assembled in a protest, rally or march. Gen Z is different: Activists are still among the minority, but members of Gen Z are most likely to say they have protested recently. A few are even organizing their peers to protest too.

MN Teen Activists, formed in May 2020, unites young voices to speak up about injustice. The group exercises First Amendment freedoms to organize students across the state to protest racial injustice and sexual harassment and to push for COVID safety in schools.

Teigan Blaine, a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is a group organizer for political strategy and communications. Blaine shared how the teens are taking a stand.

How did you get involved in organizing?

Organizing is something that has always been important to me — gathering a group of like-minded people to talk about issues that you are passionate about. I started getting involved in organizing in around 8th grade in order to talk with other students about how to navigate being a POC (person of color) in a PWI (predominantly white institution).

Why is it important to you personally to speak out on issues important to you?

I think it’s important to speak out on issues that matter to you, because if you don’t speak out, often the issue is left unsaid or not taken care of the way you would want it to be. I feel like my voice, if used, is powerful because when I speak out, I bring my skill set and other people’s skill sets to the table, which is important for starting a dialogue about an issue.

What is MN Teen Activists?

MN Teen Activists are an organization that is dedicated to eradicating systemic injustices within schools and society as a whole, ranging from the criminal justice system to economic injustices that plague minorities in our communities.

What are some of the ways your group organizes students and generates attention?

We use our social media platform to reach out to other students in addition to our personal connections to ensure that our message is heard effectively and clearly.

Does activism bring any risks? How do you navigate them?

Activism absolutely brings risks. There are people who want to silence this conversation and what you are doing and talking about, especially certain powerful people. I think you have to accept the risks that come with speaking out while also protecting yourself and making sure that you are doing everything in a safe manner.

Students’ First Amendment rights to speech, assembly and petition protect student activism, but public schools can limit how students express these at school. How do you navigate that?

Speaking out in a public school is not ideal for everyone. However, at MN Teen Activists we have made it our objective. When we are under attack we will stand up and fight back. If we don’t get justice, we will shut it down. We take pride in the different ethnic groups we have managed to mobilize. It begins as one and has grown into thousands. We are not afraid to be upstanders versus bystanders. The system navigates us; we are done navigating the system. When we organize our peers in schools we come with demands. Our results are tangible — nothing shy of creating a safer space.

Part of MN Teen Activists’ organizing strategy is working with school administrations. Why is that part of your process?

We feel it’s important to have dialogue with administration in order to have an understanding with one another. Administration and teachers within schools must understand the issues students are facing. When teachers and administration know what’s happening, they must take action in a transparent and clear manner, ensuring that the issue doesn’t become repetitive.

What would you say to school administrators and parents of students who are interested in protesting or organizing?

Speak with us; have that dialogue with us. We want change, but in order for it to happen we need to have that dialogue. We need more adults and education professionals to get involved in the cause because that helps amplify our cause.

What would you say to other students who are thinking about speaking out?

Use your voice. If in your heart, mind, body and soul you witness something that you know is wrong, speak out about it. But also ask yourself if you’re going to be persistent in the cause. If you actually want change, you have to have that endurance that says this is what I am fighting for. Because otherwise there is no point in speaking out if you’re not willing to be persistent in your cause and what you believe in.

This Q&A is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Watch how Gen Z is using First Amendment freedoms to change the world.

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