Tasneia Ahmed was entering her freshman year of high school at the International Academy East in Troy when Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protests after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, Jr in 2014.
It was the killing of Brown, a Black 18-year-old man, by a white police officer and the civil unrest that followed that Tasneia says sparked her interest in social justice advocacy.
"Definitely Ferguson," she says, reflecting on the catalyst for her activism, especially online activism.
Six years later, Tasneia, 20, and her Gen-Z cohorts continue to make their voices heard through advocacy.
Eighty-three percent of people from 'Generation-Z' (Gen-Z), as people born after 1996 are called, believe that young people have the power to change the country according to a recent poll by Tufts University. The same poll showed that 60 percent of Gen-Z's believe they can do this through social justice activism.
"I think it's not going to change, I think this is just the start” says Tasneia. When asked if people from her generation will continue with social activism, “we know we have power in our voices now… and we're seeing that with all these movements.”
While some may dismiss Gen-Z's activism as an unsustainable response to the times, young people like Tasneia are diving deeper into political advocacy, taking on volunteering opportunities for organizations like the ACLU of Michigan.
Ria Ellendula is also a Gen-Zer who recently became a volunteer with the ACLU of Michigan Campaign for Smart Justice, which aims to cut mass incarceration in half and end racism in the criminal legal system.
"The two topics that really got me to focus on criminal justice reform was the school to prison pipeline and the way that cash bail disproportionally affects Black and Brown families," says Ria Ellendula, who is 18 and just graduated from Northville High School.
"It's encouraging to see young people taking their passion for issues like systemic racism and mass incarceration and applying it to volunteering," says Jessica Ayoub, Public Engagement Strategist for the ACLU of Michigan. "Lawmakers respond when their constituents make their voices heard. By volunteering, not only are you amplifying your voice, but you are encouraging others to do the same."
As Public Engagement Strategist, Jessica mobilizes volunteers across the state to carry out the nonprofit’s mission. This year's focus centers on pressuring state lawmakers to pass legislation to reform the bail system, a key driver of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black people and other people of color. Data collected from 20 Michigan counties showed that Black men accounted for just six percent of the population, but 29 percent of jail admissions in those same counties.
"Michigan's bail system is one of the most profoundly unfair parts of our legal system,” says Ayoub. “When a person is charged with a crime, they are presumed innocent, yet if they cannot afford to pay their bail, they are locked in jail until their case goes to trial. In other words, we punish people because they're too poor to pay for their freedom.”
Volunteers Support Week of Action
Both Tasneia and Ria are now volunteer leaders with the ACLU. Ria was named Recruitment Lead for the Wayne County team, which means she is tasked with bringing on more volunteers to push for bail reform legislation.
Tasneia, who is serving as Training Lead on the Macomb/Oakland team, trains volunteers on key advocacy skills and tactics.
Earlier this month, Ria and Tasneia participated in the campaign's Week of Action, a series of events designed to activate volunteers across the state to demand that our lawmakers pass bail reform legislation this year.
To kick off our week of action, volunteers participated in a Legislative Townhall on bail reform. They heard from Michigan State Senators Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), and Sylvia Santana (D-Wayne County), along with Michigan House Representatives David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) and Tenisha Yancy (D-Harper Woods), speak on the harms of the current bail system and how reform advocates can help bring change.
LaGrand introduced bail reform legislation last session. He is co-sponsoring bail reform legislation again this year and hopes to introduce it soon. LaGrand encouraged event attendees to call Representative Graham Filler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and pressure him to hold a hearing on the bill package once introduced. As committee chair, Representative Filler decides what bills receive a hearing and when.
ACLU volunteer teams consists of people of all age groups, genders, and ethnicities, with each supporter bringing in a different perspective and skillset that benefits the group. The friendly and supportive atmosphere allows everyone to feel welcome regardless of experience level.
As soon as LaGrand put the call out to pressure Filler, our volunteers acted -- knowing that they could make a difference. “Anybody can come in and make an immediate impact. If you are looking for a way to get involved in political advocacy,” says Holly Thayer, Distributed Organizer at ACLU of Michigan, who also helps recruit and train volunteers. “I think that’s the strength of our volunteer teams, we have a range of people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, experience and perspectives.”
Tasneia, now pursuing a double major in Criminal Justice and Political Science, has her sights set on law school. But her volunteer experience with the ACLU confirmed that there are a variety of ways people can make a difference.
"There's so much else I could do,” she says about volunteering to reform Michigan’s broken bail system with reform legislation. “You don't have to just be a lawyer to help these individuals directly."