By Alyssa Shapiro
Deja Foxx is a 20-year-old activist, strategist, influencer, and a self-declared future President of the United States. She is the founder of GenZ Girl Gang, a digital community for young womxn and femmes who work to uplift one another and who know they can get further by doing so. She was also, at 19, the youngest staffer on then-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s campaign, working from Harris’s headquarters as the Influencer and Surrogate Strategist. Ms. Foxx joined us via Zoom from her new home in San Diego, California.
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Alyssa Shapiro: Talk to me about GenZ Girl Gang and how, or if, it’s shifted since the pandemic started.
Deja Foxx: GenZ Girl Gang is the organization I founded about a year ago when I picked up and moved from Tucson, Arizona—the place I'd always lived— to New York City. I redefined what community meant for me and started organizing online. And I think it's more important now in the face of a global pandemic and social distancing to build those online communities where folks can find like-minded people, a network of support and friends.
AS: You talk about redefining sisterhood in the age of social media. What does sisterhood mean to you and how does it enrich your life?
DF: Sisterhood to me is success. When I look at what it means to be successful, I think we often have these examples that are rich, older, white men, but for people like me, success has to come from sisterhood, from other women lifting me up and bringing me along.
Melissa Garcia was the very first Planned Parenthood organizer to come into my life. She taught me the value of meeting people where they were at. She would pick me up when my family didn't have a car, drive me two hours to the next town over to make sure I could go to trainings, and always pushed me to see my own potential. That's really the power of sisterhood, when we pull each other along and bring each other up.
AS: Can you talk more about your involvement in Planned Parenthood?
DF: I’ve been a Planned Parenthood patient and advocate for years now. When I was in high school, I experienced homelessness. When I was 15, I was experiencing homelessness, bouncing around between houses and eventually ended up living with my boyfriend at the time and his family.
At this point in my life, I was looking for leadership. This was when I had lost my student council election, didn't make the volleyball team, and wasn't quite sure where I was going. And this Planned Parenthood organizer stepped into my life and helped me see the power in my story, which I hadn't yet told. I hadn’t told people about my experiences with homelessness or what was going on at home or the struggles I was facing.
She helped me see the power in my story, how to use it, and I continued to show up at school board meetings and I brought my friends along to do the same. After six months we won some sex education reform. And then I began to scale up my work to include birth control access. I lobbied on Capitol Hill, and I went viral, and spoke on the news, and started my own organization alongside other young people who were untraditional leaders who then became peer sex educators that have served over 4,000 youth in my hometown with services like birth control, STI testing, and PrEP at absolutely no cost to them.
AS: Part of sisterhood in my eyes is offering a safe space for upholding one another—something you’ve talked about—offering words of wisdom, sharing experiences. How does that come into play more so around sexual wellness and bodily autonomy? I saw you touched on that recently with your personal Instagram posts about birth control, which I thought was so incredible and so informative, and taking down this wall of like, “Oh, are we talking about this? Like, we should be talking about this.” Can you talk a little bit about the sisterhood in that, and access to information?
DF: Sisterhood plays a role in sex education because the best sex educators are the people who are already ingrained in the communities, right? The people who are friends, who are sisters, who are classmates. For folks like me, I talk about the implant. I just got on Instagram. I show up to clinics and I sit down with young folks who are just like me, who are from backgrounds like me, who I might go to school with. And when we have folks who have the knowledge, the right information in the right places, that’s how we really get ahead. I think that’s the best way to do peer sex education is to mobilize the communities and the relationships that already exist.
AS: Why is it important to you to be involved in politics, and what drew you to it initially?
DF: Whenever someone asks me why I’m involved in politics, it’s kind of a funny question because I feel like my life has always been political, right? I’m someone who’s lived in section eight housing, who’s lived off of food stamps. My life has always been political. It’s always been affected by the decisions being made often out of my reach. And so when I think about how I got involved in activist work, right, it was because I was experiencing homelessness, because I was firsthand experiencing what it meant for our sex education to be lacking, to have been last updated in the eighties. It was students like me who were most affected.
My political advocacy comes from a personal place. I always encourage people when they're asking me, how do I get started in this work, to start personally, start with issues that personally affect you, to mobilize your personal network, your friends, your family, and to just get out there and tell your personal story.
AS: Where does your sense of community responsibility come from?
DF: My sense of community responsibility comes from having seen my community step up for me. It was having neighbors who would drive me to school and organizers who went out of their way and counselors who would slip me money when I just didn't have any. I think about what it means to not have that, but to know that your community will get you right. When I was without a home, it was families who honestly weren't in the highest tax bracket that took me in and made space for me.
When I think about community responsibility, I think about the people who've invested in me and my return on that investment. I think there's no better investment than people.
AS: We’ve been talking so much about community at Youth To The People. What do you wish for the community moving forward; what do you want the future to hold?
DF: When I think about the ideal community, I think of communities where people are reaching their greatest potential. When I look at America now I see a lot of wasted potential, folks that we just haven't invested in, who we've neglected, whole communities that we've ignored. When I think about the ideal community, it's a community where everyone has the opportunity to reach their highest potential. And I think that’s only possible when we have communities where individuals can make choices about what kinds of food they want to eat, choices about if or not to have kids, what schools they want to go to, who to vote for.
When we empower people with choice, we'll have communities that reach their full potential.
When I was 16 and I was doing press that I wasn't feeling quite prepared for—like going live on Don Lemon—the advice [Planned Parenthood] would always give me is, “Deja, you’re talking about your own story. You're an expert in your own experience and you're not going to forget it. You're going to be fine. And that people aren't going to remember every aspect of what you said. They're going to remember how you made them feel.” That’s the best speaking advice I’ve ever gotten.
AS: I’d love to talk about your drive to become President. When did you first believe that was your career path, or something attainable for you?
DF: All through elementary school, I think I wanted to be President. It's sort of fuzzy and it fizzled out sooner rather than later. They always say you can't be what you can't see, and I’m someone who dared to see it in myself; I'm someone who is first in many things—a first-generation American, first in my family to go to college. Seeing it in myself is not something that is new to me. I often tell people that I started declaring my ambition, saying I was going to be President—not that I wanted to be president, but that I was going to be, that I am the future President—when I got to college. I started doing it because I realized that the more I said it, the more I believed it, and the more I believed it, the more other people believed it. And at the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about?
AS: Do you have a campaign slogan yet?
DF: No, that’s such a good question. Deja Foxx for 2036! That’s when I can run.
AS: I’d love to discuss your experience with Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice presidential nominee. At the time you worked on her presidential campaign, you were 19—the youngest campaign staffer for her team. What was that like?
DF: I picked up my entire life when I got the offer to work on Kamala Harris's campaign.
I moved to a city I'd never even been to. I put my education on hold because I believe in this woman, because I see in her what I wished I had seen growing up. I see in her a leader that I can trust, someone who is powerful and unapologetic, who's fearless. The experience, being just 19 working as a strategist full time out of the headquarters of a Presidential campaign, was like none other.
I got to lend my voice to the things that everyone saw every day, the things that we brought to the stage and to TV and to social. I even got to start a campaign alongside some of my close friends on the campaign called This is What a President Looks Like, which is all about when a president could look like, and seeing ourselves represented.
One of the most touching moments for me in this campaign was seeing little Brown and Black girls holding the signs saying that this is what a president looks like and looking at our mirrors. Oh man. Now I'm gonna cry. Seeing the way that our campaign was touching the lives of other young women is what really counted, you know?
I always say to folks that you're going to win some and you're going to lose some, but if you're doing the right kind of work, wholehearted work, work that puts people first, you're always doing good work and you'll always win. And for me, winning meant seeing those little girls see themselves.
Literally every time I talk about the campaign, I get so emotional. It was such a time.
AS: How did you get a role like that on Kamala Harris’s campaign? Now that you’re no longer working on that campaign, what does your career look like?
DF: I stepped into a role on the Kamala Harris campaign that had never existed before. We've seen the rise of influencers only just recently. When you think about it in the scheme of elections, we've only had the internet for a few, right? So digital teams in and of themselves are new. I think that that is exactly why young people like you and me are incredibly important in this process because we bring a special kind of expertise, we bring our perspective. I'll never forget the day my boss, Andrew, sat us all down and put on the board the word—”perspective.” He reminded us why the woman we were working for was the right one because of her perspective and why each of us in this room weren't your usual campaign folks.
Many of us had never worked on a campaign before, but were right for the job because we brought a unique perspective. Young people everywhere bring a unique perspective to how it is that we use the internet, how we use this amazing tool that is social media to create the world a better place.
Young people everywhere have a special kind of expertise that we bring to the table to create better worlds. And as we step into this new normal, we're going to need young people at the forefront to create those communities, to create those new worlds.
After the campaign and as COVID started to sweep across the world, I saw that, now more than ever, people needed community. And yet they were separated from them, right? We were practicing social distancing and unable to see our loved ones and our friends in the ways that we always had. And so taking a lesson from the organizing book, I realized we need to meet folks where they're at, and right now folks are online and GenZ Girl Gang, we’ve been doing this for a long time—building community in these digital spaces.
But I began to see my role in supporting nonprofits who had been building communities outside, who had been, you know, doing this incredible and important work. And so I stepped into the capacity to build that digital infrastructure to bring their services to the digital space and their communities into that space as well.
I think as so many of us are struggling to access resources, to find our communities, to keep our mental health in check, it's more important now than ever that we really develop and devote time and energy to creating our digital communities and to cultivating and curating what it is that we are consuming through our phones and our computers.
AS: What role does dreaming play in your life?
DF: I was someone who was always sort of on the straight and narrow. I feel like from 16 on, I knew I had to buckle down if I was going to get into college and if I was going to be the first in my family to go to college. It wasn't really until I took a big swerve in my life, until I got to a place where I had the safety net to take risks, that I started dreaming really, really big.
I think that sometimes we're so caught up in our day to day that we forget to think big and we forget to dream about what's possible for us, for our friends, for our community members. As an organizer, as an activist, as a change maker, we have to be dreamers. We have to be people who can push to see a future that others don't. Or else, why would we fight for it? How can we fight for something we couldn't even dream up? I think that dreaming is an essential part of the changemaking process.
AS: What does it mean to you to be a beautiful person?
DF: When I think about what it means to be a beautiful person when I look in the mirror through my own eyes, I realized that I'm not just seeing through these two eyes, I'm seeing through the eyes of all the young women who look up to me. To be a beautiful person to me is to be a good role model to them, to be someone worth looking up to, who tells stories worth sharing, and gives support that's needed, advice where it's helpful, and opportunities when they're essential. To me, to be a beautiful person is to be someone who's seen beautifully through the eyes of those who look up to them.
As the founder of GenZ Girl Gang and the former influencer surrogate strategist on the Kamala Harris campaign, I give a lot of thought to the intersection of social media and social justice. And in this pandemic, I think it's more important than ever that we mobilize those relationships that are manifesting themselves online to create change. Right? Each of us has the power to be influencers and influence our friends and our neighbors and our siblings. Maybe to get out the vote or to fill out the census or on an issue we care about.
I think when we each recognize our individual power, the power in our personal networks, in our platform, and we start mobilizing those relationships in the service of change, we'll all be better for it.
Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy