“Rays of Hope”: Supporting the leadership & activism of our young people

Our children and youth are not simply “future adults.” They are fully realized people with observations and opinions about the worlds they live in and aspirations about the ones they want to bring into being. On issues from climate change to Living-with-HIV to police brutality, young people - children, in some cases - are at the forefront of leading the way forward. 

Watch this conversation about how parents, teachers, and other adults in the lives of children can support their activism and advocacy while keeping them safe and managing our own fears for their emotional and physical safety. We were joined by guests Lisa Hall Richardson and Alina de Zoysa from Rays of Hope and Dr. Jessica Taft from UC Santa Cruz. If you're inspired by youth activism, please consider donating to Rays of Hope. The are small but mighty, as Rays of Hope president, high school senior Alina de Zoysa, testifies in this conversation. 

Lisa Hall Richardson headshot

Lisa Hall Richardson

EmbraceRace: So we have three guests, which is unusual for us, but a whole bunch of perspectives that are super important to have on this. 

The first, Lisa Richardson Hall is the founder of Rays of Hope, which teaches Central New Jersey youth from ages 8 to 18 the importance of community service, leadership, advocacy, and personal responsibility. In 2015, in the wake of some very high profile incidents of police brutality, Rays of Hope joined forces with community leaders in Perth Amboy to organize the Youth Organized for Unity March on MLK Day in 2015 in New Jersey, and currently has an active membership of about 60 young people. So welcome, Lisa, great to have you.

Dr. Jessica Taft headshot.

Professor Jessica Taft

And then we have Jessica Taft, who is an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She writes about youth activism and the ways that girls, children and youth participate in social movements, especially in North and South America. And she's written two books, the titles of which are The Kids Are in Charge and Rebel Girls. Great to have you, Jessica.

Jessica K. Taft: I'm glad to be here.

EmbraceRace: Also from Rays of Hope, we have Alina de Zoysa. Alina is a rising senior at the STEM Academy at Jackson Memorial High School and President of Rays of Hope. She participates in LEAD for Diversity, the Girl Scouts, TeenSHARP, and the YesSheCanCampaign, and of course, lots of activism work which we'll get at least somewhat into. And she's a member of the Science Honor Society, the Mathematics Honor Society, and the National Honor Society. I'm like, I wish I had your resume, Alina.

Alina de Zoysa: Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Great to have you all here. And Alina, I want to start actually with you since you are the activist youth that we're so interested in. Tell us about some of your activism right now. We know that you went to a protest recently, tell us a little bit about that.

Alina de Zoysa speaking into a microhpone.

Alina de Zoysa

Alina de Zoysa: Hi, everyone. My name is Alina. I'm so glad to be here today and talking to you all, and I just wanted to share a little bit about my activism. This Sunday I went to my first protest, which I was so excited to go to and start being involved in my community. We all know about what's going on in our country right now and how we all want to be part of the movement and make sure our voices are heard and we share our stories. So that's why I attended my first protest at Jackson, that's where I live, and I've really wanted to be able to be there and share my voice.

I was invited to be also a guest speaker, and I was really scared because I used to actually have a fear of speaking in front of people. So I would not speak out when people would have open discussions and everything like that. But when I joined Rays of Hope, I was forced to be put into that leadership category and take on that role of, "If I want something to be done, I need to speak out about it. And I can't sit back and wait for someone else to do that." So like we said, at the protest there was, I think, over 1,000 people there, which was so amazing to me and I was so scared. But I got up on that stage and I spoke about what I believed in, and I was really excited about that opportunity and being able to connect with my community and talk to people I see at school, and see new faces that I've never seen at a protest or anything like that before.

And just to see my community come together as one to talk about things that matter, it was just amazing and enlightening to see and an amazing experience that I just cherish so much. Last year, it's not very recent, but in 2019, I also was active in the "lunch shaming" bill that we wanted to pass in New Jersey. We wanted free lunch from New Jersey. And that was something I really took on as a leader, and one of my first leadership roles. I really made sure I was trying to get out and active in my community. And I talked to CBS News. I was on channel 12 New Jersey news. I was on their Spotlight as well. I was on different radio stations, 101.5, just talking about how we want change to be made in New Jersey with free lunch, because the state of New York did it.

EmbraceRace: Let me interrupt you just one second. You said just a minute ago that you used to be scared of public speaking.

Alina de Zoysa: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: You are the President of Rays of Hope, which we understand is very much a student-led organization, founded by Lisa but student-led.

What is Rays of Hope's work? What work does Rays of Hope do that led you to become the leader you obviously are?

Alina de Zoysa: Okay. So, Rays of Hope is a grassroots youth organization, and we focus on advocacy and creating young people to participate in our community and make change. I joined when I was in the sixth grade. My mom actually joined me and my brother in this organization. I really didn't know much about it, but I did know a few of my friends were part of it. And so I really wanted to join. I did a few of community service things here and there in elementary school, but this was my first community service group that I was part of.

We would do activities and community service. Throughout the month, we do about two activities going around Central New Jersey and giving back. And I really was just enlightened to how giving back to my community is so important. Because I never really understood how that can impact my life, and how it impacts the people in my community. And so after being in that organization for three years, I was introduced to leadership roles. So Ms. Lisa has high schoolers really take on the responsibility of leading this group. And I think that's such an amazing thing. She really puts it in our hands to lead this group.

And we learn so many different skills that I never would have been introduced to if I was never part of this group. Like I said I was really shy, and I really did not want to speak out when people would ask me different things. But being part of this organization forced me into that. And in a good way. First, I would lead leadership development workshops in our community, and I would be in front of maybe 30, 40 people. And that would scare me, but I would still get up to the plate and just be able to speak in front of all those people.

And then that helped me grow as a person to be able to later speak at, like I said, protests. I was on a panel last year for YesSheCanCampaign. And it just really helped me blossom as a leader and to be able to work with a team of people who I can trust and who I know that I can rely on who's also my age. So, I think this is a great organization that has just helped me flourish into the person I am today.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Alina. Lisa is having some connectivity issues. Let's go to Jessica and we can come back to Lisa when she's able. I'm hearing both the description of Rays of Hope and the work they do and what Alina said, there's a range of things that activism might entail. As far as I can tell from what you've written and from what you study, you understand that fairly broadly. Can you give us a little bit of a working definition of how we might think about what activism is?

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah, that's great. Thanks for having me first. First, let me say that. And when I think about what defines activism for me, it's work that's done collectively. So that's the first part of it, right? That is oriented toward creating some kind of more systemic form of change. And I think the important distinction for me there that I often make is between programs particularly for youth, that are oriented toward activism and social change versus programs for youth, of which there are many that are wonderful, that do all kinds of great work that are much more about transforming the individual youth, right?

There's organizations that focus on fixing the youth, addressing the individual youth's problems to overcome whatever barriers they might be facing in the world. Whereas I think about activism as the work that's actually about removing those barriers. It's the collective work that actually changes the system in some way rather than just helps youth to navigate the system that we live in.

There's organizations that focus on fixing the youth, addressing the individual youth's problems to overcome whatever barriers they might be facing in the world. Whereas I think about activism as the work that's actually about removing those barriers. It's the collective work that actually changes the system in some way rather than just helps youth to navigate the system that we live in.

Jessica Taft

EmbraceRace: Right. That's really helpful. Lisa's joining us by audio. I'm sorry you missed what your colleagues were saying, but they were representing, so don't you worry.

We're wondering about that on-ramp to activism and what the programming is at Rays of Hope. Alina, you told us about your story and the fact that you're the President and it was your first protest and you spoke at it. What a way to have a first protest and be a speaker. But you started in sixth grade, and I wonder Jessica maybe you have an outsider view of what the on-ramp is.

Jessica K. Taft: I can just add a little bit from what I heard from what Alina said. I would say this is actually a pretty common trajectory in some ways, but it actually takes time. And that's true for adults also, right? And I want to emphasize that. Absolutely everyone has to learn in order to figure out how to participate in social movements and activism. That's not unique to young people.

And I think sometimes when we think about helping young people develop activist selves, we assume that adults somehow automatically know how to do it. But nobody's born knowing how to facilitate a meeting. You actually have to learn how to do that. And the experience that Alina outlines of starting at a younger age, being just a participant in a program, watching how other people did it, maybe trying it out a little bit herself and then other people stepping in to show her how it's done a little bit more along the way, that kind of apprenticeship in a process is actually often the way that that entry works, right?

It's like we're working together on a project, and everyone is taking on different roles. But after more time in the space and more time in an organization, right? If you've been in an organization for three years, you actually know an awful lot about how that organization works and the kind of norms of how to make decisions as a group and how to work together differently. So I think that the on-ramp is really about creating opportunities for participation, and then giving people opportunities to step in to more and more leadership roles, exactly as Alina describes.

EmbraceRace: Now, Alina, I want to come back to you. I'm wondering about the ages, right? So I know in Rays of Hope, you start at 8 years old. That is younger than I think a lot of programs do. We were really glad to hear this, and it's one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you.

You joined Rays of Hope when you were 11 or 12 years old. Did you think that perhaps even younger children could have joined? What's the experience of the 8 and 9 year old's in Rays of Hope?

Alina de Zoysa: Right. So we have, like I told you, a range of activities that we do. So I'm just going to focus in on one. One that's coming to my mind is that we do these Christmas events. We go to Homefront Homeless Shelter in New Jersey and we always hold a little Christmas event. And we cook them breakfast and we do activities. And the way that we make sure everyone's engaged is that we have mentors for all of our younger students. So this year, Ms. Lisa really wanted our seniors to be there for our younger students that are a part of this program who just joined, who don't know what we're really about. They were there helping those younger kids wrap gifts for the homeless. They were there making sure that the kids knew what they were doing. And we just make sure older kids are able to guide the younger kids. Because that not only helps them become a leader in a sense. Even though they might not be in leadership positions, they're being a leader by showing younger children what to do.

Absolutely everyone has to learn in order to figure out how to participate in social movements and activism. That's not unique to young people. And I think sometimes when we think about helping young people develop activist selves, we assume that adults somehow automatically know how to do it. But nobody's born knowing how to facilitate a meeting. You actually have to learn how to do that.

Jessica Taft

They can be in their shoes as well, because a lot of our members have been part of this program for a long time, and they know what it's like to be 8 years old and in Rays of Hope. We really love the engagement of that older population really honing in on those younger kids and making sure they're knowing what they're doing, and not just being there just to have fun, which we also do, but we want to make sure that they understand the importance of activism and leadership and being involved in the community at a very young age.

EmbraceRace: What's at stake for young people, right? So if you were to sell this program to a parent or a teacher or a young person who says, "Eh. That doesn't feel like I'm going to get a whole lot out of that." What do you say to that?

Alina de Zoysa: Well, at first, I was not skeptical, but I was like, this is just a program for me to get community service hours and do what I need to do as a person in my community. But it's not just a community service experience. This is a full circle, 360 experience where I was started as just a member and became a leader. So even though people may not understand completely how to get there to be a leader, you just learn while being a member of this program or just being involved in your community. You may seem like, "Oh, I'm not doing that many leadership things. How can I be learning?" But every single thing that you're doing, even when you're just helping out as a member, just helping wrap gifts for people who are in the homeless shelter, you're learning leadership on your own.

You're learning that, "I'm taking myself seriously. And I really care about the people in my community. And I'm not only thinking about myself." Because I don't know how many kids when they're 8 years old wake up at 8:00 a.m, a week before Christmas on their free Saturday to go and help out those other children who may not have the advantages you have, being able to wake up on Christmas day with Santa who gave you presents and everything like that. I think it's a really rewarding experience to understand, even from the lower levels of just being a member of a community service organization, we just understand how important it is and how rewarding it is to be part of something and help give back to people who are less fortunate.

EmbraceRace: So you're learning about what's going on in the community in a way that you wouldn't otherwise, right? In your case, you're meeting people certainly you wouldn't have otherwise met. You've risen through the ranks. You're now President, so you're literally leading this leadership organization.

Lisa Richardson Hall:  Hi. I'm sorry about this.

EmbraceRace: That's okay. You know technology. This is not the first time. So thank you. Alina has done a great job explaining Rays of Hope. I'm thinking about the conversation that we had before a few days ago, and in which you said, and both Alina and Jessica have touched on this, but long before we get to the protest or the campaign, whatever form the activism takes, there are a bunch of steps that need to happen certainly at Rays of Hope.

Can you talk a little bit about what some of those steps before the activism activities are?

Lisa Richardson Hall: Sure. Well, Rays of Hope is a youth community service organization. So when the kids join our organization, they are really already ready to do community service and activism. They are passionate about it already. When they join Rays of Hope, they know that we are going to be working in the community, so they're already ready. But to prepare them to do things like activism, what we do is work on their confidence. 

Rays of Hope starts at the age of 8. So by the time they're in middle school, they've already had so much experience public speaking. And so we do things for instance, we have something called the Live Black Museum that we do every year that we require our members to do, where they dress up as a character or a person in black history, and they have to basically come alive and perform and in front of hundreds of people. And so that gives them the chance to be able to speak. They have to speak for at least three or four minutes in front of people, and that really helps to build their confidence.

And so we do a lot of that. Before they can even speak in public, we do a lot of leadership development where they are actually practicing their communication skills. And then in addition to that, we have a number of people in the community come and speak to our members about the things that matter, right? Like knowing your rights. And they go into depth about homelessness. And every time we meet, they are always learning, learning, learning. So they're educated. And so now you have the education and you have the confidence builder. And then now they're beginning to really get ready to go out and do what Alina did the other day. And I'm not sure if she shared with you that she spoke in front of over 1,000 people.

EmbraceRace: She did.

Lisa Richardson Hall: And she did a wonderful job. So, it's really about confidence building.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much, Lisa. We're glad to have you.

Jessica K. Taft: Did you want me to answer the one about those stakes?

EmbraceRace: Yes.

Jessica K. Taft: I could pull back a little bit. I think part of what Alina talks about there that's really significant is the individual stakes, right? The stakes for the people who participate. But I think when we think about the significance and the importance of youth activism, we actually should be also thinking about its significance for our communities, right? That if we're not including young people, we're actually excluding a group of people whose visions tend to be bigger, tend to be more visionary, who tends to be more critical, who tend to have a sort of alternative perspective on the world rooted in their direct experience and knowledge as young people.

And so when we're not actually listening to them and including their activism and their voices, then our ability to solve social problems is actually much worse. That we actually are fundamentally often misunderstanding what's happening in communities and institutions, if we don't really listen to youth. And so I think that the stakes around including young people as political subjects are not just like the stakes for individual youth of the things that they get out of it, which are absolutely important, but they're also stakes for all of us. And they're also, I think, about a question of justice, right? That I think many people assume that young people don't have sufficient critical understanding of the issues that are going on around them, and that's absolutely not true. Right?

We know that young people understand inequalities and injustices. And if they understand it, then to exclude them is also simply unethical, right? That it is actually an issue of human rights. And really respecting young people's rights means really listening to young people as political actors.

If we're not including young people [in our social movements], we're actually excluding a group of people whose visions tend to be bigger, tend to be more visionary, who tends to be more critical, who tend to have a sort of alternative perspective on the world rooted in their direct experience and knowledge as young people.

Jessica Taft

And so when we're not actually listening to them and including their activism and their voices, then our ability to solve social problems is actually much worse.

EmbraceRace: I mean, I heard Lisa say that certainly part of the curriculum is precisely that sort of education, development of analysis, critical thinking. So you understand the youth that you're engaging. For a long time it seemed to me that part of what makes activism among young people so important is it often felt to me like so many adults feel that they can actually get defensive because they feel implicated in the creation of the systems you may be trying to sabotage and transform. Whereas younger people, yes, certainly are fully capable of that analysis, but don't feel implicated in the same way, or are unlikely to get defensive, right? So in a way, I have often felt that it makes young people in general more clear-eyed. It's like, "Oh, that's the problem. We need to fix that."

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah, and, "Why can't we?" Right? And I think that's a really fundamental question that young people regularly ask of like, "Well, why is it this way? And why can't we just change it?" Right? They're not invested in keeping things the way that they are.

EmbraceRace: What you were saying earlier too, Jessica about how adults have to learn this too. And this idea that when a child turns into an adult that suddenly they'll be in a position to transform the structures around us without having learned to do it or without having the mindset to do it, that you have to develop over a really long time, it's really asking a lot of adults, right? Or of people that have not had that experience. So yeah, I really think that's important to remember that we all need this training.

Lisa, my question is, Rays of Hope is amazing, right? As EmbraceRace, we're definitely interested in this question of agency for young people, leadership for young people. So we keep an eye out for organizations that do the kind of work you do. I think there are not very many, again, there are very few organizations that goes as early as 8 years old.

Is there a Rays of Hope chapter or something similar in this place or that place for parents, for teachers who want to do this work? Or a curriculum? And for people who want to do this work but don't have an organization like yours to support them, what are some basic takeaways you have for working with young people?

Lisa Richardson Hall:  Well, one of the things, again, about this generation is they can build their own platform because of social media. And that's something that we really ask of our members to do. We not only want them to work with us, but we want them to become a voice on their own. And so things like being on social media and posting about what's actually happening right now is how you can start to become involved and build your platform.

I think it's important that young people follow on social media, on Instagram, on Facebook, those people who are activists that are doing the work that are on the front lines right now. To follow them and really learn by looking at what is happening on social media. Alina will post daily on our Instagram page. And we have close to 600, 700 followers, not a lot. We just started really on Instagram. But it's something that really is important especially right now.

I suggest that they really get out there, get on social media and find out what's happening and start to learn that way also. There's so much information out there for them. Rays of Hope doesn’t have any chapters. I started it with a group of moms. We took our children out to do community service and it just grew and grew and grew. I mean, it grew overnight. We've seen over 100 members in the past couple of years.

I don't really have the help, and I don't even have a curriculum now. We do have written information about our leadership development, but that is really it. So it's about me connecting with others who want to help children. For instance, Alina has gone to Capitol Hill and sat down and talked with a senator about working in marginalized communities. That was me making a phone call to someone that I know that can connect with someone on the Capitol. And I was able to bring my group there. Those are the types of things that I do.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Lisa. I think the social media, I imagine that's trickier for younger kids.

Lisa Richardson Hall: Yes, it is. But we have our social media within our organization. Our organization uses GroupMe. And so our younger kids, most of them who do have phones, believe it or not, at 8 or 9 years old. And they may not be able to go on social media like Instagram and Facebook, but they're able to be a part of our group. We kind of require that with them, and they have to check in. And we have a lot of conversation and a lot of learning going on in our group, in our chat.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. Thank you you, Lisa.

And Alina, what advice would you give to the younger version of you, and especially younger version of you who doesn't have a Rays of Hope to join? What advice would you give to the parents or teachers of a younger version of yourself? What would you like them to know?

Alina de Zoysa: Yeah. For me, I would just want to know that I shouldn't be scared to speak about what I believe in. Because for so long, I just believed that what I believed was kind of irrelevant and usually I was flooded out by classmates who had always been very vocal about what they believe in. And so I'm just imagining myself in my fifth grade classroom and just sitting in the back of the class, not really saying much. And I really wanted that version of myself to know that it is important for me to get active, because if I ever want anything that I believe in to actually come true, I need to be involved. And I need to know the importance that our voices, each and every one of our voices, have. 

And if we don't use that power and that tool, nothing will get done. The next leaders of our country is this generation, every generation coming up. So we need to learn as we grow to not be afraid of our voice and the value it has. So I just really would love to tell myself to get out there sooner and put myself in uncomfortable situations. Because I would always be kind of scared to talk to teachers about trying to make connections with them. And now I just am able to make a connection with someone and know how I can contribute to their life and how they can contribute to mine, and be able to have open discussions with different people, different backgrounds, and just find middle ground and talk about things that matter.

Putting myself out there and making sure I can be heard is something I think was so important to me, and I later learned in high school. But I want all young kids to really understand and use your platform. And even when your platform is your classroom. Talk to all your classmates you may not really know or be involved with all the time or you may not be friends with directly. But just make friends and try to put yourself out there and make sure you're heard and make sure that you have a spot in your classroom and in life.

If I ever want anything that I believe in to actually come true, I need to be involved... So we need to learn as we grow to not be afraid of our voice and the value it has... But I want all young kids to really understand and use your platform. And even when your platform is your classroom.

Alina de Zoysa

EmbraceRace: Alina, thank you. We've got people saying, "Alina, you should make a YouTube video and we can promote the importance of becoming involved in the community to other people."

Alina de Zoysa: Wow. We do actually have a YouTube channel. And we have our younger members and other members who are involved with video making and all of that stuff. They make really great videos all the time. We actually had a panel of moms who were battling cancer who have overcome cancer, and we had some of our members interview them. So like we said, we promote all the time public speaking and everything like that. And being involved with all ages and everything in our community. So go check out our YouTube channel and our Instagram. It's always Rays of Hope. So make sure to check that out.

EmbraceRace: Kathy says, "You are going places, Alina. Stay being you." And Jessica, we would love to hear your wisdom for either the adults in the lives of kids or perhaps for the young kids themselves.

Alina de Zoysa: Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Alina.

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah. Most of my advice is for adults. I think that kids actually know how to do this and they know how important it is and they want to be heard. But I think that the work is usually mostly for adults. And the first thing, I think, that what we have to learn is actually an unlearning. I think we have to unlearn a lot of our assumptions about childhood and adulthood. And most especially, I think we have to unlearn the assumption that adults know best. That we have to fundamentally let go of the idea that we actually know better than young people on most things. I think we might know more, we might know less, and I think we need to be really willing to learn from young people. And I think that we can't really work as collaborators with young people, as real allies to young people until we see them as real experts and as our equals in a really fundamental way.

And that's hard work. And it's not because we're bad people, right? We live in a society that bombards us with messages that tell us that young people are self-absorbed or captivated only by social media, but not serious. Or that they don't understand, or that they're emotional, or that they're not rational, or that they can't engage in critical thinking. And all of those messages are hard to let go of, and we have to start peeling those back and asking where they come from. Are they really true? We have to let go of the idea that young people who are politically engaged are somehow pawns of adults, that they have somehow been brainwashed by adults.

We have to actually have faith in their critical capacities and their critical thinking skills. And then there's actual work to do on the ground. Right? Once we've done that unlearning, then I think we're ready to show up. And then we can actually be helpful. And then it's a matter of like, "What are our resources? Right? And what are our differential resources?" And the point that Lisa made, I think, about Ray, she was able to call somebody who knew the senator to get them in touch with the senator, is exactly the kind of resources that adults are likely to have that young people might not be as likely to have.

We can provide those kinds of connections to policy makers. We are more likely to have money, so we can provide financial supporters. We're more likely to have institutional memory. And this, I think, is really important for teachers. That teachers are in a school or an institution much longer than young people that are in that institution. And so teachers are able to say, "You know what? Five years ago, this same principal promised that they were going to start doing this thing that they haven't done."

And the students might not know that, right? So teachers actually have a really important role to play in helping maintain a kind of institutional knowledge about what young people have done previously, what the institution has done previously. And then I think we just have a lot of work that we can do around support, emotional support, really just being encouraging, doing this work of building up young people's confidence, doing some of the material labor, right? Like driving people places, printing flyers, right? There's all kinds of things we can offer, but I think we have to really learn to let young people lead and to really work with them as partners.

I think, that what we [adults] have to learn is actually an unlearning... a lot of our assumptions about childhood and adulthood. And most especially, I think we have to unlearn the assumption that adults know best. That we have to fundamentally let go of the idea that we actually know better than young people on most things... And I think that we can't really work as collaborators with young people, as real allies to young people until we see them as real experts and as our equals in a really fundamental way.

Jessica Taft

EmbraceRace: And so we have to ask, "How can I help?"

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: There are a lot of questions from grandparents or older activists wondering how they specifically can help. And some of them are saying they tend to be activists themselves, and they're wondering how to help young activists, but also how to get their grandchildren interested in activism. There's an idea that, "They're not as into it as I am. Maybe it's because I'm saying it." Any advice there?

Incidentally, just on that, we also have some folks writing in and saying, we'd like to help you, Rays of Hope, write out some of your program to share with others, et cetera. Here on their website you can donate. But yeah, there are all kinds of resources like Jessica was saying. It doesn't have to be money to be a contribution.

Alina de Zoysa: Can I just speak on the question earlier about the older activists? When I went to the protest on Sunday, I actually saw a lot of the older generation being there and being active and having signs and having their grandkids there with them and their children. And I just saw that, and I was so inspired. Because people who have been fighting this fight for so many years are still at it and still adamant about things that they believe in. And that's really important to make sure you don't forget what you believe in and don't let your voice be drowned-out and to keep fighting. And I really felt like that was amazing to see and just bringing that younger generation with them and saying, "Just look at what's going on, look at being part of history."

And something I like to do a lot is to just educate myself. I read the news a lot. I'm on social media a lot to just be able to see how other people are learning about these things. I'm a high schooler so I'm on TikTok and stuff like that, and so I see all these activism videos. And I see people sharing links to documents, and I see people having debates and everything like that. From both political parties, they'll have live streams and just have debates about different topics that they believe in.

And just educating yourself about things that you believe in and about history, that's something I felt was so important. Just learning what this role is about. And in order to be involved, you need to be educated. So I'm reading different types of books outside of school to make sure I know what's going on. Right now, I'm reading Howard Zinn's history book about United States history. And just learning all these little things about America's history and how we got to where we are today was not only eye-opening but inciting to see because don't learn those types of things in my history classroom.

A lot of history is very whitewashing and the people who won that war, they're able to write that history. And so to be able to read something on the oppressed point of view is something I really need to know how to do and need to seek out different types of resources that gives that point of view, the point of view that so many people try to burry down and make their voice not heard. So just inciting yourself about different things and watching the news, different news stations to see different points of views to get all sides, all points of views to make sure you're educated the most you can be, is something I really enjoy and I keep at it.

EmbraceRace: That's great. Alina, thank you. It's so amazing to know about all that before you leave high school, which as you said, what you learn there is not necessarily the whole story or never is the whole story.

So I know at Rays of Hope, you start at 8 years old. But what does activism look like at that age, or in preschool? How young is too early? Will it scare young kids?

Lisa Richardson Hall:  Okay. So at 8 years old in Rays of Hope, our kids are involved in everything. The younger kids are really learning from the older kids. For instance, last week when we went on the protest, we had a number of young children at that protest. They made signs. They participated. They walked. They marched. And that's because their parents approved. That is something at Rays of Hope that I would ask. Anyone that's in elementary school, I would definitely ask the parent if they would like to participate. They don't have to if they don't want to, but they need to get permission to go on marches with us and all of that.

We don't really keep them from doing anything that a teenager does except for if we wanted to go and see a movie that is maybe PG 13 where we're learning about history or something like that, and they're not age appropriate. They wouldn't go through something like that. I think Alina was in the seventh grade when she joined Rays. I'm not sure. I can't remember.

Alina de Zoysa: Yeah. It was sixth grade.

Lisa Richardson Hall:  Right. And so Alina was doing everything that our seniors were doing at that time. And just so you know, she makes me want to just cry when I hear her speak because when she joined Rays of Hope, she barely participated. She was very, very shy and quiet. So I think having the younger children and the older children as mentors really really help. We don't really keep them from doing much of what we do because of their age.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Lisa.

Teachers are asking, how can we incorporate activism in a meaningful way into the middle school, into the high school, from preschool on up really? And what are some bits of advice you might have for that?

So, Alina, I wonder, for example, to what degree was school a source for you? Obviously, Rays of Hope was. Your peers in that program were. Ms. Lisa was. What about the school?

Alina de Zoysa: I go to Jackson Memorial High School, and I've been in the Jackson system since I was in first grade. And I'd say I don't know if school really played a huge part in my activism per se because of the demographics that go to my school. But I really felt like I found my group of people that I feel comfortable with. And I've found close friends who also joined Rays of Hope. And I found friends who believed in what I believe in, who still support me when I do my activism and speak out on issues that are important to me. So I feel like even though school didn't particularly play a part in it, it helped me bring myself into a community where it did foster that. And I also am a part of, like I said, a Saturday school program called TeenSHARP and that helps minorities learn about their history.

And that's where I started reading Howard Zinn's book and making sure I educate myself on other resources that are not taught at school. And so just being able to have access to different programs and different points of views, that helped me become the person I am. That also helped me contribute to speaking out about topics that matter to me. And so just making sure I'm part of a community and making sure I make myself a part of a community, even though I may not particularly at the be in one, put myself into one, and make sure I get the education I want and I deserve.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. That's awesome, Alina. Really so well said. Jessica, I want to come to you, and certainly feel free to respond to that question about whether and how schools might support. Alina, for example, said that, as I recall, that your mom signed you and your brother up those many years ago.

There are a lot of parents certainly who would like to see their kids be activists and be out there, and the kids may not want to for whatever reason. So, do you have any general advice for that parent?

Do we just wait and if the kid shows that impulse, we feed it? Or is there a way to feed and spark that impulse?

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah, I'll take those separately. Let me start with the schools. I just want to reference a resource that might be helpful to people who are particularly interested in trying to figure out how to incorporate some of these ideas in the classroom context. So out here in the Bay Area, I would say the group that is doing this the most in schools is an organization called Teachers for Social Justice. And they do an annual conference. It's just phenomenal. They put together lots of great resources and materials specifically for teachers. They're rooted in Ethnic Studies, and they're part of a sort of push toward Critical Ethnic Studies in K to 12 in California. And they take a really clear activist orientation to their approach to Critical Ethnic Studies and are, I think, a great source if you're looking for places to go as a teacher in particular around how to do the work in your own classrooms.

And then for parents, I think the issues are different, right? I think the relationships that parents have with their kids are different than the relationships teachers have for sure. And I think my inclination is to say that part of what parents can and should be doing is having conversations about social issues with their kids, right? That that's part of what it is to raise a child in the world, right? Is to talk about all of the things that are going on in the world because kids see it. We know that kids are seeing it, and it's not that they're not aware.

And so this is also a response to how young is too young, right? 6 year old's live in the world. And they see the trauma. They see the violence. They see the inequality. And I think we do them a disservice if we think that we're somehow protecting them from that vision, right? That the work is to talk with them about those things.

Whether or not that necessarily means that somebody wants to become an activist, I think that's a little bit more an inclination in some ways. I would love to say that every kid should be an activist. But on the other hand, I think, part of respecting children's agency and autonomy and power, which is something that's been really important to me, is to also respect when they don't want to do the things that we wish they would do. And that maybe they don't want to get politically engaged at this point. So I think creating opportunities, making it available, but not necessarily pushing it is probably the right approach.

EmbraceRace: And there are other things to do. I mean, activism at large is not only protesting. Right?

Jessica K. Taft: Absolutely.

EmbraceRace: It seems like from very early on you can teach your kids that this world we're in was created and that we can also change it, right? It's not just the way it is.

Jessica K. Taft: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: We hope those of you who are listening will support Rays of Hope. It's a 501(c)(3) organization. Lisa perhaps won't say this. And certainly we haven't had this conversation about what I would say here, but I can tell you, I mean, as far as I understand, a lot of support for this organization is coming out of pocket for the people who are members of it, and certainly for Lisa herself.

If you like what you're hearing, if you like the work they're doing, please donate. Clearly a lot of you, as are we all, are very impressed with Alina and love the mission of this organization. So if you have the means and the inclination, please donate. I know that they will appreciate if you do, as will we.

There's a question which I'll just read from Christine. "How can I help my white and Latina 14 year old, a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter with few friends and classmates of color, to be a supportive ally activist for the Black community?" How do you promote alliances between kids and the understanding that we should be supporting each other?

Alina de Zoysa: I could answer that. As a student, I go to a predominantly white school, but the minorities in our community tend to stick together, and we tend to be a smaller community within our school. And we talk amongst each other all the time. One thing that we have in our school after an incident of racial injustice at our school and inappropriate comments, is we emplaced a diversity club, in which we focus on educating ourselves and our community about leaders of color in our community. And that also includes the LGBTQ community. We need to learn about different people who have contributed to our community and different backgrounds and how that helped them become that person they are today. And how that didn't limit them to what they can do. 

And so just learning and sharing amongst one another our own personal stories with one another, so we can see different points of views. Not only doing that, but educating ourselves about other people who have been active in our community and who are older than us, just to look up to them and see how they've accomplished it. And so I would say to really read about different perspectives. And there's so many blogs out there about what people of color experience at school, at different functions, just learning about these individuals experiences and understand how you can help with your privilege.

And I've seen one thing on Instagram: "How can I use my White privilege for good?" And just reading up on different resources of how you can use your position in our world and how you can use it for an advantage. So just educating yourself about what you can do and who you can donate to, what you can read up about. Just reading and understanding and educating yourself, you can help others by just knowing different things that other kids may not know.

I've seen a lot of my white peers posting about different resources they can be accessing. And I thought that was so amazing to just see how they're speaking up about it, even though they're not personally affected by it. Just because you're not affected by it, doesn't mean it's not happening. Although I've seen a lot of classmates sit back and just let everything that's happening right now brush over themselves, just posting beach pictures and all that. I've seen a lot of people, who I never thought I would see, posting about how they can help and how you can donate to different organizations like Black Lives Matter and donate to people who have been victims of police brutality. So just being able to make connections with other minorities in your school and in your community is something that's really important. Just let those voices be heard, and educate yourself about different things.

EmbraceRace: Wonderful. Thank you, Alina. First, I want to say sorry to all the folks who asked lots of amazing questions. Of course, we're not able to get to them. I'm going to ask one last one then we'll have to close out. There's a bunch of questions really around emotional safety, right? Depending on the kind of activism you do, physical safety may or may not be an issue, but certainly emotional safety is likely to be an issue, at least possibly.

How do you think about emotional safety for your young people?

Lisa Richardson Hall: Well, that's extremely important to me. The great thing about what I do is that I am connected to families who allow me not only to help and teach activism and community service, but also connect with me personally. And so I've built very great relationships with all of my kids. And I check in with them constantly even during times like this pandemic. I have their phone numbers. I speak to them all the time. They call me. I have college students who have graduated through the program who still call me. And sometimes they'll tell me things that they won't tell their parents. And so emotionally, I'm just always checking in to make sure that they are all right, and if they need any help at all in any areas of their life, that they can call me. I think it's important that they have someone that they can do that with.

EmbraceRace: Well, thank you so much, everybody. Thanks everyone who's watching and thanks to our guests, to Jessica, to Alina, to Lisa for hanging in even though we had some tech issues. And we're grateful to have all this participation. We'll send you guys this video tomorrow and the resources that were mentioned. And we'll even maybe try to get some of these questions answered for you. And all of you, I think Alina you, in particular, we must say that you made some big fans. Thank you so much for your work, all of you.

Alina de Zoysa: Thank you.

Lisa Richardson Hall:  Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Bye-bye.


Teachers for Social Justice - A great source if you're looking for places to go as a teacher in particular around how to do the work in your own classrooms.

Lisa Hall Richardson

Lisa Richardson Hall is founder of Rays of Hope, which teaches Central New Jersey youth from 8 to 18 the importance of community service, leadership, advocacy and personal responsibility. A daughter of the City of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Lisa is a servant leader who lent her talents to the Girl Scouts of America for many years. In 2015 at the height of the police brutality incidents the Rays Of Hope joined forces with community leaders in Perth Amboy to organize the Youth Organized for Unity March on MLK Day 2015. The organization currently has an active membership of approximately 60 students.
Lisa Hall Richardson headshot

Jessica Taft

Jessica K. Taft is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the political lives of children and youth in North and South America. Specifically, she writes about youth activism and the ways that girls, children, and youth participate in social movements. She has written two books, The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru’s Movement of Working Children (2019) and Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas (2011).
Dr. Jessica Taft headshot.

Alina de Zoysa

Alina de Zoysa is a senior at the STEM Academy at Jackson Memorial High School and president of Rays of Hope. Among her many advocacy experiences, Alina created an online petition to stop lunch shaming in the state of New Jersey that received over 2,500 signatures and spoke with Congressman Donald Paine Jr. about the importance of serving the low-income areas across New Jersey. She participates in LEAD for Diversity, the Girl Scouts, TeenSHARP, and the YesSheCanCampaign, among other activities, and is a member of the Science Honor Society, the Mathematics Honor Society, and the National Honor Society.
Alina de Zoysa speaking into a microhpone.
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