Images via subjects
Images via subjects

Young people have been on the frontlines tirelessly leading the fight for equity, justice, and civic engagement in this country. Here’s how they coped in 2020.

The stresses of this year have felt tumultuous and semi-apocalyptic, to say the least. 

In less than 10 months, the United States has lost over 320,000 Americans to COVID-19, and everything shifted in response to social distancing requirements. Countless workers lost their jobs—7.8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since June—and more face homelessness in the coming weeks. 

Meanwhile, the fight for racial justice and equality has continued, particularly after the high-profile police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in May. At least 1,000 people have been killed by police this year in the United States, and protesters took to the streets all over the country, from big cities to rural towns. 

Then there was the 2020 general election, which sparked record turnout due to the mobilization efforts from organizers. Two-thirds of Americans voted in one of the most polarizing presidential elections ever. It’s the highest in 120 years.

And every step of the way, young people have been on the frontlines tirelessly leading the fight for equity, justice, and civic engagement in this country.

Katrina Gay, the interim chief development officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told COURIER: “Some recognize the mental health impact of COVID-19 as a parallel pandemic. Young people have especially been impacted, but data shows that none of us is immune.”

Since March, the NAMI HelpLine has seen a 65% increase in calls and emails. In a survey conducted by Wunderman Thompson Data earlier this year on behalf of Forbes, young people ages 18-24 were five times more anxious about COVID-19 than older generations. In another study published in April, of all US adults, the highest subgroup to have symptoms of psychological distress were young adults. 

In 2020, 24% of young people reported psychological distress, compared to 3.7% of young adults in 2018. 

Darius Baxter, CEO of GOOD Projects, told COURIER: “The youth is having a tough time right now. I have 22 kids that I’m supporting every day and I see the mental toll they are taking on. There are households that don’t have sufficient food. This is the kids saying this, not me.”

To better illustrate how the pandemic, the 2020 election, and their vital social activism leadership have impacted young people’s mental health, COURIER spoke with four organizers to share their stories.

Kyra Valley, 26, Washington, DC
Civil Rights Activist + Policy Advisor, National Action Network

“The COVID-19 pandemic placed a magnifying glass on inequalities that have existed in this country for far too long, and it is painful. Seeing the way some citizens were given masks while others were given citations is infuriating. Watching COVID-19 death numbers skyrocket in Black and Brown communities is devastating. Hearing a man beg for his life while a handful of officers who are sworn to protect us stand complicit in his murder is indescribable. No matter how many times it happens, it will never be normal to watch someone die because of racism. It cuts deep, every time. 

As the painful and inescapable evidence of systemic racism circulates across the news and social media, people always say to exercise self-care by unplugging. And the argument for unplugging is made even stronger when you consider how truly hateful some people can be on social media. It’s almost as if the screen obscures the humanity of the person on the other side. 

However, because of the work I do, unplugging isn’t really an option for me. I’ve found other ways to build self-care into my every day to try to stay grounded. We cannot pour from empty cups. I led a meditation group, have taken advantage of online workout classes even though I miss my boxing gym, and I’ve started fostering puppies since I am an extrovert who has literally never spent this much time alone in my entire life. 

As for social media—I’m personally partial to a good block/mute combo. I did remove all pictures of my family from my social media when I made my Instagram page public due to threats.”

Nupol Kiazolu, 20, Washington, DC
Civil Rights Activist and Organizer 

“Although [the racial justice] uprising was inspiring in every sense of the word, it definitely took a toll on me mentally. I was burnt out every single day. From grieving the losses of Black lives to being arrested and being affected by police brutality myself, I was in a dark place. 

The people I interacted with on the frontlines every single day kept me going though. Balancing school and the uprising was no easy task. It took a lot of discipline and tears to make it through and keep my GPA high. 

I did it though, and I’m proud of myself. This year has been unpredictable in every way, but I’m glad to be here. We’re just getting started. We have so much more work to do.”

Schuyler Bailar, 24, Washington, DC
Transgender Inclusion and Awareness Advocate

“My work has shifted quite a bit due to the pandemic. Due to quarantine, many LGTBQ+ kids are stuck in unsafe and unsupportive homes with family members that do not affirm their identities. In response to this, I increased my support sessions from one to two daily spots to four to eight, I’ve added affinity support groups, and changed my content on Instagram to try to meet the needs of the community.

I think young activists and organizers are simultaneously more energized and more exhausted than we’ve ever been. We are energized because social justice movements are in heightened visibility and seemingly gaining traction. And we are exhausted because this work is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking, and more visibility always brings more hatred and resistance. 

I feel compelled to do the work that I do—passion and purpose drive me. But the past several months (or year, really) have most certainly been draining at times. I am often tired and overwhelmed by the enormity of events. I am constantly shocked and horrified by the lack of humanity exhibited in this country through 71 million people supporting Donald Trump, the ongoing murders of Black and brown folks, the shouts that [Black Lives Matter] is ‘just a trend,’ the xenophobia, the white supremacy, the transphobia, and hundreds of trans women who have been murdered … the list goes on. 

It can be difficult to listen and watch this and keep on with the work that I know we must do. But there is change. It is slow and sometimes imperceptible.”

Emma Tang, 19, New York City
Student and Youth Vote Organizer

“This election season, I worked full-time at a nonpartisan nonprofit as a Youth Vote Organizer in addition to starting my first year at NYU. As Election Day grew closer, so did midterms and suddenly I found myself working 60 hours a week on top of midterm season and trying to hit the streets a few times a week to protest for Black lives.

2020 has been stressful on everyone, but I think in particular for young people, because we are growing up in a pandemic world where everything is limited and isolated. This year has been so difficult as an organizer, because we are actively trying to keep everyone safe from both the police and the virus itself.”

READ MORE: They Helped Turn Out the Vote in Georgia. They’re Not Even Close to Being Done.