"Mr. President, you might have painted your skin orange, but mine was red with rage as I watched a country that never loved me show its true colors," recited 17-year-old high school student Ugochi Egonu at an open mic shortly after the election. Though she'd been politically conscious before November 8, 2016, what unfolded that night quickly turned Egonu into an advocate for the people threatened most under the Trump administration. In the days that followed, Egonu organized the first protest she ever attended. Since then, despite having yet to graduate high school, she's become a prominent and promising Black Lives Matter activist.
Self-described as a "lover of words," Egonu has been involved in the Bay Area's slam poetry scene since her sophomore year of high school and identifies her writing as a mode of resistance. "For me, poetry has always been associated with activism," she says. " I don't like poetry that's just there to be there. I want it to mean something. It should have a message." Her non-poetry writing serves a similar purpose. Egonu has been writing for platforms like Rookie magazine for the past year, publishing pieces like "All Black Lives Matter," which features conversations with three black teens about the intersection of race and their other identities, like being Muslim or trans.
Incorporating activism into a hobby she loves is a method Egonu hopes more young people use. She encourages other activists to "work with whatever talent you have. If you're an actor, you can get involved in shows that are conscious. Using whatever skills you have is important."
Egonu's politicization started long before last year's election hysteria. After Sandra Bland was found dead in police custody in July of 2015, just three days after she was pulled over for a traffic violation and arrested, Egonu recalls being 15 years old and deeply angered by how quickly people moved on from the "trendy activism" surrounding Bland's death. "Her name was hashtagged for a minute," Egonu says disapprovingly.
"I think it's a double-edged sword," Egonu says about social media activism. Unlike many activists of generations before her, she is careful not to criticize or downplay the need for social media advocacy, pointing out that the Black Lives Matter movement began with a hashtag. Her own Instagram serves as a platform to elevate black voices and connect with other politically active teens. Still, she believes social media activism can only go so far: "I think it can be the beginning of the conversation, but it can't be the whole thing."
Older activists often use social media as a tool to reach and mobilize younger generations, but Egonu has some advice for them. "Don't underestimate us," she says. "We have powerful tools that they didn't. We are able to get information that they did not have access to when they were younger." She also urges those younger than herself to participate in these important conversations; to avoid the trap of thinking there's nothing you can do. "My only fear for the future is that people could become complacent," she says. "If there ever comes a time when we stop fighting, then I'll be scared."
Until then, Egonu's outlook on the future is anything but pessimistic. She believes that more young activists will learn to use their art as a means of protest and resistance, and she's excited to see what they create. Further, she thinks that more than anyone else, young people are quickly realizing that "it's not cool to not care."
As for her personal plans for the future, Egonu will be attending NYU in the fall. When I ask what's next for her as an activist, she says she's excited to be in New York, "the heart of where all the action happens" and, most importantly, to not have to ask for her mom's permission before heading out to the next protest or rally.