The political engagement of Gen Z, whether it is about climate change, racial justice or gender equality, is fast becoming a defining feature of the generation. Many are still teenagers, with the oldest among them turning 25 this year. They are more diverse than previous generations and more likely to say that Black people are treated less fairly than Whites in the United States, a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found. As Dillard said, “I had lived to see the first Black president, but I also lived to see the murder of Trayvon Martin.”
Dillard is a senior in high school. In between classes, she sat down with About US to share what it’s like to be a Gen Z teen activist. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You gave a moving speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in West Orange, N.J. over the summer that drew about 2,000 people. Can you describe what your writing process was like and what you were hoping to convey to people?
That speech was really surreal for me because, by the time of George Floyd’s death, I had been an activist since my freshman year of high school. I’m always the first person to organize an event or hold a discussion in my classes or my school when these things go down. But I often forget to feel. I often forget to mourn. And I often forget to react emotionally because I’m so focused on, ‘We need to fix. We need to help. We need to empower.’ And I didn’t realize that was happening until I saw the George Floyd video and I recognized my numbness and it freaked me out.
I remember standing up there, and I remember speaking, and I just remember seeing that sea of people and not even being able to see the grass underneath all of them. Just seeing the sea of masked faces was such a surreal image to me because I was like, this is history right here. This is a time capsule of something that’s so monumental, a new-age civil rights movement that’s happening all over the world. And I’m looking at a piece of it.
What kind of reaction did you get?
Me and my peers who originally organized protests felt that we couldn’t just manage all the support with just the seven or eight of us. So that was when my peers co-founded the West Orange Youth Caucus. And after that, the mayor, Robert Parisi, and the chief of police reached out to us and allowed us to sit in on meetings and asked our input when it came to reevaluating and editing town ordinances related to handling racial discrimination in schools, interdisciplinary programs that were previously biased towards children of color, the redistribution of funds for predominantly Black and Latin elementary schools over the predominantly White elementary schools. And it really showed our community and the rest of our peers that these efforts really do push forth legislative changes.
And it just really showed people that we’re not just out here complaining, we organized exactly for this purpose, to garner the eyes that we need to make sure that the people in power understand that real concrete changes need to be made to the legislation in our towns and schools. And it taught me a lot because before, I had been involved in a lot of protests but I had never seen the concrete evidence of real progress being made, outside of just educating more people. So it was really kind of a turning point for me personally, because it showed me the real power in organizing and what the real end goal is when it comes to these large demonstrations.
The protests over the summer drew massive crowds and a lot of diverse crowds. Why do you think that this was so different from protests that you were involved in?
I feel like quarantine had a lot to do with it. Because these are things that have been going on for ages and ages, so it’s not new to anyone. Because at the time, we had only been in quarantine for about three to four months, I feel like people were really glued to their phones and glued to the television and were always constantly trying to figure out what’s going on on the outside.
I feel as though people outside of the Black community were particularly affected by the George Floyd video because it kind of put it in their face in a way that the deaths of innocent Black people were never put in their faces before. And I think that parents felt that pain, and I felt that children felt that pain, because you could see the humanity in this man. I feel like for a good amount of days, everyone was just kind of looking at this video and being like, wow. No one could explain it, no one could really put reason to it, no one could make it make sense. And I think because of that, people started realizing, like, this isn’t about politics at all. This isn’t about religion. This isn’t about upbringing. This is purely about whether you think innocent Black people should be murdered.
I think that Gen Z was so fed up with being put in these positions to reeducate the generations that have preceded us. I think that we, as a generation, really had a huge impact on making this movement what it was, whether it be by educating our parents or confronting that racist uncle at the dinner table or organizing a protest or simply sharing about the events that were going on via social media or donating or investing in Black businesses. All of these things that happened were largely influenced by Generation Z. And I think that because of that, so many people started to care and so many people were like, well, my kid is willing to stand out here with these people and possibly get arrested or possibly get pepper-sprayed or possibly face consequences to change something. And seeing that will force a lot of adults to pay attention. And I think that’s what it did.
With President Trump out of office, what are your thoughts on how the racial justice movement should move forward in a Biden administration?
One of the things that I stress to people is that getting Trump out is a victory. That’s a win. We have to acknowledge that is a win. Two, I don’t think that we should jump to criticize Kamala, because she’s a Black woman in office. Kamala’s job was to prosecute. She prosecuted a lot of Black men and sent a lot of Black men to jail. That is not something that I am ‘Hurrah, Kamala!’ about.
But there are many White men that have taken her position that have done worse things, and we often don’t criticize those White men because they’re White men. And as members of the Black community especially, we have to give her a chance to influence the policies that will ultimately influence the Black community, Black women, Black youth, incarcerated Black men and women.
That’s not to say that people should just be happy that she’s in office and shut up, because absolutely not. We still have a voice. We put those people in office. So we should still have influence on what goes on. But I think that people, especially members of the Black community, should not be so quick to criticize Kamala for her past, because she’s a Black woman and we need to understand that we often nitpick our own more than we nitpick members of other communities who are in positions of power.
So I’m optimistic about the Biden administration. I’m very hopeful that, in the coming months, in the coming years, we will see significant progress made in the areas of social and racial justice and police brutality.
How did the work of the civil rights movement in the ’60s help inform your activism?
So much. The civil rights movement influenced me in so many ways, whether it be from educating me about activists that aren’t typically taught about in school, to educating me about the art of protest and about the political influence that protest mobilization can have. And I think that especially over the course of my high school career, I had of course always been knowledgeable of the work of Malcolm X, the work of Rosa Parks, the work of Martin Luther King Jr. And I think that we often forget the scope and the vastness of members of the Black community that were really involved in the uprisings, in the reorganizations of our social and racial climate. I think that understanding just how the civil rights movement impacted so many of the current-day movements and the current issues that are placed in our face today is major.
How do you think President Obama being your president, at least until you were a teenager, influenced you?
I think it had a major impact on how I viewed myself as a young Black woman, because prior to that, I wasn’t as aware of racism as many other young Black people had been because of where I grew up. I was never picked on for my race. I was never singled out. I had never, before getting involved in STEM, I was almost never the only Black girl in the room. And so I never felt like my Blackness was something that set me back.
And seeing Barack Obama as president and seeing him execute that at that level, he really empowered me — even before I fully understood just how much society puts up against Black people and Black youth. And being that I [grew] up on that example, before I understood the idea of racial oppression in our present day, that really solidified my confidence as a Black person and my pride because, if you don’t see it, you can’t be it. And if I hadn’t grown up seeing a Black president, if I hadn’t grown up seeing as many Black icons and as many political leaders as I had, I probably would have been much more discouraged in getting involved in politics and raising my voice.
What advice would you give to other young Black women looking to get involved in this work?
I’ve always been a huge advocate for standing in your truth always and standing up for what you believe in, no matter where you stand. That’s the advice that I give to a lot of young girls that I mentor, that no matter what, you have to understand that there’s power in your voice and that there’s influence in your voice and that you have to value having an opinion and to not be scared to have an opinion, even if no one else in the room has opinions. And I often encourage young Black girls to deem themselves worthy because society often tells us that we don’t have a place at the table or we’re not asked to speak or we’re not supposed to want to do this and we’re not supposed to want to be this and we’re not supposed to be confident in all these different things. And I always tell young Black girls to just completely erase that from your psyche and just understand that you have as much power as you give yourself.