She is motivating other young people of color to delve into political and social justice advocacy through various initiatives.
By Ja’lani Foster
Denia Smith is a rising high school senior attending West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in West Windsor, New Jersey, and an advocate for social and educational equity. In June 2020, Denia organized a march in honor of the #BlackLivesMatter movement — garnering over 1,000 attendees — and continues to moderate numerous community panels pertaining to diversity, inclusion, and education reform. She also implements racially equitable modifications in district policy and curricula through the WW-P POC Advocacy: an organization containing 80 members and operating across 5 schools. Denia also serves as the president of her school’s Black Student Union, project-lead of her School Climate and Culture Team, and a student representative on her School Life Committee, where she influenced the development of a district-wide equity goal. She more recently coordinated a month-long and district-wide Black History Month celebration containing 15+ panels and garnering 500–1,000 attendees. She is now coordinating a series of school-wide youth-led panels on equity while working with various student groups to foster a more conscientious and empathetic school climate.
Denia has also organized within local, state, and national politics for progressive causes. She became immersed in political advocacy after becoming a Group Leader in Training at Mercer County Students Demand Action wherein she organized local “Wear Orange Day” events to advocate for gun-violence prevention. Following this, she conducted 65 hours of phone banking and ballot-curing with the Democratic Party of Georgia during the run-off campaign. She currently serves as a Policy Intern at New Voters and the New Jersey State Director at Students Against Voter Suppression to expand youth access to voting. As an organizer with Blue Future + the Youth Progressive Action Catalyst, Denia conducted 100+ hours of phone banking and text banking towards progressive causes. In her free time, Denia volunteers at a local debate clinic and strives to find new and innovative ways to serve those around her.
How did you begin your journey in political activism?
“I got inspired into the political sphere after the death of George Floyd and Breyonna Taylor. It made me realize the immense power of our political system at hand and how the opinions and jurisdictions of a couple of senators and members of the hours of representatives could really determine the future of Americans. Especially those in marginalized communities. This is what made me interested in learning more and educating myself in my free time. I wasn’t able to get hands-on political experiences until I did a fellowship in December for the Georgia Run-Offs with the democratic party of Georgia. That experience was mind-blowing and eye-opening because it really allowed me to see the inequities in our voting system. And how a lot of Blacks and LatinX voters in Georgia don’t have the right to vote and not enough access to the proper information to fill out their ballots or where their voter polls are. This is what kept me on this drive to activism to enact transformative changes and getting involved in different organizations to have youth in the forefront for this change for a progressive and blue future.”
What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn more about these causes?
“I really started by listening to other people’s stories and trying to understand communities beyond my own. In regards to my own residence in West Windsor, it is a predominantly Asian community. A lot of the inequities and atrocities faced by African American and LatinX communities don’t really occur here. Therefore, one of the main things I did was reach out to friends and people I knew in other communities to ask ‘Hey, what do these issues look like in your community’, or ‘What’s the most important thing going on going on with your people’ to really use the power of the internet to not only learn about different stories and perspectives but learning about historical complexities beyond these issues. Especially in regards to police brutality. One of the main things I did was a deep dive to the internet to understand how slavery and the systems of suppression in the ways they never really resolved in America. This gave birth to the atrocious system that we now have today. When you understand where we are from where we started, it makes it a lot easier to understand where we have to go in the future. For anyone who would really want to educate themselves, I would 100% recommend going into the past to do a deep dive into the roots causing specific issues or historical issues perpetuating this injustice. Because once you know where it started you can then switch the cycle and flip the switch to building something better and greater.”
What makes you pursue this drive every day to keep fighting for advocacy, policy, and awareness?
“I think the fact that there are still people out there that haven’t received justice. I think one of the main things that I’ve really prolonged it for me was after seeing an African American man that could have easily been my cousin or my uncle or father being choked to death for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Seeing this stagnated response from police and public officials really encouraged me to not only get into this work but even when times are hard and may seem disheartening that you have to keep pushing forward. Because there are still people out there who deserve justice and causes out there that still matter. Until at least for me, until we reach the idealistic goal set into the constitution of a nation wherein both women and men are equal and where we all have equal justice, liberty, and prosperity for all, then our work is not done. I always believe there is more that everyone can do. For some that might mean going out on the streets and others may see that as telling a friend about what’s happening. That’s completely understandable that it’s seen differently for different people but I want to emphasize you don’t need to be on the streets to be doing something transformative and you don’t have to get out of your comfort zone that drastically to enact change. Everyone plays a different part in this movement and that’s how we get to a moment to a movement; by different people doing different things and doing their own individual parts to get to where we are today. Talking about the BLM movement as an example, there are people saying Black Lives Matter in the STEM field, doing it in art, in music, in law, in technology, etc. Those differentiations allow us to build upon the movement and actually get to somewhere different.”
As a young woman of color, what message do you want to convey to the next POC leaders after us and beside us?
“To not let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Especially for me and just as an example, another thing that I did during June of 2020 was make a march for my community for the Black Lives Matter movement. I remember organizing this, hearing from my friends and sometimes my peers in class shockingly was ‘You can’t do this, you’re too young to do this’ or ‘You’re going to be a radical. You’re just an angry black girl upset about an issue.’ Do not let anyone stop you from what you are ordained to do. It is self-evident that there are problems in our society that need to be solved and we can no longer just wait to let other people do their changes for us. We have to make the changes. No one else is going to do this except for us. History alone is evidence. Young people are the main drivers of change. Even during the civil rights movement MLK and John Luis were in their 30s and 20s. For us, that may seem older but in the time that was very young. Even today, young people are stepping out into the streets and getting the work done, and stepping into the rooms to make things happen. So. don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young, or that because of your skin color, or gender that you can’t do it. If anything, that proves even more that you can do it because you have something special inside of you that makes you be able to do anything you put your mind to.”
What is one change you want to see in the world by 2025?
“There are so many! But I would say two things. The first one is regarding the education system and it actually sees African American and LatinX history being prioritized in our education systems. And acknowledging that this history is imperative for young students to grow up and become practiced contributors to an immensely diverse society. The reason that I emphasize that was because in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is the first district or high school in New Jersey to make African American History a graduating requirement. If they can do it, I believe the whole country can do it. I believe more than possible. While we’re talking about African American History, let’s throw in indigenous history, Latin American History, AAPI history. Let’s throw in education about the disenfranchisement of individuals. All these different topics matter in today’s society. I really believe that our education system needs to start reflecting on these social movements and what Americans are actually going through. This is how we foster more anti-prejudice and more conscientious individuals. So, the first one would definitely be our education system being more reflective of who we are and really empowering people to make changes in their own lives. Another thing I would really like to see in 2025, is seeing restorative justice prioritized in the criminal justice system. I really don’t believe people acknowledge the intersectionality of the current prison crisis and how unfair sentencing policies are. These treatments in prisons leave individuals in this perpetual cycle of stagnation in society. Because when you’re in prison there is only so much you can do, and when you get out you practically don’t have a life in a sense. Let alone they are thrown in prison for the wrong reasons even though prison isn’t the best way to correct the things that they did. I think if anything, if this country is founded upon morals and ethicalities, we need to start prioritizing restorative injustice and understand that throwing people in prisons is not the right way to go about building more empathetic individuals. And through taking more of an ethical and more sensitive approach, we can not only correct the problems we are facing but we can also stop this cycle that is not even coincidentally but purposefully.”
Have you ever felt as though your voice wasn’t heard? If so, how did you combat this problem?
“Definitely. When I started doing a lot of work in my own school district trying to make education more racially equitable, I felt like a lot of teachers that didn’t care for what I had to say. With regards to being in a class or maybe they wouldn’t mention something about history that I think they should to speak my mind. Or I tried to introduce them to the work I’m going to work together to make change happen. There were many instances where they were kind of disregarded and say ‘Okay that’s nice’ and not really think about it or work with me to make this change happen. This lack of acknowledgment of the work I’m doing and the concerns expressed by my peers really left me in a state of slight distress in a sense. Because I’m doing all this work, and I feel like you’re not listening despite the evident problems at hand. I think one of the main things that really helped me with that is to acknowledge that some people may not view this work as important but that doesn’t mean that you should stop doing this work that is important. You know the things that matter. When you talk to people in your community and see the problems at hand, you know it’s’ the right thing to fight for. So long as you’re fueled by those connections in your community and individual strength to carry out this work, you know it will always get down. For me, when there would be people who would doubt what I’m doing or try to push me down, that sense of interconnectedness with the people around me and this belief for a better education system and a better world fuels me in these hard times. It really picked me up when I felt down.”
In your inspiring background in being a political activist and human rights/social justice advocate, what has been the biggest milestone or success story in your journey?
“The march that I held in June of 2020 because, for me it was inspiring because I was able to bring different people of the community together under a common cause. I saw people at that march that came up to me with full support who a couple of months or years earlier expressed no interest in BLM. They believed it was a phony movement and honestly proclaimed ‘all lives matter’. For me to see people there for one and two, seeing that perspectives change really showed me that there’s power in what I’m doing. For Gen Z organizers everywhere, there’s power in what we’re doing because we’re changing perspectives and shifting narratives and disrupting ones if not that. For me, even though it was only in my community, I think the fact that I can even have that slight impact on even one person was just immensely powerful.”
What advice would you give someone who may want to make different initiatives for change?
“I would say to not be afraid to use your connections. I know for me and starting out, I had this idea and I had the passion for it. But one of the main things that stopped me was being afraid to reach out to people to see if they’re interested and putting my ideas out there. Especially in my community when there were a lot of credits for my work efforts it felt intimidating for me but taking that first leap really made it a lot easier. When I took that leap I didn’t realize that there were 10’s and 100’s of students who were just as passionate as me and more than willing to do the work. I would definitely advise using your networks. Talk to your friends, your friends’ of friends, or teachers that you trust to then see if they can contact students to work with you. Don’t be afraid to network and really reach out to people, honestly.”
With being a high school student has it been hard to create and produce advocacy and opportunities as a teen? What was the hardest part?
“The organization that I’m part of that works with the education system. We do a lot of speakership events and development days to talk to educators about the importance of these topics and answer as many questions as they have on their journey of anti-racism. Not all, but some teachers come to us to expect us to have all of the answers and be experts on this topic. ‘What do I do with XYZ’ and ‘ABC’. As much as I want to provide them those answers, I honestly don’t know. Not because I’m not knowledgeable about the issue, but because I’m a high school student. I don’t have a Ph.D. in racially equitable education. Honestly acknowledge your limits. Not saying there are things you can’t do, but to imply there are times you need to direct people to their resources and allow them to take that journey of self-exploration. At least as a student that’s been hard because when you make these orgs they expect you to have these answers and be the beacons of hope. But sometimes you shouldn’t be afraid to direct people and read sources from different professionals that can better answer those questions. The way I see it is that you’re planting a seed, that they then need to take that seed to cultivate it in order for it to grow into something greater.”
What references and resources do you use to educate yourself about these topics?
“I would say TeachingTolerance is a website I always direct people to. They provide really good insights on various topics pertaining to equity and inclusion in education. With regards to a historical background, I always direct people to Standing From The Beginning and How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi. Both books I read over the summer that were phenomenal and changed so much for me in terms of my perspective on American history and what it really means to be an Anti-Racist! I would honestly start there as a couple of beginners along with Slavery By Another Name by Douglass A Blackmon. That book is a gift from heaven! It examines the history of African American history from the Reconstruction period to World War l. For me, going through history classes I actually think their history is not talked about at all. We talk about black people during the Reconstruction and not again until the Civil Rights Movements. This makes you wonder what happened between these times in a 100 year time period. That book truly talks about what’s going on and what structures were being created, as well as factors perpetuated leading into the Civil Rights Movement. When it ends how this affected race riots, and mass incarceration seen on appearing in the 1970’s through the 1990’s. But in terms pertaining to more topics, go to Goodreads or Penguinrandomhouse. They have a bunch of good resources as well. Generally I would recommend and refer people to different books, and trustable websites.”
What makes a great leader? From a women leader to a POC activist, what do you see as the common factor?
“I would say putting others ahead of yourself is the most important thing in leadership. Acknowledging that when you enter these roles or start working on these projects it’s not about you it’s about the community. And it’s not about your voice in the spotlight, it’s about amplifying the voices of your peers. Most of the work that I’ve done and what its taught me that amplifying these voices is the most important thing. You may have this platform to speak your mind and promote awareness but other people don’t. Your job as a leader is to then share these opportunities with other people that don’t have them so that they can become leaders. Leadership is honestly about creating a coalition of leaders to sustain the leadership movement. I know a lot about the items leadership people can become egocentric in a sense that they have to be the top leader to do everything. That’s not what leadership is. It’s not an individualized sport, it’s a team sport. Even though you might be a leader, your main job is to encourage others to then become leaders. I would definitely say, leadership to me is prioritizing what other people in your community need but being able to provide your peers with the skills and tools necessary to empower them to lead as well.”