Talkin' bout my generation: Activism as a student in 2020

Gen Z is more connected, brave and open-minded than ever before. But will that be enough to shape our future against a history of preconceived notions?

Talkin' bout my generation: Activism as a student in 2020

Gen Z is more connected, brave and open-minded than ever before. But will that be enough to shape our future against a history of preconceived notions?

Back in the winter 2020 semester, second-year creative industries student Trevohn Baker arrived on campus for a history class at noon after getting his typical egg McMuffin from McDonald's. Thursdays were his light days and he only had one class but was still eager to get to it.

He thought it would be a typical Thursday. However, things quickly took a turn for the worst when his professor asked the class a question regarding European history. Baker wasn't sure if he should answer it as a Black student, even though he had studied the course's content.

He raised his hand and started speaking but noticed that several of his classmates turned around to look at him, their eyebrows raising.

They seemed surprised to hear him participate in a discussion. He felt as though they didn't expect him as a Black student to know much on the topic, or deliver as much as his other white classmates.

In his first year of university, Baker frequently experienced these kinds of microaggressions— where people would unintentionally or indirectly discriminate against him by underestimating his intelligence—in his business and history electives.

Group projects were also difficult to navigate. In one class, he was one of two Black students. When it came to forming project teams or discussion groups, they were both always the last ones to be picked as classmates seemed to shy away from them both. To Baker, his classmates appeared either intimidated by his appearance or perceived himself and the other Black student as less smart.

According to Baker, these instances revolve around staff and administrative policies not encouraging students to form more diverse teams. "At the end of the day, the students do what they're allowed to do," he says in terms of the microaggressions he's experienced from peers.

"Because it's something I've dealt with for so long, I don't really let it get to me anymore," he says.

Baker said he often experiences racial discrimination based on the stereotype of Black men being perceived as lazy, uneducated and aggressive at school, sterotypes that were perpetuated during the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to justify slavery. While those incidents occurred in courses with white professors, Baker had one class where the professor was a person of colour and he remembers the groups being very diverse.

"You feel almost compelled to have diverse groups because you're being taught by someone of colour," he says.

This year, Baker decided to join the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Students' Collective as its coordinator. Due to the microaggressions he experienced at Ryerson, he wanted to create more spaces for people of colour to amplify their voices.

"It's important that we get recognition and the voice that we deserve because we're often robbed of this voice, so I put a lot of emphasis into creating wellness for all marginalized groups through my centre. And it means a lot to me because it's something I really see as a problem to fix," he said.

The BIPOC Students' Collective focuses on empowering racialized students by providing a safe space for them, holding events that are specifically for racialized students and community members while also addressing concerns and "challenging institutional and overt racism at Ryerson," according to the collective's website. As one of the Ryerson Students' Union's seven equity centres, they also work with the Ryerson community to "eliminate racism and xenophobia both on and off campus…through education, advocacy initiatives, and campaigns."

"It's hard to get that representation flowing throughout the entire campus because it's so spread out and open," Baker said. "So, I decided that this would be a good opportunity for me to really start creating the change that I want to see at Ryerson."

As the coordinator, he plans different events, panels and posts about different bursaries offered to marginalized groups on the group's social media pages. He also collaborates with other student groups like RyeACCESS. Recently, the two student groups have been collaborating on an event regarding the intersection of race and disability.

"I decided that this would be a good opportunity for me to really start creating the change that I want to see at Ryerson"

Due to past experiences with budding up against teachers and administration, Baker said he's noticed Generation Z to be very opposed to the mindset of older generations.

Young people are increasingly advocating for social change to shape their future, not concerned with older generations who may not see eye to eye with them on social issues or even see these issues as critical. Generation Z— those born after 1997, according to Pew Research Center—has been on the front lines of activism.

Lesley Wood is an associate professor and chair of sociology at York University. She noted that it's very hard to pinpoint what makes Generation Z different from other generations because it's too early to tell and difficult to untangle the social context from the generation. However she said she noted that millennials and Generation Z are less inclined to trust larger institutions than previous ones (though Gen Z is slightly more trusting than the latter). Due to a growing pessimism that such organizations won't make the changes they want to see, she said Generation Z is more willing to take matters into their own hands.

"Everyone alive right now is facing a climate crisis, a political crisis, and a looming economic crisis. But Generation Z will be alive for longer through these crises," she said. "You face a challenge in the intense uncertainty of where to put the pressure to ensure that change happens."

When it comes to social justice movements, Gen Z is more active and educated on a variety of social issues and causes.

The world saw Gen Z mobilize after the 2017 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkdale, Fla., when survivors started the March for Our Lives movement to support legislation to prevent gun violence in the U.S. We also saw the rise of youth-led movements in Toronto such as Climate Justice Toronto and Fridays for Future.

A non-scientific survey of 356 self-proclaimed gen-Zers conducted by Global News found that nearly 82 per cent regularly read the news. In addition, 56 per cent describe themselves as "very aware and active" in matters related to politics and social movements.

Striving for equality in society was the issue they cared most about at 44 per cent, followed by international issues (15 per cent) and poverty (13 per cent), as reported by Global News. The survey was conducted in 2018, interviewing 356 participants ranging in age from 11 to 23.

Pew Research Center's survey found that younger generations are more accepting of societal change. Nearly half Gen Zers and Millenials said they support same sex marriage, compared to only a third of Gen Xers and a quarter of Baby Boomers.

"You face a challenge in the intense uncertainty of where to put the pressure to ensure that change happens"

Gen Z was also more conscious of accomodating trans and nonbinary identities in official forms. About six-in-ten Gen Zers (59 per cent) said forms or online profiles should include gender options other than "man" and "woman," compared with half of Millennials and about four-in-ten Gen Xers and Boomers (40 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively), the research suggested.

The findings are based on a survey of 920 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 conducted online Sept. 17 to Nov. 25, 2018, combined with a nationally representative survey of 10,682 adults ages 18 and older conducted online Sept. 24 to Oct. 7, 2018. Findings based on Generation Z combine data from the teens survey with data from the 18 to 21-year-old respondents in the adult survey.

Rae*, a fourth-year social work student, has been playing hockey since they were a kid. They say they've experienced both joy but also oppression on the ice, to varying degrees and in different contexts. In their last year of high school, Rae remembers competing in an international hockey competition against Team China with their lower level junior team. Before the game, one of their teammates told them they didn't belong on the team and that they should be playing for their opponent because Rae is part Chinese.

Currently, Rae is a hockey goalie coach for players aged seven to 18. They said their knowledge in hockey is often undermined by parents and other coaches due to their gender identity. During practices, Rae says coaches often talk over her or instruct their kids to go against instructions. On several occasions, Rae has confronted parents and coaches, criticizing how they undermine their knowledge and expertise in the sport. Although they often get brushed aside, Rae said it's important for them to create boundaries and to stand up for themselves.

"Early on in my career, I was very hesitant to assert those boundaries. There's a little bit of ego-stroking that goes on. There's a little bit of navigating and sidestepping a lot of misogyny. Now, I understand how I need to navigate those situations," they said.

Although they have a passion for the sport and the way it brings communities together, they say they understand it's not a safe space for everybody.

Because Rae chooses to engage in spaces that aren't always welcoming, they say they have to be an activist for themselves.

"There are a lot of folks who believe that activism is something that you choose, when in reality, activism is often something that you are for a lot of people," said Rae. "I don't have a choice to not be an activist or to not engage with different forms of oppression, because I constantly butt up against the symptoms of those things."

In a study by the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, researchers found that trans activists in university settings felt that they had a "personal responsibility." The sentiment of "if I don't do it, who will?" was a common trait amongst some students, and they often felt a strong "sense of obligation to do something."

"I don't have a choice to not be an activist or to not engage with different forms of oppression, because I constantly butt up against the symptoms of those things"

Funke Oba, assistant professor in social work at Ryerson, said Generation Z seems more brave and outspoken than previous generations. She mentioned they don't only advocate for themselves, but communities around the world.

"It's partly because the world is such a small global village. Now, they know they're not alone. Even if you are in the most isolated part of Africa or Asia, you can see what's going on elsewhere," she said. "So I think it fires up the imagination to question what's going on in the world and gives them more platforms to really galvanize movements."

In a study conducted in July 2020, Reach3 found that 75 per cent of respondents said TikTok helped them learn about social justice and politics, 44 per cent said they felt compelled to sign petitions and 32 per cent said they educated themselves further after seeing online content.

"This generation has that knowledge about what's going on in other places. That knowledge of what's going on is beginning to ignite something in this generation that makes them able to hold their elders accountable," she said .

For Victoria Pacione, her interest in activism and advocacy began in Grade 10, at which addressing homelessness was her main point of interest. For three years, she decided to volunteer for a local church that provided meals for people experiencing homelessness downtown. The volunteers would pack the meals in the church's basement and walk from Sherborne to Dundas station to deliver them from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

One day when she was volunteering, a person experiencing homelessness called upon her. Initially, she was scared to approach them, due to preconceived notions she had on people experiencing homeslessness. However, after giving them a meal, she distinctly remembered the individual saying, "We are all angels with only one wing, and we will never learn how to fly until we embrace one another." They then thanked her and walked away.

Pacione said the conversation made her realize that she has a responsibility to unlearn the stereotypes revolving people oppressed in society because "their experiences are often no fault of their own."

In order to do so, the fourth-year sociology student decided to take the course Homelessness in Canadian society, taught by Pascal Murphy at the time. Through the course, she was able to interact with various people who had experienced homelessness. This led to her switching her major from psychology to sociology, because she felt the program would focus more on social justice issues, which she was passionate about.

Later that year, she also attended Homelessness Connect at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in October, an event where people can learn more about services that people experiencing homeslessness need such as housing, employment, ID clinics and health care.

Since April 2019, Pacione has been a member of her student council, a volunteer for the Ryerson Student Union Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line and has attended in-person protests, education livestreams and was on the RSU Supporting Survivor Task Force. She is also currently VP of operations for the union.

"Naturally, my interest kind of applies in every area of social justice, because of intersecting identities that exist for marginalized people," she said.

"I fully engage in it all the time, just because that's what I've chosen to do. I want to help people and a big part of that is educating myself. And it never stops getting tangled, like all of these issues are just so intertwined."

Baker said that as a generation, Generation Z is very open to different perspectives.

"We're a lot more unified as a generation. We're a lot more open-minded and willing to explore other things that we may not really identify with personally, just to learn more about society as a whole," he said. Even with this unity, Baker believes that this generation can do a lot more to work together.

The issues with unity as noted by Oba as she said this interconnectivity can lead to more division because "that raised consciousness can actually make people more aware of the divide that exists between them."

"[Young people] are tech-savvy, but they need to know that beyond their own realm, there are real issues that aren't known to them, that they won't be able to imagine. They need to be able to listen and work together," she said.

"I fully engage in it all the time … And it never stops getting tangled, like all of these issues are just so intertwined."

She says repeated exposure to injustices has led to young people having mental health struggles. According to a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association, 75 per cent of people from Generation Z reported being more stressed than adults about other issues in the news, including immigration and sexual assault.

Nevertheless, the internet has given young folks a platform to expand their activism, share information and network with each other.

Rae, for example, advocates for others through their work for QTBIPOC Durham, a group that creates safe spaces for LGBTQI2S women, trans and non-binary folks who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour. They said they contributed to QTBIPOC's social media, which involves connecting different people to different resources, reposting content and collaborating with other grassroot organizations.

Similar to Rae, Baker also uses social media on his own time to advocate for people of colour. By using his Twitter account, he retweets information about current issues such as the protests in Nigeria against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

He said because social media is so popular among Generation Z, it plays a big role in communication and the spread of information. "I think it's very important that we use social media to get things across and essentially, push it into people's face."

Dan Horner, an assistant professor of criminology and Canadian politics at Ryerson, said social media can also reach people who would otherwise be unengaged in conversations about social justice.

"Not everybody is going to go out and march, or make some other radical change to their life. At least they're being exposed to ideas from different perspectives and engaged in that process," he said . "Social media has really changed the contours of public conversation in ways that I don't think we would have imagined."

Pacione said social media plays a big role in how she educates herself and others. She uses it to follow grassroot activists that provide her with knowledge on a variety of different issues and to engage in positive discussions with other people online.

"What's most beneficial is sharing the knowledge that you know and hearing the other side, and then trying to learn from each other in a way that will ultimately lead to everyone promoting the greater good," she said.

Wood echoes the notion of organizing, noting that Generation Z is more focused on networked action than formal organization in their advocacy. She's been volunteering with the Encampment Support Network, an organization that helps people experiencing homelessness at encampments around Toronto. She says many of the volunteers are people mostly under 25 who connected through Instagram.

"This generation has grown up in a context of rapid waves of protest, where social media connects issues, identities and actions. Social media is both a channel and a stage," she says. "However, social media visibility alone is not a movement, which requires a real challenge to authorities. Increasingly those in power are able to dismiss social media as more noise than threat."

In addition, Rae says an ongoing issue is determining a way to prioritize the needs of marginalized communities in the decision-making process. "How do we push people to the forefront, the people who are actually being impacted the most, rather than having people co-opting different things?"

YPulse's 2015 research found 62 per cent of young people believe they can make their voices more heard online due to social media.

However, Horner notes social media gives the same privilege to activists as it does to their opponents of social justice. "They're doing the same type of organizing and they're very good at it," he said.

According to a study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, acts of terrorism committed by the far-right have increased by 320 per cent since 2015 and the number of hate groups operating in the country has tripled in Canada.

Nonetheless, Horner said social media has made Generation Z more connected than ever, which sets them apart from other generations.

Pew Research Center found that 40 per cent of teens who say social media has a positive effect say it helps them stay connected with family and friends.

"When people look at Generation Z, they see it as the first generation to come of age in the age of social media," Horner said. "It's a really powerful tool for organizing people and so many people have a greater chance to intervene in the public discussion and move past those traditional gatekeepers of the media."

Baker is currently running a survey for the BIPOC Students' Collective to learn more about the resources racialized people need during the pandemic. Based on the results, respondents say they need more grants and food boxes because they are struggling during the pandemic. Baker said he aims to provide those services this year.

"It does mean a lot to have this position and I hope I can keep it so I can actually work on campus. I'm excited to see what the future holds for the center, and my career with the RSU."

With big issues up ahead, Oba said Generation Z has to continue taking matters into their own hands in order to shape the future they want to have.

"Because if they don't advocate for themselves, who will? It's their life. It's their future. They deserve to have their children and their children's children come into institutions with more hope than what they've experienced so far," she said.

"Generation Z is showing us that they feel it, they know it and they can solve it. It's a matter of time."