I’ve struggled writing this piece. In fact, I started it about five times. Each time, my intro sounded lame. Then I would try a different approach. And then that would feel disingenuous or half-cocked, or again, lame. Realizing I wasn’t going to whip this off, I decided to examine why the subject of youth leadership was difficult for me to write about. The only thing I could come up with was that I wasn’t as in tune with youth as I thought I was. It’s like I suddenly realized I was kind of, well, old-er-ish. Or if not that, I realized that I’d turned the corner from “everyone is my contemporary or older”, to “my god, the young folk have taken over…and it is a good thing indeed.”
Following Breadcrumbs of the Young
I think I first realized this when I began following Instagram profiles of young people (I feel at times that I should be using the term “youngins” to point to my ignorance, and I also feel that I should put a disclaimer in here: I’m not quite sure if “profiles” is the right term…Instagram sites? Feeds? See how I am just reinforcing my old-er-ish status here?) What I mean to say is, I followed quite a few young people before realizing that they were young people. I followed because I was interested in what they had to say, the way I follow my contemporaries, or older writers, performers, and politicians because I was and am interested in what they have to say. I was following these feminist profiles/feeds, that had lovely, thoughtful, and brilliant posts. As is the way with social media, these profiles lead me to follow others. Before I knew it, I was reading, and feeling a wee bit like a creeper, the feed of a 15-year-old who is, quite frankly, my new role model. And the thing is, she is exceptional, but seemingly not so much beyond her contemporaries. Believe me, my natural suspicion made me try to find some fault (beyond her obvious class and race privilege, but crikey, she’s even aware and acknowledges those!) She’s part of a clever cohort of young leaders who are bringing their brands of feminist leadership to the fore. I feel this way about pretty much every young woman I know and meet nowadays.
A New, New Wave
By the way, the 15-year-old that I follow is actress Rowan Blanchard. But, I didn’t know she was an actress until I Googled her name for this piece (or 15 for that matter, although I knew she was young). I’d been reading her posts for a few years before learning she was a Disney star. Seriously. A Disney kid. A few weeks ago, she posted this on her definition of feminism (it isn’t her writing, but she borrowed it): “These days, I feel as though feminism must interrogate gender itself with an awareness of its myriad social intersections. What does it mean to be a woman, and why? Who gets to decide what a woman is? If one woman is different from another woman, then what unites them as women? White, cis gender women have an institutional history as so-called feminists—but their liberation has proven tenuous, irrelevant, or violent to millions of other women. When experience can vary so radically from woman to woman, is there any point in pursuing a single definition of feminism?”
When I was 15, I’m pretty sure I had what could be described as a somewhat protofeminist consciousness, to coin a term for my own semi-conscious mind and circumstances. I had an insular Catholic upbringing, in a parish community with the most infamous sexual predator priest in 20th Century southwestern Ontario. I think those circumstances and others helped me follow the breadcrumbs to full-on feminism. But it took me years of epiphanies and banging my head against the wall to learn what Rowan Blanchard knows already. Earlier this month, she posted a photo of her holding a #girlpossible campaign poster that said: “Equality is possible when…we recognize our privileges and use them to help other people.”
Okay, minor aside here, the #girlpossible campaign is a Barneys NY, department store nod to the United Nations International Day of the Girl. And yes, Barneys is a place where those dripping with privilege do their conspicuous consumption (confession: I may have purchased a Le Labo body cream at Barneys at some point in my life) but hey, the campaign is a lot more of something than nothing. And Rowan’s post was a world more self-aware than some of the other posts ( the “Anything is possible when you…map a plan to achieve your goals” post, or billionaire daughter and entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman’s contribution: “Anything is possible when…you work hard enough.” Sigh, she means well.) I think awareness is one of the most impressive things about many young feminist leaders today. Most have a firm understanding of intersectionality and an equally firm commitment to using their positions and privilege to change the world and level the playing field.
Using Power to Change
I don’t remember this being a big thing when I was young. It’s likely that I was just oblivious and unaware. There were probably more of the smaller gestures of solidarity and leadership that made it possible to live life and not be suffocated. I thought about this recently while working on a children’s book on Jazz Jennings, the young transgender activist and reality television star. Holy crikey, here is a young person who has their head on straight (and loving, decent family supports). Her main focus for coming out in public was to help other trans kids who don’t have her supports and privilege. But she and Rowan are high profile examples. I’m also impressed by the young feminists who surround me who make the quieter gestures. They too are leaders, and they are in every community. They act as Big Sisters (or Little Sisters who teach far more than they learn), they join community groups with an intent to do something for someone else, they start school fundraisers, and they read books and spread ideas about feminist activism through small everyday gestures. They wow me, educate me, and make me proud.