Meet the young Silicon Valley activists who are changing the world
Monica Mallon, transit advocate, takes the bus from home to school every day. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Climate activist Greta Thunberg stunned the nation and inspired a generation when she became the youngest person to be named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year.

    She was mocked by President Donald Trump, whose campaign photoshopped his face on the cover of the prestigious magazine.

    The real cover featured the words: “The power of youth.”

    Indeed, youth activists have made a worldwide impact in 2019 and Silicon Valley was no exception. From gun control to climate change, the South Bay’s high school and college students are tackling the biggest issues of our time.

    Here’s a look at some of the youth activists in our backyard who are changing the civic conversation — and the world.

    From left, Sindhu Vajrala, Helen Deng, Jamie Minden, Zoe Vulpe and Navya Pariti speak during the hundreds-strong Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike on Sept. 20. The group plans to host another strike on Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Jamie Minden.

    Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike: ‘For the generations that come after us’

    Heads up, Greta. San Jose has joined the climate change movement.

    Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike garnered a storm of media attention in September after a strike at San Jose City Hall drew a hundreds-strong crowd. For co-founder Jamie Minden, the strike was for the future.

    “As we were starting to march, I heard someone call my name. I turned around and saw the little 4-year-old girl I babysit, holding hands with her parents and marching behind us with a big smile on her face,” Minden told San José Spotlight. “She really represented who we were all there to fight for — the generations that come after us. I realized in that moment that all of the hard work we were putting in was so worth it if it brought a safe future for that little girl.”

    Minden, a 16-year-old junior from St. Francis High School in Mountain View, said Youth Climate Strike has organized a full lineup of events, from walkouts to attending City Council meetings to advocate for environmental protections. They also plan to have another major strike in 2020 on Earth Day.

    “If we don’t fight for the preservation of our planet, against climate change, we will die. It is that simple,” co-founder Sindhu Vajrala, 16, said. “In the process of all of us dying, marginalized communities of color, specifically indigenous, black and Latinx groups, will face increasing threats to their human rights as resource scarcity, pollution and conflict emerge as a result of climate change.”

    Vajrala said the group draws inspiration from “highly successful” historical movements, such as the fight for civil rights in the 1960s.

    Monica Mallon: ‘To travel all throughout the county’

    Monica Mallon is just 22, but her activism and advocacy are already prolific. She ran for Santa Clara supervisor in 2016 and now is one of San Jose’s top transit advocates. With her high-profile status comes great responsibility: Mallon has 16-hour days of meetings on top of attending San Jose State University, where she’s a senior.

    “I didn’t get involved in this because it was a trendy or popular issue,” Mallon said. “This is something that actually affects my life.”

    Mallon, an avid bus rider, watched warily as mass transit declined in Silicon Valley and across the United States. The bus routes she took in childhood no longer exist. Troubled by the trend, Mallon attended her first Valley Transportation Authority Board meeting in September 2018.

    Then, she went to her second meeting. Then, her third.

    “A lot of young people, they like to protest, they like to have rallies, they like to do these actions — but there (are) actually meetings where decisions are made that relate to these topics,” Mallon said. “I think that there really needs to be a much greater focus on going to meetings where decisions are made and speaking.”

    Mallon’s advocacy to save public transportation has focused on speaking at meetings, turning out a roomful of speakers, co-writing an op-ed and educating everyone she meets with data and maps. Yet, she said she’s underestimated “all the time.”

    “After one of the board meetings … I heard one of the elected officials saying … ‘These kids, they can’t get this reallocation, they can’t do this, they’re too young, they don’t know what they’re talking about,’” Mallon said.

    To which Mallon replies, “We can.”

    Mallon plans to stop only when there’s a system in place to allows people “to travel all throughout the county.”

    From left to right, Kaaya Minocha, Christina Vo, William Caraccio, Mitali Khanzode and Cassidy Chang gather in downtown San Jose for a team meeting. March for Our Lives San Jose has been operating for the past three years. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    March for Our Lives San Jose: ‘The normal for us should be safety’

    Shortly after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, South Bay students founded March for Our Lives San Jose to advocate for gun control and push for youth political participation. Since 2017, the organization has hosted a march, rally and several pop-up events.

    Mitali Khanzode, 17, is a senior at BASIS Independent Silicon Valley and the organization’s lead coordinator for the 2019-20 school year. Khanzode said that when she heard about Parkland, she felt “empty.”

    “I looked at the Parkland shooting and realized these were people my age, and that shook me to the core,” Khanzode said. “We think about them as numbers because we see these headlines so often, and this shouldn’t be the norm for us. The normal for us should be safety.”

    Gun violence also hit home for William Caraccio, a 16-year-old junior at Westmont High School in Campbell. Last year, his father’s home was broken into by armed assailants who pistol-whipped his dad and threatened to shoot him.

    “It’s a very personal thing to me, I want to make sure that that doesn’t happen to anyone,” Caraccio said. “These are people that had a criminal record. These are people that should not have had access to a gun.”

    Caraccio organized San Jose’s Rally for Change in March, which hosted hundreds of attendees and presented a variety of speakers, from faith leaders to students.

    “We wanted to get all the different aspects of the gun epidemic: We wanted to get survivors, we wanted their point of view, we wanted politicians, how they’re working to enforce legislation,” he said. “We wanted really to attack it from every single point of view, and get people to be able to experience that and really get that type of exposure.”

    March for Our Lives San Jose has big plans for 2020, said Christina Vo, the group’s interscholastic coordinator. The 16-year-old Silver Creek High School student cited the group’s ambassador program and possibly a youth summit to empower teens to be “inspired by social issues.”

    “No matter what your age is, the only thing that’s important is the passion that drives you,” Caraccio said. “And I think that’s something specifically that youth have.”

    Marshall Woodmansee, San Jose City Council District 6 candidate, protests at the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike at San Jose City Hall. Photo courtesy of Marshall Woodmansee.

    Marshall Woodmansee: ‘We need younger people in politics.’ 

    As he considered the problems at home and abroad, Marshall Woodmansee, 19, asked,“What’s the most I can do?”

    His answer was politics. He’s now a candidate in the contested San Jose City Council District 6 race.

    “I had this perspective that the city of San Jose’s trajectory is not looking good,” Woodmansee said. “We’re not caring for people’s needs, people are dying in traffic, people are dying because they’re unhoused. And then I saw on a global scale that we really have to take action or I won’t have a future — we won’t have a future as young people.”

    Woodmansee said his most memorable moment in 2019 was receiving the email from the city clerk’s office in December announcing that he’d qualified for the 2020 ballot. He called it “life-changing.”

    “What I’ve learned in campaigns is it’s 50% the campaign manager and 50% the candidate. I’m both,” Woodmansee said. “There were so many opportunities for failure in that week. I submitted it and cried happy tears.”

    Woodmansee has plans beyond his run for office. He said he aims to mentor other young political hopefuls and strives to make his campaign replicable, challenges notwithstanding.

    “I was told by some people I respect: ‘Marshall, wait four years. Get your degree, get some experience, then run,’” Woodmansee said. “We need younger people in politics. We need people who don’t have ties to the corporate world, who really focus on the needs of the community — and I don’t see that coming from our current established leaders.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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