LARGER IMAGE Meet American Students Facing Racism, Injustice and a Pandemic
A young woman became alarmed when she saw Confederate flags appear around her small town. Another student often knitted quietly to keep up with the stress. A black teenager from the South feared racist violence more than a virus.
These students have all faced social and political changes during their high school careers. They were freshmen when Donald Trump was elected president and after a summer of protests against racism and violence they graduated under the shadow of the pandemic.
Conversations with members of the 2021 class open a window on where America is now – from Maine to California – and where it is going.
MEGAN BICKFORD, 17, MAINE: “I have found my identity.”
As a young gay woman, Megan Bickford said she saw in horror the Trump administration attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military and repeal protections for transgender students in public schools.
At 16, she severed ties with a close friend who became a staunch supporter of Trump. Bickford, who grew up in a Liberal family, said she was increasingly alarmed when she saw Confederate flags appear on porches or vehicles in northwest Portland, where she and her family live.
“I feel like if we were four years more normal I probably wouldn’t be that loud,” said the 17-year-old. “I grow up in this political climate where it seems if you don’t shout the other side won’t hear you.”
Four tough years, Bickford said, have made her mature “a little faster.”
“I think this has led me to be more politically involved and better informed,” she said.
“I found my identity, and I found what I believe in and the type of person I want to be or not be because I saw so many different examples on my TV screen.”
Then came the pandemic, closing schools and forcing students into isolation.
Bickford, an athlete, worries about the impact of canceling spring sports in her freshman year, key to college recruiting. In the end, she got a place at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
One warm afternoon this spring, Bickford threw his drive away into a sunny green field in the first home track competition since second year. COVID vaccinations have stepped up and the virus has loosened its grip.
The striker announced that Bickford had set a new school record. She ran to her five teammates, then to hug her jubilant family members.
JAMARI PRIM, 18, NORTH CAROLINA: “Our voices have been heard across the world.”
The pandemic that has dominated the lives of other students for the past year has been little more than a distraction for Jamari Prim.
As a black teenager living in Raleigh, North Carolina, he said he feared what the police might do to him or his friends far more than a virus.
“The pandemic is on our minds, but we’re more concerned about racial injustice there,” he said.
Prim said children his age felt the urgency of the tumultuous time in which they were raised. He cited milestones such as Hillary Clinton arguing for the first female president, only to be defeated by Trump; Trump pushing the United States almost daily into uncharted territory; the pandemic.
With the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, Prim witnessed civil action from ordinary people, which sparked deep debate.
“We were on the streets and our voices were heard around the world,” he said.
After graduating from a semester at the start of high school, 18-year-old Prim took classes at a community college. He will be enrolling at Winston-Salem State University in the fall. He plans to study sociology and justice, and one day he wants to open a community center for young people. For the past two years he has worked as a youth mentor.
“It feels like the need for goal-oriented studies has been forced upon us,” Prim said. “I cannot fail to see the injustice that surrounds me.”
KATE MUNSON, 18, TEXAS: “My generation is just above it.”
Kate Munson bangs past a pasture on her father’s ranch in an all-terrain vehicle, pointing out property lines and the particularly tedious livestock that are painful to work on their land about 14 miles northwest of Shallowater, Texas.
A seventh-generation rancher in the Southern Arid Plains, Munson wants to become a voice for rural America by studying agricultural and business communications and eventually earning a law degree.
Munson, 18, believes her generation will break the toxic rhetoric of the first decade of social media and find ways to bridge the gaps through the now gaping cultural divides.
“My generation is right on top of that – on the divide in politics and culture,” she said. “We want to have movements that lift each other up, not that come down.”
Raised in a deeply conservative area of the country’s most populous Red State, Munson admitted that she lives in a conservative bubble – just as her city counterparts live in liberal isolation.
But she is convinced that people her age, after all they have been through for the past four years, have become creative and flexible enough to avoid being stuck by geography or the fluke of birth, and n ‘have no problem learning.
Take the #MeToo movement.
While the movement against male sexual harassment and abuse is widely associated with liberal circles, Munson says her tenets are embraced by her and many of her friends in rural and conservative America.
On a few occasions at stock exchanges, Munson has come across older men who have attempted to intimidate or harass her. She learned to shut them down and make her complaints known.
“Growing up as the #MeToo movement was happening opened my eyes to the possibility that in any situation made public, it could have been me,” she said. “It has nothing to do with political affiliations, at least it shouldn’t.”
SHANE WOLF, 18, COLORADO: “As young people we have this sense of urgency.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Shane Wolf, an 18-year-old from Ponca, Ojibwe, Santee Sioux, and white descent, wanted to pursue justice to help Native Americans protect the environment.
Her mother is a consultant with a master’s degree in public health that supports Native American communities. His grandfather is a historian and Wolf grew up listening to his stories about Native Americans.
Wolf wanted to become a corporate lawyer until he learned of the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline running under their water source. Friends of the family were among the protesters who joined the Sioux in the Dakotas during Wolf’s freshman year at North High School in Denver. The 1,200-mile (1,900 km) pipeline has been completed but is in the throes of legal challenges.
Wolf, who was accepted to the University of Denver, said success once meant wealth.
“But now I’m really focused on the environment,” he said. “Because of my culture, my mother and my grandfather.”
“I have a feeling that we young people have this sense of urgency and responsibility,” said Wolf. “This generation just has such a responsibility to truly save this planet.”
ZOE ISABELLA ROSALES, 18, CALIFORNIA: “People… have seen their whole world changed.”
Police sirens roar and a sniper positions himself just outside the modest ranch in the town of Yuba, north of Sacramento, where Zoe Isabella Rosales is online in a medical careers course. The 18-year-old Marysville High School senior does not budge from her place at the dining table, even as her mother and a guest rush outside to investigate. They discover that a neighbor has shot and killed another resident.
Such a focus helped Rosales become captain of his school’s academic decathlon team and led to a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She aims to become a doctor.
In the middle of the books by her side is a ball of bright orange yarn and a pair of knitting needles – the hobby keeps her calm and her attention steady. She would often knit quietly as classes continued, persevering under stress that included pandemic isolation and worries about family members as college applications loomed.
Due to the pandemic, Rosales gave up her part-time job at Panda Express and divided her time between her mother’s house in Yuba City and her grandmother’s in Petaluma, about 150 miles away.
The pandemic came after other hardships. The unrest in their family prompted her mother to move to a poor community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and some family members struggled with drug addiction and homelessness.
Rosales takes the example of her mother, Michelle, who went to school later in life and graduated with a social work degree last year, and her sister, Maya, who graduated this year from the University of California at Berkeley.
The girls’ grandmother also went back to school to get a nursing diploma.
The pandemic, Rosales said, has shown her how privileged she has been to have parents who see education as a priority – and even to have simple tools like internet access that many lacked. students from its former foothills community, which made it difficult for them to study online or submit their homework.
“It made me more grateful and more aware of my privileges,” she said. “But it also made me really angry … to see other people who changed their whole world and their ability to learn completely blocked.”
(See the related photo essay here)
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