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Founders Roundtable: How College Students Are Preparing For Trump’s America

MTV’s Campus Ambassadors discuss activism and allyship in 2017

Our January theme for MTV Founders is Moving Forward. As the new year begins, we’ll be exploring how to find motivation and resolve within our self-improvement goals, mental health, activism, and relationships.

This week, we’re taking a look at how we can move forward specifically in terms of our activism. As last November’s election results rolled in, college students — the “most Democratic- and liberal-leaning of all age groups” — across the country immediately took to the streets to protest. Since then they’ve continued to speak up, whether it’s planning to participate in nationwide walkouts on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration or taking on a more active role in local politics.

We opened up the conversation to our own MTV Campus Ambassadors to get a pulse on how they’re feeling in the hours leading up to Trump’s new America and what steps they’re taking to become better activists and allies in the four years to come.

Join the conversation with #mtvmovingforward and let us know how you’re moving forward in 2017 at mtvfounders@gmail.com.

Isabel Song, UC Berkeley: The election was a reality check for a lot of people. I saw friends and peers all around me having a hard time processing that yes, while Trump lost the popular vote, there were still so many who did vote for him or at least didn’t dislike him enough to cast an opposing vote. The people I knew were so far removed from the over 61 million who voted for Trump that they honestly could not fathom why anyone would vote for him.

I understand why people voted for Trump. I grew up in conservative, Republican strongholds in Colorado. Sixty-four percent of the county I grew up in voted for Trump; meanwhile, 56 percent of the county where my high school is voted for Trump — and that’s actually lower than what I’d expected. I grew up with Trump supporters. I went to school with them. I lived in the same neighborhood as them. I am friends with them. So when I moved to Berkeley, the political atmosphere shocked me. Here I was, this liberal-leaning, small-town girl from conservative Colorado, going to school in a hotbed of progressive thinking. I was so ecstatic to have the opportunity to develop political thought that strayed from the conservatism I’d always known that I jumped right in.

But that’s also where I believe I failed as an activist. I spent so much time and energy focused on living and breathing progressive politics that I forgot to make sure I wasn’t contributing to the increasing polarization of our country. Despite my unique perspective as an Asian-American woman who grew up in very conservative towns, I failed to help my peers understand the other half of America and break them out of their progressive bubble. I failed to show them that while many of us feel like we do not have the privilege of overlooking issues of equality and civil rights, many others feel like they do not have the privilege of prioritizing others’ struggles when all they know is that their own jobs are disappearing and their children are worse off than their parents. I failed to help close the growing gap between the Democratic Party and the working class they once championed or the growing animosity between liberal and conservative thought. If anything, maybe I took part in that polarization.

Now I recognize that I, along with the rest of the nation, need to work harder to bridge the divide between parties and learn to understand each other. We need to stop glazing over our country’s significant chasm, and I think we can start with our fierce love for our country and our wish to make it better. Our ability to change relies not on our polarization but in believing we can do better together.

Emma Havighorst, Fordham University: Isabel, I think the way you speak about the increasing polarization in our country pinpoints the issue perfectly. The fact of the matter, at least for myself and many of the people I interact with on a daily basis in New York, is that we’ve never lived in rural and/or conservative towns. Therefore, we don’t have the experience needed to understand why people would vote for Trump.

I personally grew up in a progressive bubble where the most conservative people I interacted with were “fiscal conservatives” who wanted more tax cuts and less government regulations on the industries they worked in. I’ve never had experience with families who are dependent on factories, only to have that labor shipped abroad. I’ve never experienced many, many situations that Trump promised to solve, which made it hard for me to understand many of his positions.

I think this “East Coast liberal” mindset is part of my privilege that I need to acknowledge when speaking about this election. I somehow didn’t realize that I was so separated from a large portion of this country’s population who are struggling. I don’t agree that Trump will be the person to fix their problems, but I didn’t even recognize that these problems existed.

Emily Tantuccio, Rutgers University: I have been trying to push past election-related exhaustion by reminding myself that one of the most productive ways to fight ignorance is through education, and that we are capable of doing that if we continue to speak up and figure out new ways to spread our activism.

As an activist for children and young people suffering from chronic illnesses, I’m most motivated to act when I think about the kids who might have a much tougher time accessing quality medical care in the coming years. I know that during the times in my life in which I was dealing with the more daunting challenges of chronic illness (like getting coverage to see the best doctors for surgeries and being approved by my insurance company to get an insulin pump), I was privileged in that I always had access to great insurance, and parents who were willing to advocate for me as well as teach me how to be my own advocate. I’m well aware that not everyone has that, and that’s one of many reasons why I want to keep fighting right now.

I’ve always been involved in nonprofit work involving kids with chronic illnesses through organizations like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Living the Dream Foundation, and I’ve been working more on using my own platform to help further those efforts, but this year I want to figure out how to expand and maximize my efforts to work with even more kids who are struggling with their health outside of my local community. I want to help instill in them the knowledge that they are not lesser people who deserve less access to opportunities just because of what they deal with. I want to equip them with the tools to advocate for themselves the way I was taught to do growing up. It’s not unheard of for those who suffer from documented chronic illnesses to still be discriminated against in the classroom and/or workplace, and I want to teach them that they have the right to fight back.

The first steps I want to take include finding out how to fundraise to sponsor kids to attend a sleepaway camp for those with type 1 diabetes, which was another privilege I had when I was first diagnosed. Although camp is expensive, attending it really normalized living with this illness for me and reinforced the idea that I did not have to live a lower-quality life because I’m diabetic. I’m also trying to see if there are any opportunities for type 1 diabetic young adults to speak in front of Congress or have a generally more active presence in D.C. I’m trying to do more than I’ve ever done before.

But on the flip side, listening is also an essential part of being a more effective activist and ally. I think it’s amazing that social media has educated so many people about systemic issues within different communities and parts of society (myself included), but we also have to be present enough to not limit our efforts and our dialogue to social media, and remind ourselves that we have to go out and work for the change in person, too.

Taylor Vidmar, Richland Community College: Emily, I’m so glad you brought up the ACA. My heart skips a beat every time a lawmaker talks about repealing the act. During the 2008 recession, my father lost his job and my family struggled to afford health and dental care. It was really scary to go through, but my family was lucky that none of us were seriously ill. I know repealing the ACA will have dangerous and potentially deadly consequences for millions of Americans, so I’m completely sickened to hear about Trump’s plans to repeal the ACA without an adequate replacement.

It’s enormously frustrating, but focusing on young people and education is what makes me hopeful in this dark time. I find hope in my generation and in those even younger than us, and I hope to become a better activist by advocating for education and encouraging more students to go to college. I think by supporting underprivileged and disadvantaged students’ journeys to higher education, we’re molding the change-makers we need. I had the privilege of hearing Michelle Obama give her final speech as FLOTUS in person (which you should absolutely watch if you haven’t already), in which she explained the urgent need to fight for the right of all young people to go to college. I think supporting and advocating for students (specifically those who are disadvantaged or economically challenged) in their journeys to higher education is especially significant right now, considering Trump’s pick for secretary of education doesn’t support or want to fund public schools, where 90 percent of children are educated.

As far as being an ally is concerned, no matter how much I might care about advocating for any single issue, I recognize that I might not know nearly as much about it as someone who has experienced it firsthand. For example, I absolutely want to advocate for better and more accessible health care, but I don’t know nearly as much about how imperative this need is as you do, Emily. I don’t know what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, so I could never fully understand the extent of the problems and discrimination you may face. In the next few years, therefore, I think it’s important for everyone, specifically privileged people, to start having more serious discussions about discrimination in this country — from racism, to transphobia, to islamophobia, and beyond. Privileged people have to stop valuing our comfort over other people’s safety. We’ve all seen the effects of the hate that Trump has perpetuated. The simplest way to go from here is to talk honestly and earnestly about the problems in this country and to be open to listening and learning, because the only way we can change what’s happening is if we understand one another.

Alondra Bodden, Florida International University: I must admit that I’m feeling nervous about the upcoming inauguration. Part of me wants to believe that Trump will get up onstage and announce that this whole thing was just an experiment to bring out the ugliness in America, then throw up a deuces sign and skip offstage with Pence laughing behind him. The other part of me, the realist part, knows this is reality, and Trump will be the president of the USA (not my president …) for the next four, long, grueling years.

I also agree that education is an important part of preparing for Trump’s America. I’ve been educating myself about our history as a nation, and more specifically the history of black people in the United States. As a woman of color, I’m particularly aware of how extremely important yet undervalued this is in the public school system. I’d really like to see our school systems transform so that we can throw out those terrible history books and write newer, ACCURATE ones with ACCURATE depictions of terrible people like Christopher Columbus — books that give credit where it’s truly due.

Kamrin Baker, University of Nebraska-Omaha: For me, this inauguration is heavy. It’s on my mind nine-tenths of the time, and as a journalism student, I cannot avoid it. It’s impossible for me to take a breather from press conferences by our president-elect because it’s my homework. As a journalist, I am scared. As a female journalist, I am terrified. Just watching how journalist Lauren Duca was harassed for expressing her own political opinions — not to mention the long legacy of other female journalists who have faced harassment for expressing their opinions — is enough to make me reevaluate my entire future.

As a white woman, I also don’t feel like I have the right to complain. I know my privilege can lead to problematic behavior and I don’t know enough about other people’s realities because a lot of times, I’m stuck in my own. I feel like the best thing I can do is continue to educate myself, ask questions, and be a critical consumer of media as well as a strong-willed citizen.

I’ve been trying to address this political reality by figuring out ways I can personally deal with election-related stress. I find that listening to empowering songs, writing about things that are important to me, and telling the stories of marginalized people has allowed me to grow as a creator and an individual. I’m also trying to figure out ways to give back by fundraising and contributing to organizations like Planned Parenthood. I speak up on social media as much as I can, and although I know doing so may not change anything directly, I do believe conversation is a driving force behind change. I’m not someone who would ever run for office, but as a writer, I do hope to make change and speak for voices that would otherwise go unheard.

Bizzy Emerson, University of Missouri: I totally hear what Kamrin is saying. This is an intense time to be a journalism student, but I’m grateful that this election is teaching me some valuable lessons about how to report important news, as well as how to present and deal with a leader who is contentious with journalists in press conferences. Likewise, national conversations about the election have offered young voters the opportunity to share their voices in a way that seems unique from past years. The role social media has played in this election has also been crucial.

Kamrin’s point about being a white woman is something I also take very deeply to heart. As a woman, I understand that I’m disadvantaged. As a white person, I realize that I am also privileged. I internalize this by focusing on exerting my activism toward intersectional feminism and building up women who are not as privileged as I am. I’m looking more into volunteering and donating to Planned Parenthood on a regular basis, as well as becoming more involved in Mizzou’s women’s center. I’m also leading a spring break trip to Atlanta to serve the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence with 11 other awesome women. I always actively try to have meaningful conversations with my peers about feminism and it’s importance because equity among the genders can’t happen if an immobile hierarchy exists among women, even if they’re disadvantaged as a whole.

While I’m worried about the future of gender equality, 2016 was a year that made strides toward achieving the idea of intersectionality. Powerful women of color — like actress Taraji P. Henson, Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, and Michelle Obama — served as role models. I’m positive that the spirit and work of women like these will help the gender equality movement make great strides in 2017 despite what Trump’s America might entail.

Perhaps Trump’s legislation will inspire more privileged people to seek allyship with marginalized groups. But if they do, I think the most important thing for allies to remember is that they don’t know what’s best for a community they aren’t necessarily a part of. The best thing allies can do is listen, ask questions, and seek to understand and serve where they’re needed, rather than ignorantly insert themselves into causes.

Justin Clay, Georgia State University: A big part of being an activist is acknowledging your privilege. As a white cisgender male, I know that my life experiences are different from a person whose identities are marginalized. But being an ally means so much more than just saying, “Hey, I have privilege.” Being an ally means listening first and acting second. Yes, listening to black women’s experiences with misogynoir is extremely important, but how can allies go beyond just listening? We take action. When we see or hear people perpetuate racially charged or sexist stereotypes about black women, we need to step in and confront those stereotypes head-on. When we see or hear people delegitimizing the experiences of transgender individuals, we need to talk about cissexism. When we see or hear people mocking differently abled individuals, we need to explain how ableism not only impacts those individuals, but negatively impacts others as well. And when we personally mess up or step out of bounds, we need to accept that and learn from it rather than defend or ignore it.

Sara Li, University of Kansas: I agree with Justin. Activism is incredibly complex and we have to be self-aware when we tackle these issues. I run the nonprofit Project Consent, which is dedicated to battling sexual assault and rape culture around the world, and I’ve learned that it’s vital to put as much emphasis on action as we do on awareness. I think the first step toward achieving any solution is to start a conversation, but we need to remember to follow up on these promises of change that we discuss with actual, measurable progress. Whether it’s getting involved with grassroots organizations or talking to local legislators, we need to commit ourselves to bringing about change with our actions. There’s always a chance to be the difference that we want to see.