Rija Nazir: Contrary to popular belief, Gen Z activists in Kansas have stepped up to cultivate social change (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rija Nazir is a senior at Wichita State University studying political science with a minor in Spanish.

Like many Gen Z voters, my urge to become civically engaged began before the 2016 election, despite not being of age to vote. This was the beginning of the dismissal by older generations that we were too young to understand the complexities of American politics.

As easy as it may be to ignore what young people have to say, it is simply untrue that we could never understand these issues. Columbine happened a year before I was born, countless school shootings continued during my K-12 career, and I still have to mourn young victims as a senior in college. Does this not warrant my outrage toward incumbents for a lack of policy change?

After working on campaigns for legislators who I thought were different, progressive and overall promising, I realized the power to change the state of our government was not held in a campaign office, but in the communities of Wichita — specifically the most marginalized. I became more informed about my community through the lens of Black Wichitans and saw the way that our city still suffers the effects of racial segregation: food deserts, homelessness, and gentrification. This created a fire in me like no other, and I learned the countless ways that our democracy consistently fails us all.

My goals as an advocate shifted to mobilizing people, not party members. I focused on how folks could translate their voice to power at the polls, putting their anger into action.

After being called an ineffective activist, ungrateful and a variety of colorful names for critiquing our government, I realized the most interesting and recurring response I get to my social media presence is to “get off the internet and do something.” Millennial and Baby Boomer politicians alike love to use this phrase when dismissing Gen Z voters. Has it slipped their mind that during the pandemic, young Black and brown people revolutionized digital organizing? Have they forgotten how we have mobilized more marginalized communities across the country through the internet than they ever will in their careers?

Let’s entertain their idea.

I “got off the internet” as a high school junior to organize a gun violence protest after Parkland because my peers were tired of fearing we were next, yet four years later we mourn the lives of murdered children in Uvalde.

I “got off the internet” to confront local politicians who taught courses at my university about their policies and lack thereof, and nothing has changed in my city.

I “got off the internet” to drive to the Statehouse to testify with more than 50 others on why the xenophobic HB 2717 would hurt vulnerable Kansans, and the bill was still passed and approved by our Democratic governor, who campaigned on the promise to protect immigrants in Kansas.

I’ve put in just as much digital work as I have in-person organizing. Am I now qualified to give criticism?

This summer, I was given the opportunity to lead the Vote Neigh campaign on behalf of the Kansas Youth Power Coalition, with a focus on mobilizing young Black and brown Kansans to vote in the upcoming primary election Aug. 2. The bright and punny abortion-positive campaign gained attention from all over the state and country via social media within the span of a month.

Through our playful messaging and direct voter contact, we had informed and registered thousands of Kansans on the constitutional amendment, leading to our historic win. Young voters had even reached out to us to express how even the name of the campaign aided them in remembering what “yes” and “no” meant on the ballot.

I truly did not anticipate the influence this two-month project would have on Kansans until after the election was called. A sudden influx of texts, DMs, and emails had flooded my phone to thank the coalition for its consistency. But overwhelming positive feedback must always be accompanied with the condescending “advice” from older generations, who had previously said that our campaign was “ineffective,” “embarrassing” and “will never work.”

When will folks begin to realize this type of discouragement toward young people is the sole reason for the lack of our civic engagement?

I got on the internet to inform all Kansans about how our legislators are quietly trying to take our rights from under our noses in August. I got on the internet to inform when I would take a trip to our community fridges so we could all help feed Wichita. I got on the internet to help folks register and show up to vote after Kansas legislators purposefully made it harder. What exactly can young Kansas activists do to appease their judgmental elders?

The next time you want to blame young people on low engagement, criticism, and division, ask yourself what you’re doing to serve and support us. Show up for initiatives created by young people, even if it has a small audience. Your moral support could mean anything from creating a school club to winning a statewide election.

About the writer
About the writer

Rija Nazir is a senior at Wichita State University studying political science with a minor in Spanish. Nazir currently works as a community organizer for Loud Light and was the lead organizer for KS Vote Neigh.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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