‘Young People’s Potential Needs to Be Protected Right Now’

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Culture & Conversation Politics

‘Young People’s Potential Needs to Be Protected Right Now’

Galina Espinoza

Engaging young people and women of color is key to the country's future.

Who: Deja Foxx, a student at Columbia University, a reproductive rights activist, and the founder of Gen Z Girl Gang, a digital community of young women and femmes working to redefine sisterhood

Grade for Biden’s first 100 days: C+

“Issues like Title X and the Hyde Amendment aren’t ‘extras’—they’re not something to be waited on. People’s potential needs to be protected right now. So it’s not something that can be put on the back burner, because it has real-life implications for people today.”

This interview with Rewire News Group’s president and editor-in-chief, Galina Espinoza, has been edited for space and clarity; to watch the conversation in its entirety, please visit here. For more on the Biden 100 series, visit here.

Rewire News Group: You came to your advocacy work at 15. Can you talk about the experience that sparked this for you?

Deja Foxx: I grew up in a house—like so many across this nation—that really struggles to cover the bare minimum: rent, food. My mom, growing up, struggled with substance abuse, and by the time I was 15, I moved out of that home, and I experienced what 1 in 30 youth in the U.S. experiences, and that is hidden homeless. So I was bouncing between houses, living with friends, and I eventually began living with my boyfriend at the time and his family. I was not even the only one in my friend group for whom this was true!

And when I took my sex education class in Arizona, I remember the teacher scrolling through a PowerPoint on contraception, saying, “I don’t really have to go through this, your parents will handle it.” And sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, I don’t have parents at home. No one is going to teach me this if this person doesn’t.” And so I started getting active.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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What do you think is missing from policy right now when it comes to reproductive justice issues?

DF: A human aspect. We talk about the difference between what it is to have legal rights and have access. As someone who has been denied access to things like birth control, I know how important it is to meet people where they’re at. The way we can bring that human aspect in—the realities of daily life—is by incorporating people with lived experience into leadership positions. That means young people, that means women of color, that means women with untraditional leadership experiences, that means community organizers. We need to be bringing those people into the conversation, because they know the landscape, they know the experience. And frankly, the people most affected should always be at the forefront of this movement.

Think about Biden’s cabinet, and the first slate of announced judicial nominees. Do you feel like he is engaging with the right people?

DF: I will say there is an unprecedented amount of diversity here—diversity in so many different forms, and I think that’s incredibly important. One place where I would like to see more progress is including young people. I think there’s still absolutely an idea that young people are not qualified, that young people don’t have enough experience. [But] I think young people have just the experience that we need in these rooms—lived experience, and experience on the digital forefront, right?—knowing what’s cutting-edge, knowing how these strategies are evolving day to day and how to reach other young people. We need young people not only to be implementing on the ground, but as our strategists, as the people writing the messages, as the people forming policy.

You give Biden points for diversity. What else makes you feel encouraged?

DF: We’ve seen a change on the global “gag rule,” which is amazing. But we definitely need to be talking about Title X. This is the policy I was fighting for when I was 16, and I went viral for a confrontation with my then-Senator Jeff Flake and asked why he, as a white man, would vote against my access to birth control. And he told me, “I support policies that support the American Dream,” but I know that birth control is a part of that social mobility that characterizes the American Dream, that has allowed me to go on to be the first in my family to attend university.

I think we’re headed in the right direction, yes. But we need to get there faster, because there are Dejas who are 15, without parents, without insurance, without money, right now. And they can’t afford to wait. I think about that. I think about the value of young people’s potential—it really isn’t just this political game of pawns. These are future presidential staffers! Their potential needs to be protected, today.

You’ve talked publicly about wanting to run for president one day. So let’s imagine a Deja presidency: What actions would you take to secure reproductive freedom?

DF: The guiding philosophy for my work has always been to create communities that are characterized by choice. I know what it feels like to not have choices—or to only have bad choices. We need to build a world in which we protect people’s choice, and not just the choice if and when to have children, but the choice to live in communities that are free from gun violence, police brutality, family separation, and that are thriving. And so a Deja presidency looks like that: A world defined by choice, one in which we protect the potential of people and communities. And the way I think we can move forward with that—and this is more a direct call to action for the Biden administration—is we have to make things like abortion accessible, we have to repeal the Hyde Amendment, [which impacts] low-income people, people like me.

I worked at a gas station for two years throughout high school, and I remember the day when I hit enough money in my savings account that I knew I could afford my own abortion if I needed it. And I think that’s so true for so many young people; so many people across this country have a story similar to that. I think we really need to be investing in peer sex education, in peer leadership. I was the co-founder of the El Rio Reproductive Health Access Project back in my hometown. And what we did was train young people like me who are homeless youth, teen moms, people of color, first-generation Americans—folks who often weren’t receiving the traditional leadership recognition, like student council or sports teams. And we trained them as peer sex educators, got them paid to do that work. And they were the people who were most effective, and they got to be in charge, and they got to lead. I think that is the community model we should all be looking to.

This on-the-ground work is so vital—but there’s only so much you can do in the face of the kinds of restrictive state policies that we’re seeing enacted at record rates.

DF: I come from Arizona, and we just had a “forced birth” bill introduced, and it’s completely wild that we’re even thinking about this in the year 2021! These are hyper-local decisions that are being made, and there’s this perfect storm happening where, one, people don’t understand who’s making the decisions and, two, don’t understand the importance of these local elections. So many of us are talking about the presidential election—but we have to be voting from the top to the bottom, every election. And not only that, but then we have to be holding these people accountable once they get into office. It’s this constant back and forth of, we have to elect the people who are going to listen, and then unseat the people who have done us wrong.

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Biden administration