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One day, Deja Foxx will be the President of the United States. Some might have such ambition or a dream and wonder, am I qualified? Do I have what it takes? What if I fail? But Deja asks, why not me?
Her career in activism catapulted to recognition with a question. When Deja was 16 years old, she confronted then-GOP Senator Jeff Flake over his support of a Trump-era law that would remove Title X funding from clinics such as Planned Parenthood. As her rights to reproductive health services hung in the balance in her home state of Arizona, Deja stood at the microphone and defiantly asked, “Why would you deny me the American dream?”
After moving out of her mother’s house at 15 and experiencing homelessness, the inequities in sexual and reproductive health services for low-income people became glaringly apparent. While attending school and working at a gas station to support herself, the Tucson native mobilized for reform. In the days preceding and following her confrontation with Senator Flake, Deja has fought for a more inclusive sex education curriculum in the city’s largest school district, co-founded the El Rio Reproductive Health Access Project for healthcare at no cost, and established the GenZ Girl Gang, a coalition for young womxn collaborating in the digital space. In the 2020 presidential election cycle, she became the youngest staffer as the Influencer and Surrogate Specialist for the Kamala Harris campaign.
“To the young people reading this, I hope you declare your ambitions loudly. That's why I do it because the more I say it, the more I believe it, and the more I believe it, the more other people will,” Deja told Seventeen. “And frankly, if these last two years taught me anything, it's why not me? I am far more qualified at the age of 22 in a lot of ways than some of the people I see holding these offices.”
Now, she’s joined the United Nations and The Body Shop’s joint campaign, Be Seen Be Heard, which is working to engage young people in change-making around the world. Together with Generation Citizen, Deja and other influencers and activists will work to dismantle voting barriers for first-time voters and empower them to use their voices. Ahead, Deja sat down with Seventeen to discuss their mission, her life as an activist, and what she has planned as a future POTUS.
What advice do you have for young people wanting to engage in activism?
Get personal. I think that politics is personal, and when we ask ourselves, where do we start? A good place to look is at the news or the headlines. Then ask yourself, where does that intersect with my life? Find an issue that personally impacts you. My activism work has always been rooted in storytelling. We are experts in our experience. When we get personal, that's where some of our most fruitful change-making can happen.
What actions will you and other activists take to dismantle barriers for first-time voters this year?
When we think about politics and what we see at the top of the headlines — climate change, reproductive justice — we [as young people] recognize that these are the issues we are the most impacted by because we will have to live with the consequences.
We recognize that the people holding power and making these decisions about our lives do not represent us, especially in terms of age. Therefore, they don't represent our interests. We're going to work at getting young people out to vote [and] having their voices heard in the United States and Canada. One of the frameworks we can think through is the idea of digital-relational organizing. Relational organizing is something we all know — that's the idea of asking your neighbors to turn out [and] vote and mobilizing the relationships in your real life.
But something that I get to do in this campaign is digital-relational organizing. Whether you have one follower or a million followers, someone has bought into you and what you're saying. We have the capacity to use that to create real, tangible change, drive voting, encourage young people to show up, have their voices heard, and make their interests represented.
Where do you hope to see the Be Seen Be Heard campaign in three to five years?
Our issues are increasingly global [and] Gen Z has this superpower that is social media. We can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime. So, when I think about the Be Seen Be Heard campaign, I'm really excited about its global potential. I also want to acknowledge that this is something that The Body Shop is not new to. When I think about the partners I want to work with, The Body Shop has had a real commitment to change-making over the years. This is not new to them and it's not new to me either.
What are some challenges that you've faced as a young person fighting for change?
I grew up in a low-income house. I grew up with a single mom who didn't graduate college. We struggled to cover the basics like food and rent. When I was 15, I ended up moving out of my mom's house and experienced what 1 in 30 teens in the U.S. do, and that's called hidden homelessness. It means not living in your own home. It means living with a friend, or extended family. For me, it meant living with my boyfriend and his family. It was through that lens that I got started in my activism and where I started organizing around sex education.
It was incredibly difficult to manage. I was trying to balance AP classes and school with my job at a gas station to make ends meet. I was also trying to organize for change because I was the most impacted by this old, outdated sex education curriculum. I didn't have parents to fill in the gaps for me. When I think about the barriers to change-making for young people, I ask, how can we put those most affected at the front? Often, that means funding those programs and making sure that young people are being paid for their labor as change-makers.
When we don't pay young people for their work, we are excluding those who are often most impacted: low-income young people. That was true for me. I had to make decisions about what I could do after school. Could I go to a school board meeting or did I need to go to work? One of the biggest barriers is funding. That's where brand partners like The Body Shop come in, to put money behind organizations that are centering on young people. We need those partners in this fight to make these change-making opportunities accessible for those most affected.
How do you avoid activism fatigue?
I've taken a lot of Ls in my career, let's be clear. When you choose a career like this, you inevitably will lose campaigns and votes. But I'm reminded that this work does not start and end in [election] cycles. We are building sustainable movements, and we do that when we invest in people. When you invest in empowering the people around you, that work doesn't disappear just because you've lost. Instead, it is transformed. They go on to run their own elections or fight for sex education in their own communities. When you invest in people, you never really lose.
What vision do you have for GenZ Girl Gang moving forward?
We're a little more than three years in at this point, which is incredibly exciting. We started in my freshman year dorm, born out of the idea that social media can be used as a community-building tool. Shortly thereafter, we are plunged into this pandemic where everyone turned to their phones and their digital communities for a sense of community. [But] young people are ahead of the curve.
Think about the way that nonprofits or campaigns in the 2020 cycle had to change their strategies and move everything digitally. Gen Z fits into the larger change-making ecosystem simply by creating these strategies and by centering young women and non-binary folks as the leaders of the digital revolution. We are constantly creating programming that is responsive to our community's needs and their phases of life. And as I look forward to where we're headed from here, it's the impact we're focused on.
What was your biggest takeaway from working on the Kamala Harris campaign?
I was unpacking my sophomore year dorm, literally hanging my clothes up in my wardrobe, and I got this DM on Instagram from someone on the campaign asking me to apply. Two weeks later, I got the job as Influencer and Surrogate Strategist. That job was not there before I arrived. There was a lot going on in my head about, am I qualified? I've never really felt imposter syndrome like I did then. During our orientation, our boss set us down and projected an image of all the people who've been president — there were a lot of old white men looking down at us.
He began by saying, "I'm sure a lot of you are having these feelings of, why are you here?" He goes on to switch the slide and it's just one word — perspective. He said, "There are people that have better fundraising connections, or more years of experience than you, but nobody has your perspective." That was probably my biggest lesson on the campaign. I was selected to be in this position because of my perspective, not despite it. Because I grew up in public housing, because I grew up on food stamps, because I had experienced homelessness, because I was the first in my family to go to college, because I was a young person, I was selected to be in this space.
How have you grown and evolved as an activist and leader?
I got my start when I was 15, organizing around sex education. I was thrust into the public eye at 16 after I went viral for confronting my Senator Jeff Flake. I think back to that young woman, who in so many ways, was still developing not only her sense of self but her sense of the world. There was only a little more than a year's difference between working at the gas station and on the presidential campaign. My life has changed fast, but the thing that's changed the most is my sense of agency and control over myself and my narrative.
Young people, especially those in change-making spaces are asked to be spokespeople. They're asked to be the implementers, the ones making programs happen, but they are very rarely often invited into the rooms where that messaging is being written. I have railed against that. I am paving the way to say that young people are capable of being in these spaces.
What will be the first acts you carry out as President?
Who knows where our world will be [by the time I'm President]. But our generation has faced a kind of uncertainty that is so unprecedented. As I look at my vision of the future, I see communities that are defined by choice. The choice if and when to have children. The choice to raise them in communities that are safe, healthy, and free from the threats of gun violence, police brutality, and climate change. The choice to go on to college or not. I see all of these things as interconnected and I think when we empower communities with choice, we help them reach their full potential. That's the framework through which I guide my work.
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