As a teen in 2020, I’ve heard on numerous occasions from older generations that Gen Z has an “unhealthy obsession” with technology and social media. One of the many benefits of platforms such as Instagram or Twitter that these critics may overlook is the huge increase in accessibility for teens to learn about countless issues in the world that may not directly affect them. In turn, this knowledge has the potential to create a more well-informed and empathetic generation. As a society, this notion of a more realized population is extremely important when it comes to creating a more equitable future that supports people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Chella Man and Being a Better Ally
While large media outlets obviously have a great influence on the topics people are presented with, the growing world of influencers and individual activists that have gained traction through social media have been able to diversify the breadth of perspectives and topics teens are exposed to. One such activist is Chella Man. He has gained a following of almost 400k on Instagram by sharing his experiences as a trans, genderqueer, deaf and Jewish Chinese American.
Whether it be through his artistic expressions of the issues he cares about, his posts and captions surrounding how he has learned to navigate his deafness, or his YouTube videos documenting his transition, his authenticity and vulnerability have made it possible for me and thousands of others to better understand experiences we would have never have had exposure to otherwise.
Chella Man’s videos were really the first exposure I had to the deaf and hearing-impaired community as a privileged and non-disabled person, and after being introduced to that community, I wanted to figure out how I could act as a better ally.
“Know Your Boundaries”
For starters, I reached out to my friend Jamie, an 18-year-old sign language interpreting major at Georgia State University. Her advice? “Hearing people: KNOW. YOUR. BOUNDARIES. The deaf community has their own culture, history, language, and lifestyle. They have adapted to our primarily hearing world, and they have faced insurmountable oppression while doing so. The least we, as hearing allies, can do is respect that they are more than capable of anything we can do except hearing.”
Jamie continued in an email to VOX ATL: “As an interpreting student, I do not see the job as ‘helping’ the deaf community, but rather providing communication assistance for the hearing population who does not want to learn even basic sign language. As allies, we should all be doing our part to erase the tired trope that deaf people need our help. Anyone could learn a few signs. With that in mind, we cannot disregard the extreme need for accessibility and accommodation for not only deaf but ALL disabled people.”
The Work of DEAFinitely Dope
With this in mind, I wanted to learn more about some local deaf activists in the ATL area and ended up getting connected with Matt Maxey, the founder of DEAFinitely Dope, which provides “Visually Artistic Interpreting for Music, Motivational Speaking, Workshops, Fundraisers, Performances, ASL Consulting, & Minority Advancement.” Most notably, Maxey went on tour with Chance the Rapper to help bring hip-hop to the deaf community. Maxey told VOX ATL, “Music has been something that I’m happy to understand, similar to reading, in a world that requires tremendous effort just to keep up when you have a hearing loss.”
A key goal promoted by DEAFinitely Dope is to bring their services to both the deaf and hearing communities. Maxey explained, “For the deaf community, it’s inspiration and validation that someone deaf can thrive in an industry where we often felt excluded from, and it also boosts awareness for the need for interpreters. For the hearing community, signing music videos has motivated a good amount of people to sign up for ASL classes, which, in turn, provides more awareness and accessibility as more people are familiar with sign language and interaction with the deaf community becomes less frightening.”
He added, “Many people that I’ve had the privilege of coming across have said they were inspired to learn sign language due to a childhood friend with hearing loss. Don’t miss out on a life-altering opportunity!”
Maxey himself admitted that he struggled with learning sign language at first but urges anyone trying to learn to “Practice!!! Interacting with the deaf community consistently is the most authentic way to pick up on the language!”
“I Wish They Could Stop Bullying”
When it comes to his teen audience members in particular, Maxey says, “I want to inspire them to persevere despite whatever limitations they may feel they have. We often try to mold teenagers in what we want them to be instead of encouraging them to be their truest forms, no matter how taboo it may be.”
On that note, I decided to reach out to the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf and the Georgia School for the Deaf to see what issues students my age care most about changing. Student responses from the Georgia School for the Deaf resounded around abolishing unwarranted hate in their communities. Nolan, 16, shared: “I wish they could stop bullying [since it] always hurts other people’s lives.”
Breanna, 18, elaborated by stating, “I don’t like to see people get [their] feelings hurt.”
No matter what issue the students care about, all five who responded suggested ways to advocate for the problems in the world they want to see resolved. Their suggestions range from personally stepping up to stop blatant discrimination to pushing for harsher punishments in response to bullying and even starting petitions to reduce animal abuse.
What Do You Want to Change?
While these teens were able to recognize the power their actions could have, this is not a universal phenomena. For example, when I reached out to the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in an attempt to gather more teen voices explaining the issues they care about, I received an email from one of the teachers that read, “When I asked students they didn’t feel they had good answers to the questions you asked (surrounding what issues in society they wanted to change) and some explained that they didn’t even plan on voting since ‘their votes don’t matter’.”
Voter turnout of young people is usually about 20 to 30 percentage points lower than their older counterparts. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University says part of the reason that these young people don’t turn up at the polls is due to high school civics classes not properly preparing students on how to navigate the voting process and are instead focusing on ‘bubble sheet civics,’ which simply goes into the facts and figures surrounding our political system.
While this and many other barriers to voter registration undeniably get in the way of young people’s activism, if utilized to its fullest capacity, youth voice has the potential to greatly influence many of the systems in place within our country to create a more equitable future and support people from backgrounds of all kinds.
Regardless of which political party in the U.S. you may find affiliated yourself with, the concept of a more well-informed and empathetic generation can be used to mobilize voters from both sides, with Republicans advocating for the pro-life movement and Democrats rallying for various marginalized groups across the country such as immigrants, people of color, women, or those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. In order for the youth to act as a collective, however, we must strive to make political and social activism accessible to those of all communities.
One way you can start to do this would be to learn a few signs in ASL, as suggested by many of the people above. Just like with any language, you don’t have to be fluent to be able to help someone out or be an ally.
If you are interested in learning some of the basics, you can find a list of resources for learning here.