Interview with Malika, Youth Organizer

03/09/2024 | Interviewer: Shel, Outright staff

Shel: Tell me about your campaign!

Malika: I’m in Y.P.E, or yippee, Youth Power in Education. [this year] we’ve designed some workshops directed at teachers and students about how they can make everyone’s educational experiences better. We shared anecdotes from our own lives in our schools and told them about that. And they had brainstorming times. We facilitated some, mostly Zoom workshops was what I worked on because of transportation.

It kind of felt like, you know, the people who were gonna be there were the people who wanted to hear it anyway, but I think it's good that adults are hearing from kids about kids’ experiences instead of just adults hearing from other adults about what they think the kids’ experiences are.

S: Was there something from your own personal experience that made you feel schools needed to change?

M: Um, I went to a middle school where kids got a lot of choice in what they learned. There was a curriculum but people could make up their own independent projects and choose how they were going to go about projects, and um, like the health class curriculum was pretty inclusive, and then I went to a high school, which was, um, not that.

So I've seen both sides of it and how it's affected people's willingness and, um, desire to learn and has affected how people go forward in their lives. 

S: As your campaign area is moving forward, how do you think schools in Vermont are going to change?

M: I think hopefully, teachers and administrators especially - because often times teachers are totally on board and helpful, but it's the curriculum or the policies that are harmful - will adapt more to diverse needs of students and to inclusive needs of students and hopefully will either not need to be reminded or when reminded once will be able to change things that are going badly and keep up things that are going well.

S: So you’re wanting or expecting to see systemic change, where folks are not only learning what's inclusive and doing it, but able to figure it out on their own?

M: I hope so. I'm not sure if I'm expecting that. I'm not very optimistic in general. I think that the future generally gets better, but it takes a while, so I'm hoping for that. And I'm expecting that at least the people we reach out to individually will become more inclusive and helpful towards education.

S: What are some unique strengths that you brought to this Youth Organizer Cohort?

M: I'm not sure. I think I'm good at talking to people and I'm good at being okay with talking to people even when I disagree with them. And, I think that might be part of it because, you know, in a group of people that has a mixed amount of extroverted and introverted and self confident or more withdrawn, I think that I'm pretty good at that. And I also think that I'm good at strategy, and thinking about putting myself in other people's shoes and how they would react to things.

S: Are there new superpowers you discovered through being a Youth Organizer? 

M: I think the empathy part a little more for this. That was kind of found through this. Yeah. Like, I can have individual empathy, you know, but like empathizing and putting yourself into the shoes of the person you're working against. Or the system you're working against. Or the people who benefit from the system you're working against. 

S: Was there a moment in your time as a Youth Organizer that helped you uncover that superpower?

M: I don't think there was a moment. I think it was like a general realization. It was combined with being a youth organizer and thinking about climate change. Because it's sort of like, the things that we're doing that are changing the climate are also really helping a lot of people live comfortable, happy lives, at least for now.

I mean, obviously some people are currently feeling the effects of it really bad, but, there are some people who are like, this is working out well for me! And, I don't know, I guess putting myself in the positions of people who ban books and what their fear is, is something that I was trying to do to sort of make sense how to get through and not be like, Well, I know that I'm right, and you just are wrong.

Which, I do think that they're wrong.

S: If you could offer a lesson for your pre-Youth Organizer self, to describe what they need to know, how would you do that? 

M: Um, probably that even the people that you disagree with fundamentally and have completely different worldviews and experiences and ideas of right and wrong are still people and probably feel similarly about you. So even if you are working towards a good cause it is important to keep in mind the needs and sensitivities of others because that's part of what Outright is all about and if you just choose some needs and sensitivities to tap into and not others then you aren't really doing your job? I don't know if that's the right way to say it, but. It's, I mean. You aren't really, you aren't really tapping into people's actual needs if you're only tapping into some people's needs.

S: It’s interesting that you say that’s what Outright’s all about. I wonder if you could say more?

M: Everything here is about empathy and consent as well. Like, in the exercise we just did with the sculptor and the clay, you had to consent to be the clay, and no one was like, grabbing your leg and moving it. They were like, "could you put your leg out?"

And all of the activities, and everything they do here, it's an opt in sort of challenge. Outright tries to be so accommodating of everyone, and if you're only accommodating of some people, then you're not accommodating.

S: Are there people in your life that being a Youth Organizer has brought you closer to, or given you a greater understanding of?

M: Um, I'm not sure. I'm generally a pretty amicable person who can get along with people, even if I don't particularly like them, and the people I'm close to, I'm still mostly close to. But it also helped me realize, sort of, understanding how to set boundaries, and what isn't okay to me, and to not just go along with that. That's kind of the opposite of your question, but it helped me understand who to stop trying to make room for in my life if it was squishing me.

S: What was it about being a Youth Organizer that helped you reach that understanding?

M: There’s a lot of places that are like, "Hey, if someone's making comments about this or that and you're getting a bad feeling or feeling like they're, you know, attacking you or antagonizing you or making microaggressions, that’s fine! It's part of your friendship. Deal with it." It's the price you pay for doing *that thing*. You know, if you grow out your leg hair, you'll get comments on your leg hair.

But here it was like - yeah, people sometimes make offhanded comments that you shouldn't have to deal with, and you should call them in on it! And then if they still can't change their ways, what I've found is to just take a break. And it might be a long break.

S: Has your time as a youth organizer changed how you think about yourself? And how you think about your future? 

M: Back in middle school that I used to go to, one of my other friends and I founded a QSA at our middle school, um, which had never had one before. We called it the Council of the Queers. And that was kind of like, that was part of why I heard about Outright because our advisor person got in contact and was like, oh, there's this application for this program, you guys should apply.

I dealt with a lot of, like, stuff from people in power and, like, teachers and administrators who perhaps weren't doing the best they could - that sounds wrong because obviously, teachers have a lot on their plate - but like, people who were unfairly grading or teaching or something like that.

But now I feel like I can - or it's a lot easier if things are really going badly in the classroom, to talk to first the teacher and if it doesn't go well, then I can bring it to a higher level and bring the other students who are having trouble with me, instead of just letting it fly under the radar like everyone else in the class was prepared to do, because it's a lot of trouble getting through the bureaucracy of the school system.

S: Do you have an example of that? 

M: I'm in a class right now where our teacher doesn't really teach and grades negligently and capriciously and arbitrarily. Several of my classmates were getting really frustrated because they were doing work correctly and the same as other people but receiving different grades and they were all like, this is happening and I'm really upset, but there's nothing I can do about it. 

And we were all talking about it and I was like, okay, well we can take photos of the tests that were graded differently, we can bring it to admin, I can send an email and get the counselors involved and we - I've only just started, I've had a meeting with my counselor and I'm going to email the counselor, the department supervisor, and other people in my class who are having difficulties and schedule time to meet and talk about everything that's happened so that people can receive the education and the feedback on their ability to do the things they were taught in a way they deserve.

S: If you knew that this conversation could impact anyone in the state, who do you wish would hear it, and what actions do you wish that they would take?

M: I have a couple answers to this!

The first one is that I hope it reaches anyone who is not firm enough in their beliefs to stand one way or another on education so that they can hear this and maybe be swayed to take action to make education more equitable and fair to everyone who's receiving it. And that could be no matter their position, you know, it could be parents calling in, it could be administrators changing policies, it could be students who want to stand up for their education.

The second answer is I want this to reach the people in power so that they can see an example of an actual student talking about actual things that actually happen, instead of just sitting around a table and guessing and making policies based on what they think is most convenient.

And the third is I want this to reach students because you can make change. You don't have to let the system beat you down and shrug it off and try and keep on trudging. If you work together and be the squeaky wheel, you'll get the grease and you will be able to make some change.

I just hope that if it reaches someone in a position of power, it grants them empathy, if it reaches a student, it grants them confidence, and if it reaches someone whose opinion is not set in stone, it maybe sways them a little bit more towards a more equitable education system.

S: Are there things you’ve done or learned about as a YO that you want to remember forever?

M: One of the things about being a youth organizer, which isn't so much about the work that we do, but more about what we learn, is that people are a whole lot more unapologetically themselves as time goes on in the program.
And the second thing is the actual work that we do - the adults are there to sort of make it, well they have the space and the official power, and, like, the scheduling capabilities, but they're also kind of there to make it seem respectable to other adults.

And the youth do a lot of the work. And I kind of learned along the way that you don't need adults to be able to make change. They can be really nice because they have money and property and the full rights of a human being. But a lot of the work that we've done has been almost entirely youth led. And a lot of the work that I've seen on larger scales, there have been entirely youth led protests and walkouts and all sorts of things like that. You don't need someone who can vote and serve in the army and drink alcohol in order to create important, lasting change. Or even just small, regional, even local change that will make people's lives, you know, a little bit better.

A Permanent Home for Camp Outright!

With the historic aquisition of beautiful Camp Sunrise, we're bringing to life the power of radical hope for LGBTQ+ youth. Heck Yeah! 

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