In the first episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast, the former first lady sat down with her husband to talk about young people and politics. Falling into a generations-old cliché that casts young people as lazy and apathetic, Mrs. Obama said, “The average young person knows more about the cereal they're eating and the car they're driving than they do about what the government actually does for them."
To get a better understanding of what it’s really like to be a young organiser right now, Refinery29 caught up with Thandiwe Abdullah, a 16-year-old activist whose work around police violence is embedded into the Black Lives Matter movement. Also a first-year student at Howard University, Abdullah’s activism focuses on mobilising teenagers and defunding the police in the hopes of getting them out of schools. She’s been moving through political spaces since she was ten years old, taking notes from the politically active elders in her family. During a moment when Gen Z has become increasingly visible for its politics, Refinery29 talked to Abdullah about organising at a young age, intergenerational collaboration, and why Gen Z can yell at a cop but is too anxious to make their own doctor's appointments.
Gen Z is not here to save you. They’re just fighting for their future. For the Future spotlights young activists and goes beyond the myth of the Saviour Generation. They’re not superheroes, they’re not untouchable, they’re simply young people pushing to make a difference in their own worlds.
Refinery29: When it comes to political and activist spaces, how often do you find yourself being the youngest person in the room? Do you feel like that puts you at an advantage or do you find yourself working against that?
Thandiwe Abdullah: I used to feel like that a lot more than I do now because when I started in BLM, I was ten years old and there were no people my age and it was very awkward to be sitting in those spaces. I was probably the only kid there, along with my siblings. But now, the way culture has shifted, it’s allowing for more young people to be involved in this work, even though I still sometimes find myself being the youngest person in a group of young people. All these young people are in their twenties or grown and I get it, there’s a lot more freedom when you’re that old, but I do think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of organising even middle-school-aged kids.
I’m 16, but I’ve always come across as older. I think a lot of times people are surprised when I say that. I make sure to say it before I speak because immediately after I say something and I mention my age, it’s automatically used to discredit me or I get microaggressions like, “you’re so eloquent,” or “you’re so well-spoken,” which can also be racially charged too. I still hear stuff like that all the time. I was at a protest and I was talking about how police should not be the first responders for domestic abuse, and I talked about how I was abused and someone came up to me telling me how it was inappropriate that a girl my age was talking about this. Saying, “If you say you’re sixteen you shouldn’t be talking about this stuff.” So it’s a fact that a lot of people use age to discredit trauma, to discredit people’s stories, and to make you second-guess yourself.
R29: So it seems like people dismiss what you say because you’re young when you’re challenging the status quo or questioning the way things are done. Those are two things I think people often associate with youth – radicalism and curiosity. And it’s usually older people telling young people to “grow up” and deal with things as they are. As if only the young and naive think radical change is possible. Do you think being young affects your politics?
TA: I wouldn’t say that radicalism is only for youth but what I will say is that radicalism and creativity go hand-in-hand. And I think we’re taught that creativity leaves us as we grow up. So when we’re dismantling, we’re also building, and that can’t happen unless we’re radically imagining a better world. And unfortunately, that imagination and that creativity is something that we confine to young people. Young people are the dreamers, they have so much imagination, people often say, “ugh I wish I still had that.” We hear adults say that type of stuff all the time. When in reality, we do it to ourselves; old people can have that same creativity, that same imagination, that drive. But we literally box off generations and say, “this generation is creative and this generation is old.” I think if we get rid of that, any generation can be radicalised.
R29: It seems like all eyes are on Gen Z right now and I wonder if it’s connected with how obsessed with youth we are as a society. It’s always about accomplishing as much as you can while you’re young. Does that weigh on you or your work at all?
TA: There’s a lot to unpack there but as a society, we fetishise youth a lot in a lot of weird ways. We unload a lot of our expectations on young people. Deep down, I feel like a lot of adults want this change. We've been spoon-fed that, when you get to a certain age, your time to do things is over. I was even talking to my mom about this, in Hollywood when you hit a certain age, especially women, you can’t act anymore. There’s nothing else for you to do so you take the money you made when you were younger and then you retire. There’s not much you can do when you’re old and we’ve been told that our entire lives.
So I feel like adults and people who aren’t Gen Z have so much hope. I think they’re just excited, almost in a weird obsessive way. They want to watch. But they would rather watch Gen Z’s revolution from a screen than, like, be in the streets and do the work themselves, and partially, it’s because of what they’ve been told. Also who wouldn’t want to fulfil that role? You get to sit down and say you’re done: I’m done learning, I’m done being active, I’m done risking my life because I’m older.
R29: You’ve been able to build a platform partially because you can speak on behalf of your generation. It seems so many people and places are looking to get in on Gen Z’s popularity, but nobody is young forever.
TA: I think about it all the time. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I do use my age to get certain things or to draw people in because, unfortunately, these are things that exist. We have a weird obsession with youth, so why not? A lot of times, people don’t listen to me, so I do use my age to my advantage.
But at the same time, I always have this weird anxiety about my age. The older I get, the less people will want to pay attention to me, the less important my voice becomes. Which is really weird because when I was young – I still am – but when I was younger, I would think no one would listen to me unless I’m an adult or no one would hear what I had to say. I wanted to grow up so quick just because I thought it was better. But now I’m at the point when I realise that there’s this window of youth where it’s the perfect mix of being able to use that youth but also being old enough to the point where people think you are educated, and you are worth listening to. So I think I’m in that window now, but I’m so scared because it’s so small and I think a lot of other youth organisers feel like, as soon as I hit this age, will my work still be important? Will my work still go places?
R29: Right, so we have older people dismissing Gen Z and talking down to young people. But it’s obvious that Gen Z is taking charge at this crucial moment. Do you think there’s a bit of antagonism or miscommunication between Gen Z and older generations?
TA: I think Gen Z, we’re getting better at it. I think we’re just very wary of old people. Part of being radical is that we don’t like ageism, which is rampant in our politics, in our community, in our culture. Looking at political offices, who occupies those positions, who is passing the harmful legislation? A lot of the times it is older people and a lot of the times younger people are barred from these high political offices. I think there is just this distrust, we feel excluded. And it’s not just a Gen Z thing, I’m sure that every generation felt this way when they were young. But I think it has created this division and mistrust alongside the thing about not learning or being open, and that makes it hard to connect.
On the other hand, people like Bernie Sanders, Gen Z loves him and it’s because he embodies so much of the things we like. Maxine Waters, all of these amazing older folks, we love you. Because they get it.
R29: So as a young person, as a member of Gen Z, what do you personally think Gen Z does really well? What’s good about Gen Z?
TA: Gen Z is very anxious and we’re weird, like, the tweets about how we’re too scared to make a doctor’s appointment but we’ll yell at cops are so true. I think we’re very good with the turnout – if something happens, best believe there will be a rally the next day, we’ll make flyers, circulate. We're very good at getting people to show up however they can with either donations, or petitions, or calls to action.
R29: Do you think it’s fair for people to say things like, “Gen Z is going to save us all”? Does that feel encouraging or does it add unnecessary pressure?
We’re not your saviours, we’re doing the bare minimum, stop unloading all of your hopes and dreams on youth. Do it yourself. We’ll be alongside you but at the end of the day, it’s not our job to save the entire universe, we’re not superheroes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.