Portrait of the Activist as a Young Man
Rick Rowley, 27, and Jacquie Soohen, 27
New York, New York
Inspired by seeing thousands of Mayan peasants demonstrating for human rights and economic justice in Mexico City, Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen maxed out their credit cards, bought some video equipment, and started shooting, eventually producing the documentary Zapatista (1998). In addition to helping start the Seattle Independent Media Center in (www.indymedia.org)1999 and launching their own production company, Big Noise Films (www.bignoisefilms.com), the underground filmmakers have now made seven documentaries, including Showdown in Seattle (1999), a look at the WTO protests, and Black and Gold (1999), which follows the transformation of New York’s Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation from a group of gangbangers to activists trying to stamp out police brutality. Currently, the duo is at work on a short film about Palestine and another called The Fourth World War, which makes a connection between local conflicts in spots as scattered as Argentina, South Africa, and South Korea.
‘We are not filmmakers looking for issues to cover,’ Soohen says. ‘We are Zapatistas using media as part of our struggle.’
Third World Digital Storyteller
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 25
Growing up in an Indian family of the Dalit (‘untouchable’) caste, Thenmozhi Soundararajan was allowed to sit in as the men in her family talked politics. As she quietly observed these discussions, she absorbed their intense yearning for change-a passion she carried with her when she came to the United States to study at the University of California in Berkeley. As part of a collective of women of color and their allies, she helped found the media training and resource center Third World Majority, which aims to ‘challenge the notion that a media organization cannot also do grassroots organizing.’ She believes in the power of storytelling to unify people against the abuses of global corporations. Through video workshops, Soundararajan teaches people how the give-and-take between storyteller and listener allows them to arrive at a ‘shared political view of the world.’ And through this sharing of stories, Soundararajan says, we can arrive at ‘a wider understanding of what we all think the world can be.’
Sarah Jones, 28
New York, New York
Sarah Jones wrote her first poem-a scathing indictment of Ronald Reagan-at age 6. But she didn’t take writing seriously until one night on the dance floor more than a decade later. Moving to the hip-hop music she loves, she heard women around her singing along with lyrics that degraded them. ‘That moment crystallized a lot of what I had been feeling as a woman and a person of color,’ she says. ‘Our marginalization was seen as passé, too P.C., and out of step with the time. I found myself rebelling against that idea.’
Jones picked up poetry again and began attending amateur open-mike competitions, eventually winning the 1997 Grand Slam Championship at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. Now she performs her own one-woman plays nationwide, using theater as a political tool to stimulate dialogue. Her latest, Waking the American Dream, depicts 10 immigrants performing at a poetry festival, from the Pakistani master of ceremonies to a 14-year-old Dominican girl. Jones was in the midst of writing the play-and grappling with questions of identity, immigration rights, and global freedom and justice-when those issues took center stage last September. (See www.sarahjonesonline.com for a performance schedule.)
At the same time, Jones is being censored for indecency. Three years ago, a small, listener-supported radio station in Portland, Oregon, was fined $7,000 after playing her poem ‘Your Revolution.’ A biting parody of the widespread misogyny and commercialism in hip-hop lyrics (hear it at www.your revolutionisbanned.com), the poem, set to music by DJ Vadim, was deemed ‘sexually indecent.’ ‘At no point has the Federal Communications Commission told me what’s indecent about the poem,’ says Jones, who fought back by suing last year. While the FCC is trying to silence her voice, Jones continues to present a vision of revolution inclusive of all.
Bryonn Bain, 27
Brooklyn, New York
When police arrested Bryonn Bain for throwing a bottle through a window, they nabbed the wrong black man-and not just because Bain wasn’t guilty. Then a Harvard Law School student, he turned the ordeal into a Village Voice article on racial profiling that garnered an unprecedented 90,000 reader responses.
Bain had clearly hit a nerve. ‘Given the increased policing of communities of color, I believe folks found it timely that someone responded critically to the systemic way we are being incarcerated,’ says the son of Trinidadian immigrants. Walking While Black: The Bill of Rights for Black Men, his book based on the article, is forthcoming from HarperCollins.
But Bain doesn’t only critique the status quo, he works to change it . Winner of the 2000 Grand Slam Championship at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, he uses his artistic talent to advance political causes in prisons and schools through Blackout Arts Collective (www.blackoutartscollective.com), an activist and educational organization that he helped found. Last year, he became New York University’s youngest adjunct professor, teaching classes on spoken word. ‘We have the ability to call our reality into existence,’ he says. ‘The word becomes flesh.’
Jen Angel, 27, and Jason Kucsma, 28
Bowling Green, Ohio
‘We are at an exciting time when participatory media projects have the potential to contend with the corporate media giants,’ declares Jason Kucsma, who, along with Jen Angel, founded Clamor-a magazine that celebrates do-it-yourself journalism for a growing audience of politically and socially aware youth. Now in its third year, Clamor (www.clamormagazine.org) covers everything from anarchist libraries and art cars to prison culture, polyamory, and personal economics.
Since 1999, Angel and Kucsma have also jointly organized the Underground Publishing Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio, bringing together zine editors, radical librarians, do-it-yourself video makers, and other activists who want to create ‘more media sources that amplify the voices of the people.’
dead prez: M-1, 28, and Stic.man, 26
New York, New York
It’s a rare hip-hop act these days that doesn’t buy into the bling-bling of commercial rap decadence, but refusal to glorify consumer culture is at the very heart of dead prez’s art. Forgoing paeans to luxury cars and easy women, the duo of M-1 and Stic.man rap about improving yourself in songs like ‘Be Healthy’ (‘lentil soup is mental fruit’) and ‘Discipline’ (‘organize your life’; ‘health is wealth’). They also show that they aren’t afraid to get controversial and indict the white patriarchy. In songs like ‘We Want Freedom,’ they echo Black Power luminaries such as Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, rapping that ‘We all want peace / But the problem is / Crackers want a bigger piece / Got it where the niggas can’t get a piece.’ Although the group is politically radical, it follows in the footsteps of rap revolutionaries Public Enemy, maintaining a street-level accessibility that many successful artists leave behind.
The People’s Organic Grocer
Malaika Edwards, 27
Looking around her neighborhood in West Oakland last fall, Malaika Edwards saw plenty of stores selling canned goods and liquor but no place to buy an organic tomato or a fresh loaf of bread. Spurred on by the throng of unemployed kids hanging out in the street, the former executive director of Youth for Environmental Sanity! helped organize the People’s Grocery, a community-owned organic grocery store run exclusively by youth.
Currently operating out of the back of a biodiesel truck ‘with a phat sound system,’ the market is set to open next year as a storefront. The grocery sponsors an urban garden and farm field trips to educate young people about access to ‘affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food,’ Edwards says. ‘West Oakland has very little self-sufficiency in terms of the local economy. The People’s Grocery tackles issues of racism and globalization on a grassroots level.’
Inner-City Youth Organizer
Luis Sánchez, 27
Los Angeles, California
Luis Sánchez was just 17 when he joined community action programs in Los Angeles. He quickly learned that he had a talent for motivating young people-and that he lived in a society that seemed more eager to lock up marginalized youth, or steer them into the military, than to educate them. ‘Schools are the last public space where people of different backgrounds mix,’ says Sánchez. Now he’s been working to mobilize the schoolkids of East L.A., whom he sees as a vast untapped resource for social change.
Sánchez and others saw their efforts pay off in March 2000, when California students took to the streets to protest Proposition 21, a new state law that toughens the juvenile crime codes. The protest was part of a wider dissatisfaction among California students arising from the fact that new police and prison facilities get a lot more money than their run-down schools.
To better prepare students to think critically about their options, Sánchez helped found Youth Organizing Communities in Los Angeles (www.schoolsnotjails.com); they offer training on such topics as ‘Students Not Soldiers’ and ‘Fighting Patriarchy and Heterosexism.’
Currently associate director of InnerCity Struggle, a community organization fighting for economic justice in East L.A., Sánchez also co-edited an anthology of progressive writings about 9/ll called Another World Is Possible (Subway & Elevated Press, 2001).
Improv Community Builder
Tad Hargrave, 26
It wasn’t just any waffle brunch. The casual weekly gathering hosted by the late environmental legend David Brower at his Bay Area home was, in the eyes of teenage attendee Tad Hargrave, a shining example of how to build community. That notion stuck with Hargrave as he matured as an activist and found himself attending conferences around the continent. He realized that the most stimulating moments were the short breaks between sessions, when people could connect without any pressure to craft the grand manifesto that would change the world. So after attending a Youth for Environmental Sanity! camp in 1999, Hargrave began Youth Jams (www.yesworld.org/jam/index.html), annual gatherings to counter the isolation and burnout that young activists often feel. These entirely unstructured weeklong hangout sessions-akin to musical jams-bring together 30 accomplished young activists to network, rejuvenate, and cultivate visions and friendships. ‘Covert activism,’ Hargrave calls it.
José Cruz, 19
While José Cruz and his classmates were still in high school, they came to see their community’s reliance on the Spanish language-the Edcouch-Elsa school district is 99 percent Hispanic-as something more than a deficit that makes life difficult in America. They founded the Spanish Immersion Institute (www.llanogrande.org), where visitors from around the country live with a local host family, attend classes, and might even go to a quinceñera celebration marking a young woman’s 15th birthday. Run by local youth (most of the program’s tutors are teenagers, while many of the students are adults), the four-week program aims to promote cross-cultural understanding. Currently a pre-med sophomore at Yale, Cruz hopes to become a doctor to serve the Rio Grande Valley.
Indigenous Youth Leader
Clayton Thomas-Muller, 24
When Canadian-born Cree activist Clayton Thomas-Muller performs a ceremony, the effect is both electrifying and grounding. This accomplished drummer, singer, and traditional pipe carrier, who now lives in Oakland, has appeared at numerous international forums, hoping to inspire indigenous youth to take part in governing their communities. He has co-founded a number of organizations, including the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Youth Alliance and the National First Nations Youth Council of Canada. Through a joint effort between Project Underground (www.moles.org) and the Indigenous Environmental Network (www.ienearth.org), Thomas-Muller now supports North American indigenous communities whose environmental and human rights are threatened by the oil industry.
Dawn Peebles, 25
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
After years of renting a house together, Dawn Peebles and her five housemates realized that they’d forked over $50,000 to their landlord and had nothing much to show for it. After doing a little research, they formed the Hillsborough Road Co-operative and soon bought two houses, one of which has a large gathering space for community concerts and events. ‘Our approach to cooperative ownership has been to turn private property into affordable, community-controlled living space,’ says Peebles. While co-op residents do not accrue equity in their homes, they enjoy reasonable rent because the houses are owned by a nonprofit trust-a long-term sustainable form of affordable housing. Peebles and her housemates formed a group called Objective: Collective and now travel nationwide conducting workshops on this cooperative model of housing, which has relevance not only for young people like themselves, but also for squatters and retired folks.
NVIRONMENT & SCIENCE
Shawna Larson, 28
‘In Alaska, we’re finding dioxins in fish and seeing tumors in caribou and moose. I don’t think we should leave this for future generations,’ says Shawna Larson, soon to be a mother of two. Of Athabascan and Aleut heritage, Larson began working for Alaska Community Action on Toxics (www.akaction.net) two years ago, focusing on dioxins and other contaminants, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), that are slow to break down in the environment. Larson collected resolutions from 50 tribal councils in support of strengthening the Stockholm POPs agreement, a United Nations treaty written in December 2000. Larson joined others insisting that the wording include the ‘precautionary principle,’ which demands that chemical manufacturers prove their products are safe before putting them on the market. They also called for the U.S. to remember its government-to-government obligation to consult with federally recognized Indian tribes, considered sovereign nations, when negotiating international treaties. ‘I’m interested in sovereignty issues,’ says Larson, ‘and how to always keep our tribe in the forefront of things by pushing the government forward and holding them accountable.’
Inventor of the Recycled Road
Gina Gallant, 15
Prince George, British Columbia
Driving with her family along Cash Creek, known locally as Trash Creek because of an overflowing landfill site nearby, Gina Gallant had a brainstorm: Why not use garbage to pave roadways? The Canadian teen, who has been inventing since first grade, ambitiously set about developing a new paving material-dubbed PAR for PolyAggreRoad-that mixes discarded plastic bottles with stone material and liquid asphalt. To take the product out of the lab and onto the streets, she tracked down companies willing to grind the plastic to her specifications and mix up enough of the compound to pave an actual road. A test is in the works. -Maria Opitz
Michele Robbins, 26, and Ocean Robbins, 28
Santa Cruz, California
Organizing protests in his elementary school at age 7, Ocean Robbins, son of Diet for a New America author and environmental activist John Robbins, established Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!) in 1990-at age 16. He is now co-president with his wife, Michele, who as a teen worked as a peace activist in Soviet Russia. YES! (www.yesworld.org) introduces ideas about social justice and environmental care at thousands of school assemblies, workshops, and retreats. Young people in 45 nations have been inspired to take action: They organize gang truces, lobby school cafeterias for organic foods, and set up socially responsible businesses. Supported by a board of directors made up of older activists, YES! encourages young people not to abandon the ideals that too often fizzle out with age. The Robbins, parents of identical twins, have one goal: ‘We want to put ourselves out of business.’
Madeleine Scammell, 29
Madeleine Scammell found her life’s calling in a glass of milk. While she was a student at the University of Vermont, she knew researchers there-funded by Monsanto-were taking a national lead in developing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which intensifies cows’ milk production. Simultaneously, she learned that local dairy farmers were struggling because of low commodity prices for their milk, the result of a glut of milk on the market. Things just didn’t add up. ‘Since then,’ Scammell says, ‘I’ve been trying to span the disconnect between people’s priorities and how resources are actually used and dedicated.’ An expert on the democratization of science, she spent five years at the Loka Institute (www.loka.org), a nonprofit concerned with the social, political, and environmental repercussions of research, science, and technology. Now she’s at Boston University’s School of Public Health coordinating researchers and community groups working to clean up toxic Superfund sites, at the same time working on a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences.
Founder of a Queer Jihad
Faisal Alam, 24
It ain’t easy leading a double life. Just ask Faisal Alam, who for years hid the fact that he was gay from his devout Muslim family. ‘I was Brother Faisal Alam in the morning, involved with at least five different local, regional, and national organizations in the Muslim community, and at night I was Club Kid Faisal, going out every single night,’ says Alam, who eventually succumbed to his schizophrenic lifestyle and suffered a mental breakdown. During a two-week hospital stay, he vowed to reconcile his two identities.
Alam searched the Web for gay Muslim support groups but came up with nothing, so in late 1996 he launched Al-Fatiha (www.al-fatiha.net), an international support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Muslims that today has grown into a volunteer-run organization with almost 700 members in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
The move has not been without costs. Once deeply religious, Alam feels that he can no longer go to mosques, and he is estranged from his disapproving parents. ‘The community is so strong in our world, in our families,’ he says. ‘Even though individually we might be able to reconcile, dealing with community and dealing with our families is the ultimate struggle.’
Currently working for the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington, D.C., Alam hopes in a few years to establish support groups for GLBT Muslims living in Indonesia and other predominantly Muslim countries.
Interfaith Youth Activist
Eboo Patel, 26
Reading Eboo Patel’s résumé is dizzying, but once you get past the part about his being a Rhodes scholar, holding an Oxford Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, and enjoying a private audience with the Dalai Lama, you realize that the idea behind his Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core (www.ifyc.org) is simple: Bring together young people of different faiths, perform joint service projects, and then reflect on this work through the lens of diverse religious traditions. In short, fuse spirituality and activism.
You have only to look to Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha -which borrows from Hinduism, Christian social gospel, and Jainism-to grasp that faith-based action isn’t new. But, according to Patel, it’s gotten a cold shoulder from many left-leaning social activists who dismiss the role of religion in social justice. Citing the likes of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, spiritual explorer Ram Dass, and Muslim poet and activist Mohammed Iqbal, Patel points out that each faith tradition promotes a theology of social action. ‘And, if you don’t want to deal with churches, mosques, and synagogues,’ says Patel, a devout Muslim, ‘you’re missing mass quantities of people.’
Malika Sanders, 27
Before she was born, Malika Sanders’ hometown of Selma was a notorious place where advocates of black voting rights were beaten bloody. In Sanders’ eyes, too little had changed in the intervening decades. Despite the town’s shift from predominantly white to predominantly black, Mayor Joe Smitherman-who once referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as a ‘coon’ on national TV-was still in office, likely due to rigged balloting. As director of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, which trains African American youth to be community leaders, she helped organize the ‘Joe Gotta Go’ campaign for the 2000 mayoral elections. Mobilizing young voters with help from public service announcements by such musicians as The Outlawz and MC Lyte had the desired result: Joe’s gone . . . and Selma has its first black mayor.
And that’s not all Sanders has done. At 16, she started SMART, the Student Movement Against Racial Tracking, in Selma schools. More recently, working with the Environmental Justice Movement in Georgia, Sanders spoke out for eliminating the Confederate symbol on the state flag.
The Jennings Sisters: Aimee, 28, Cara, 25, and Coleen, 23
Lake Worth, Florida
Demonstrations, frankly, can get a tad dull. What’s wrong with having a little fun on the way to the revolution? Radical cheerleading squads-‘One, two, three, four, boring protests no more’-have popped up all over since sisters Aimee, Cara, and Coleen Jennings hatched the idea on their way to the 1996 Youth Liberation Conference in Sarasota, Florida. Yet as anarchists, these authors of three zine cheer books (available with donation from Box 961, Lake Worth, FL 33460) are uncomfortable getting credit for being the first to bring pom-poms to the protest line (they may or may not be in the photo above). ‘Radical cheerleading is a wonderful testament to collaborative art and decentralized organizing,’ says former junior high cheerleader Aimee. A squad might, for example, sport hand-spray-painted T-shirts and shake water bottles full of pebbles while chanting against sweatshops or in praise of being fat. Watch for them to enliven the next rally you attend.
Kate Rhee, 29
New York, New York
Imagine a society with fewer prisons: That’s the dream of activist Kate Rhee, director of the Brooklyn-based Prison Moratorium Project (www.nomoreprisons.org). A juvenile justice counselor who moved back to New York City after studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Rhee joined the project in 1999, four years after the group was forged out of a meeting of young ex-prisoners and their allies. The youth-led project-demanding ‘education, not incarceration’-has convinced politicians to reduce unnecessary prison expansion and sparked successful campus campaigns to get shareholders to divest stock in the controversial Corrections Corporation of America. With Raptivism Records (www.raptivism.com), the organization put out the ‘No More Prisons’ CD, considered one of the most successful alliances between a social movement and rap artists.
Harmony Goldberg, 27, and Genevieve Gonzáles, 23
Growing up in California near the Mexican border, Genevieve Gonzáles from an early age was involved with activists confronting anti-Chicano racism. Thousands of miles away, Harmony Goldberg was outspoken in her opposition to prejudice in one of the most segregated cities in the country: Buffalo, New York. Now Gonzáles and Goldberg fight intolerance and bigotry through SOUL, the School of Unity and Liberation (www.youthec.org/soul), which they liken to the famed Highlander Folk School, training ground for many civil rights workers. One of four founding groups of the Youth Empowerment Center (YEC, www.youthec.org), in Oakland, SOUL aims to inspire and train a new generation of young political organizers-especially women, people of color, working-class youth, and queer youth-through classes, workshops, and summer programs. National director Goldberg co-founded SOUL with Rona Fernandez, 30, who now works with the YEC. Bay Area director Gonzáles reaches out to the young people who will fill SOUL’s ranks. ‘Genevieve has a way of connecting with young people,’ says Goldberg. ‘She can go into a high school and inspire kids who have never been exposed to these kinds of ideas.’
-Sara V. Buckwitz
Silicon Valley Rabble-Rouser
Raj Jayadev, 27
San Jose, California
As an $8-an-hour temp for Hewlett-Packard, Raj Jayadev saw Silicon Valley’s underbelly up close. Temporary factory employees-mostly women and mostly women of color-might toil for years without benefits, sometimes under unsafe conditions. Jayadev’s efforts to rally workers led to his dismissal-and to a new form of labor organizing as editor of Silicon Valley De-Bug: The Voice of the Young and Temporary (www.siliconvalleydebug.org). Raising questions about Silicon Valley’s ‘new economy,’ De-Bug is a combination zine and collective of workers, writers, and artists that educates temp workers on their rights as employees. Sponsored by Pacific News Service, the publication aims to ‘inspire a rage to take action.’