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- Aden Stern, music artist and producer
- Alan Cruz, social justice advocate
- Alise Maxie, civil rights activist
- Celine Hoang, international affairs student
- Chris Narishkin, "Minecraft" builder
- Haile Thomas, food and lifestyle influencer
- Hannah Michelson, costume designer
- Khibri Habtemariam, filmmaker
- Kinsey Ratzman, artist and disability advocate
- Map Pesqueira, film buff and aspiring political leader
- Raymellia Jones, dancer and fitness instructor
- Reneé Rapp, actress and singer
- Sally Ziskind, photographer
- Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, Indigenous leader and powwow dancer
- Sneha Sharma, intercultural relations specialist
- Soi Lee, visual artist
- Tal Simon, music producer
- Tanaya West, interpersonal communication enthusiast
- Tianna Arata, Black Lives Matter activist
- Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, climate activist and hip-hop artist
- Zanagee Artis, climate action advocate
Today's 21-year-olds have grown up in unprecedented times. They turned one the year the Twin Towers fell and are coming of age during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Now, on the cusp of adulthood and at a moment that should be ripe with possibility for the future, many are looking beyond 2021 with trepidation.
That feeling of uncertainty, exacerbated by the loneliness and stress inflicted by COVID-19, was a common thread across interviews Insider conducted with 21 Americans who are either currently 21 years old or will be turning 21 in 2021.
Many of them left their college campuses during their senior years, while others stayed and were separated from family. Amid the partial breakdown of their social support systems, they had to manage mental-health challenges like never before.
A Harvard survey conducted in October found that 61% of adults ages 18 to 25 reported serious, increasing loneliness during the pandemic. Rates of mental illness among young adults are rising, too. A survey by Active Minds, a nonprofit focused on mental health for young adults, found that half of older teens and young adults screened positive for anxiety and depression in fall 2020.
"We know that in both a broad sense and in terms of actual mental-health conditions, young adults are struggling," said Laura Horne, the chief program officer at Active Minds.
Young adults weren't having the easiest time before the pandemic either: They've reported mental-health problems at greater rates every year. But COVID-19 has added a new dimension to an already turbulent period of transition. Nearly 63% of young adults surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June 2020 had symptoms of anxiety or depression that they attributed to the pandemic. Almost a quarter reported that they were abusing alcohol, marijuana, or prescription drugs to cope with their emotions.
Out of the chaos of the pandemic, many of the young people who spoke with Insider also found positives and new ways to connect, from
hangouts to "Animal Crossing." Quarantine hobbies such as nurturing plants and baking bread kept them sane.
"For some people, they've really tapped into a lot of resilience and have embraced more of a growth mindset about the last year," said Lindsey Mortenson, a psychiatrist and the interim executive director of health services at the University of Michigan."But for others, I think they have really felt stymied and stuck, almost like their life has been put on pause for the past year, and that's been really hard."
Horne said she's seen more students consider taking a break, whether that's a semester off from school or deferring postgraduate plans. The flexibility of the past year has been a silver lining for some, and it's something many young people hope to hold on to post-pandemic.
Therapist Tess Brigham told Insider that, long before the pandemic, she has always counseled young people to shed their expectations so they don't "miss the magic that's happening all around us." That advice was thrust on this generation: the 21-year-olds Insider spoke to had no choice but to let go of their plans. Many, however, say it's given them a renewed sense of purpose.
"If young people can really hold on to this and see this as a way of being resilient, this could be incredibly powerful for their generation. It's really on how you decide to look at it," Brigham said. "It's all about allowing yourself to feel sad and grieve and and feel all the feelings, and then being able to say, 'Okay, how do I process this and use this to help me?'"
— Mia de Graaf and Andrea Michelson
Aden Stern, music artist and producer
By Brea Cubit
In February 2020, Aden Stern, a music artist and producer, was on a ski trip in Switzerland when he got the news: His excursion would have to be cut short because of concerns over COVID-19. At the time, the 21-year-old Cleveland native, who goes by the music moniker Willy P, was taking a break from his study-abroad work in Florence, Italy — a long way from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied sociology and political science before graduating this year.
"I was already having a bunch of anxiety, and COVID definitely added to it," Stern said. "We were all scared about it over there because we didn't know what was going on."
Stern flew back home to Ohio, barely escaping Europe's lockdown. He continued his classes online while using the time in quarantine to sharpen his skills as a virtuoso. "I do my own mixing, mastering, and recording in my apartment," he said. "It's been a learning process, and it gave me the time to solidify my confidence in my abilities."
Stern added that quarantine set forth a clearer path for the future by making him realize that he wanted to focus on music. And that helped him work through unremitting qualms about pursuing his primary passion. "It doesn't matter if other people see it as a reasonable goal right now or not. It's just knowing that what's meant for you will happen at some point," he said.
With that revelation, Stern poured himself into his music and leaned into his Willy P sobriquet. After releasing his album "What Happens on Earth" in January 2020, he dropped two more projects ("Ciao Bella" and "Take a Trip") and three singles ("Sun Is Shining," "Up," and "Law of Attraction") over the course of 10 months. This past January, he also unveiled his latest album, "Moon Child."
I've grown so much over the past year, and I'm grateful for that.
Lyrically, Stern focuses on maintaining a hustle and grind mentality in his pursuit of success. His cool, confident sound channels influences such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Mac Miller, and Tyler, the Creator, as well as indie artists such as Oliver Malcolm, Rex Orange County, and Felly.
"I've grown so much over the past year, and I'm grateful for that," said Stern, who has also spent time in the studio with Brockhampton producers Romil Hemnani and Jabari Manwa. "I learned whether you're in an amazing position or an awful position, it's always going to change. And you're never going to be stuck in one place mentally or physically if you're willing to accept change."
It's that expectation of inevitable change that prompted Stern to join a two-year master's degree program at the University of Denver where he'll be studying global environmental sustainability in the fall. "I want to do music, but I also feel much more comfortable having a backup plan that's tangible," he said.
One career path Stern is considering involves teaching international affairs or political science. "Music and politics are two things that will give me the ability to positively influence the world," he said, reflecting on the societal, political, and environmental issues that continue to strike the social consciousness. "Seeing what's going on, it's important to know when you should speak and when you should listen. Learning about the systems that are causing so much inequity in the US and around the world is how you're going to change it. And I want to be at the forefront of that change."
Alise Maxie, civil rights activist
By Canela López
Despite having acute social anxiety, Alise Maxie decided she was going to make an effort in her first year of undergrad to make friends and spread positivity.
The freshman, who uses she/they pronouns, made a name for herself at Prairie View A&M University, passing out notes with affirmations on them and giving free hugs to strangers who wanted them.
"I had social anxiety, so I thought that giving back and being that little light that people needed was a great way to combat that," Maxie said. "That's kind of how my engagement around campus got so broad and how people started to notice me."
Beyond her project, social advocacy, and community building as a queer person were very important to Maxie. They made an effort to be involved in LGBTQ organizations on campus, such as the Human Rights Campaign Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program.
But right as she was starting to solidify a group of friends and her on-campus involvement in the second semester of her freshman year, everything shifted.
When the pandemic was declared, Maxie left her dorm in Houston and had to move in with her mother who was working in a nursing home.
In the first few months of the pandemic, Maxie struggled with their mental health as they juggled the challenges of online school, no in-person socializing, and the fear that her mother would get infected.
"She didn't even want to get near me because she knew patients in her nursing home had COVID and she never wanted to get me infected," Maxie said. "So she would try to stay in her room all the time. So it was even just isolation in my own home."
One of the glimmers of community she had during this time was the Human Rights Campaign HBCU Program's group chat, which had students from colleges across the country. In the chat, they would discuss social issues and joke from time to time.
When I look at Breonna Taylor, I see myself. When I look at Mike Brown, I see my brothers.
But the chat exploded after the civil-rights protests began in June following the murder of George Floyd and other Black people by police.
One name that struck a very personal chord with Maxie was Breonna Taylor.
"When I look at Breonna Taylor, I see myself. When I look at Mike Brown, I see my brothers."
Maxie was pulled into action despite the pandemic. With the help of Say Her Name Texas, Maxie and her friend Avery Collins organized a march in honor of Taylor in downtown Houston on June 5, 2020.
After not seeing anyone for months, Maxie was brought to tears by the turnout of over 200 people.
"I feel like our voices and our incidents get pushed aside," Maxie said, adding that "male police-brutality cases" tend to garner more attention. "Black women are also getting killed, and I don't feel like people speak enough about that."
The intensity of the summer has pushed Maxie even further on her mission of fighting for civil rights. They were ecstatic when they got the call in December that they had been chosen to be a Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador.
Maxie said she plans on using that experience to help her on her journey to become a lawyer. What happened in 2020, she said, gave her an even bigger push to accomplish that goal so she can help others. She added, "I want to protect my people."
Celine Hoang, international affairs student
By Brea Cubit
If Celine Hoang knew that a pandemic was about to upend her life, she would've accepted her friends' invitation to hang out back in March 2020. At the time, she was a second-year student at the University of California, Riverside, "living a pretty normal life," she said. One night, after attending a semiformal for her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, she left to study for an upcoming final exam. Her friends hoped that she'd pass on cramming to socialize instead, but Hoang declined. "I didn't know that things would never be the same after that," she said.
Shortly after, Hoang, who is studying international affairs and political science, received an email from her school saying classes were being moved to online. So she packed her things and moved back home to Huntington Beach, California.
She began to feel displaced and apathetic about her schoolwork, especially amid growing social and political tensions. The devastating effects of COVID-19 and the heightened calls for social justice bolstered by the Black Lives Matter movement and the Stop Asian Hate rallying cry all culminated in a heavy emotional load. "It just felt very surreal," Hoang said. "I was still expected to do all of my work. I was like, 'The world is literally on fire. Does school even matter at this point?'"
Her existential musings, though difficult to confront, allowed her to engage in productive self-reflection as she reconsidered her priorities. Before the pandemic, she had her sights set on going into corporate law to hopefully make enough money to live a comfortable life. But now, what matters most to Hoang is cherishing her memories with friends and family. "Working super hard doesn't matter to me as much anymore as long as I'm stable," she said.
It just felt very surreal. I was still expected to do all of my work. I was like, 'The world is literally on fire. Does school even matter at this point?'
Still, Hoang is working to solidify her career trajectory as she prepares to graduate early this coming fall. She already has a summer fellowship lined up that she hopes will lead to a full-time job. She also plans to take the Graduate Record Examinations at the end of the year and has been contemplating getting her master's degree before attending law school. "Down the line, maybe I'd like to work for the UN or work in international law," she said. "I'm not too definite about anything, but I really do like my major and international affairs."
While she figures things out, Hoang continues to find different ways to take care of her mental health. She's been painting, crocheting, watching "We Bare Bears," and making air-dry clay figurines by following TikTok tutorials. "It's crazy to see some people just two years older than me talking about 401(k)s and potentially buying homes, and I'm still making clay figurines," she said with a laugh.
But as difficult as it is, Hoang is learning how to focus on her own journey, take everything day by day, and delight in even the smallest moments of joy. Now, whenever her friends ask to hang out, she says yes without a second thought.
Chris Narishkin, "Minecraft" builder
By Lindsay Dodgson
Since the pandemic began, Chris Narishkin has transitioned back to his roots and has logged back into the blocky 3D world of "Minecraft" that he first visited over a decade ago.
Narishkin has always loved to build things. Growing up as a quiet, reserved kid in a suburb of St. Louis, he helped out at his parents' business where they sold boats on the weekends. He cleaned hulls and worked on the shop floor. Then he started learning about robotics in high school, before studying aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
He said his father took him to tons of air shows growing up, so he "had to love airplanes."
The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for Narishkin's passions, as the majority of his classes moved online. As a very visual, tactile person, he much prefers being able to work with his hands, he said.
I was going to parties nonstop, doing nothing but. And then COVID really just took that apart.
"It's nice to feel the nickel of the turbine section and see the airfoil as air flows through it," he added.
Outside of a once weekly lab where he gets to use a subsonic wind tunnel, Narishkin stares at a screen almost all day during his third year of college. It was a difficult transition, he said, because his first two years at college were much more social.
"I had a rebellious phase," he said. "I was going to parties nonstop, doing nothing but. And then COVID really just took that apart."
Narishkin has some long-standing friendships within the "Minecraft" video-game community, which he said has helped him while he's been stuck in his dorm room. It's his creative outlet, he said, as well as an effective way to make money: He and other professional "Minecraft" builders are commissioned by players to build out their virtual worlds. His skills at the building and survival game got him recruited to join an elite, professional gaming group called Builder's Refuge — just as an artist or photographer would be sourced through their portfolio.
"I'm like a 'Minecraft' architect," Narishkin said. "I'll be the one who builds the buildings and the setup where everyone hangs out."
"Minecraft" doesn't have the restrictions that the real world does, which offers a nice break from all the intricacies of Narishkin's schoolwork. That can sometimes be an increasing stressor because everything relies on his creativity and ingenuity, he said, but most of the time, it's quite therapeutic.
"The only thing that has gravity is sand, which is hilarious," he said. "I don't have to worry about tensile strength or stress and strain in my wing design. It's just whatever looks good."
Narishkin said he is still learning to balance his heavy workload while earning money in "Minecraft." For a while, he was paying off his student loans with earnings from the game, but he said he's had to take a step back from "Minecraft" since his classes have intensified.
His other way to relax is going for long bike rides. Last summer, he rode straight into the middle of a Black Lives Matter protest and decided to join in. Narishkin said he typically avoids the news because it can be so mentally exhausting, but he ended up going to a few more rallies after that.
An upcoming summer internship at the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is a dream job for Narishkin, where he hopes to use his hands more than he's been able to in the past year.
"The US's new stealth fighter has a really cool engine, and I'm gonna be working on the engine for that," he said. "That's just what I love."
Haile Thomas, food and lifestyle influencer
By Monica Humphries
As a middle schooler, Haile Thomas founded a nonprofit and helped redesign Hyatt Hotel's kids' menu to be healthier.
By the time she was 16, she was declared a "CNN Young Wonder." Her achievements were impressive, but they seemed even more astounding given her age.
People were amazed a teen could stand in front of crowds and speak so eloquently about health and wellness, she said.
Now that her 21st birthday is approaching, Thomas is faced with the reality that although she's still young, she's not that young anymore.
"I had a lot of fears surrounding becoming older," she said. "Thinking that I would be perceived differently or that my value wouldn't be as much because my age was such a token people loved about me."
Thomas said the pandemic has helped her become more confident in what she has to offer, and that a year at home has allowed her to think about adulthood and strengthen her mental health.
"Now, I feel more secure in the things I have to offer beyond my age," she said.
Thomas was 8 when her dad was diagnosed with type 2
. Searching for solutions beyond medication, her family took to the kitchen in Thomas's Tucson, Arizona, childhood home. There, they started turning their meat-based Jamaican dishes into plant-based meals.
A year later, her father's diabetes reversed because of the changes they had made in the kitchen.
"All of that really awakened me to this whole other dimension of life," Thomas said.
She started doing community cooking demonstrations and created a cooking YouTube channel with her sister. At 12, she launched her nonprofit, Happy, which educates kids about physical health, mental health, character building, and relationship development.
What's really helped guide me through adulthood is this capacity to extend compassion to myself and others.
When the pandemic hit, Thomas was living in her family's home in upstate New York, and what had been a nonstop life quickly came to a halt.
On February 2, Thomas had her first breakdown of the pandemic.
"I think it was the first time I allowed myself to feel the full weight of the pandemic," she said. "I was really trying to keep myself stable and focusing on gratitude."
Thomas said she realized she wasn't allowing herself to grieve.
Feelings about the pain of the Black community after George Floyd's murder, the year she missed, and the future's uncertainty started boiling over, she said.
She found space to heal in her kitchen and in her morning routine.
Thomas experimented with new recipes, making potato gnocchi with sun-dried tomatoes and attempting cake decorating.
Prior to the pandemic, Thomas said her fast-paced lifestyle didn't leave enough time for self-love.
Now, she spends each morning in her room surrounded by plants, candles, and crystals. She meditates, journals, and does qigong, a movement practice that focuses on breath.
"The pandemic has really allowed me to realize that who I am in my adult years is fully up to me," she said. "What's really helped guide me through adulthood is this capacity to extend compassion to myself and others."
Hannah Michelson, costume designer
By Moises Mendez II
During the coronavirus pandemic, locked-down kids and young adults sat behind computer screens to continue their studies at home. It not only became a detriment to youth mental health but also affected the way students learned in schools — especially those who require hands-on learning experiences.
Hannah Michelson, 21, said these mental-health struggles compounded issues she's faced since she was a junior in high school. "With this pandemic, my depression and anxiety have never been worse," she said.
Michelson studies costume design at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. During the height of the pandemic, she was at home in New Jersey with her family until the campus reopened in fall 2020. She said the classes are still mainly online, and that she attends one in-person class.
Teachers have been giving more work, Michelson said, which has been difficult to manage.
"I've made a lot of mental progress, and I feel I've learned a lot about myself in this pandemic," she said. "But then, there have been times where I've just been so depressed and so anxious, and Zoom University has not helped that at all."
Michelson has a diverse theatrical portfolio. On top of costume design, she also has experience acting, screenwriting, directing, and stage managing.
Despite her numerous talents, the immediate future of her career in theater remains unclear. The performing-arts community is set to reemerge in a world that's been shifted by global activism and a pandemic.
I've become a better artist through this pandemic. I feel like I've gotten a better sense of who I am as a person, and I'm really proud of that.
Michelson, who plans to become a college senior next semester, said she's "scared s---less" of becoming a "full-fledged adult." Many things factor into her fear, she said. "We don't know what the future is going to be, and that's really scary, especially because I already work in an industry where there's a lot of uncertainty."
"Am I going to be able to get a job? Am I going to be able to support myself? Are we going to be able to live on this planet anymore because of climate change?" she asked herself, she said.
Michelson said that to get her through the year, she focused on what brought her joy. "I've become a better artist through this pandemic," she said. "I feel like I've gotten a better sense of who I am as a person, and I'm really proud of that."
She also said that she enjoyed other forms of entertainment, such as writing in a journal, learning guitar, and appreciating art forms such as television and music.
"Harry Styles has been instrumental. 'Fine Line' got me through the year," Michelson said.
She also acknowledged her privilege, especially in the year that saw significant Black Lives Matter protests worldwide and increased violence against Asian Americans.
"Obviously, as someone who lives in a white, middle-class neighborhood and is white and has a tremendous amount of privilege, it has not affected me as much," Michelson said. "But I started to see things from a whole new perspective. I knew that there was racism in this country because I pay attention, but it really started to hit me how much of it happens all the time. It's inescapable."
Khibri Habtemariam, filmmaker
By Andrea Michelson
The past year hasn't been easy for Khibri Habtemariam.
But the flexibility of pandemic life has worked in the budding filmmaker's favor for the most part.
Habtemariam, 21, majors in film and minors in African American studies at Georgia State University. He had lots of plans — and doggedly persisted with them despite the pandemic.
Between online classes and shifts working at a car dealership, he wrote a short film that he hopes to produce and direct. He started building virtual connections within the Atlanta film scene, a tight-knit community where "you're always three or four people away from knowing someone who can help you out." He got in touch with Nina Lee, an independent writer and director whom he admires, after watching her miniseries, "Sorry About That," on YouTube — "a little victory that felt big."
But it's been tough trying to launch a creative career, keep up a job, do well at school, and handle the mental stress and isolation of a pandemic.
One low point, Habtemariam said, was having to pause plans for his short film and put his money toward car repairs instead.
"When you're limited in money, you have to choose your shots more wisely," he said. "It really pushes on being creative with what you have."
A practice that has supported Habtemariam throughout it all is cooking, learning recipes from his dad, who immigrated from Eritrea and still cooks signature dishes such as Parmesan-crusted tilapia.
"The kitchen is the safe space," Habtemariam said. "You know how you're supposed to have a space where it's untouched by work or the drive to succeed, something you just enjoy to enjoy it."
His family, a 30-minute drive away, has been particularly important. If he's having a rough week, Habtemariam said, he usually feels better after going home and talking to his mom for a couple of hours.
I was kind of winging it before, and I think I'm still winging it. There are some mistakes I can still make at this age.
While his mom is the family's "go-to person to help anybody out," Habtemariam said he gets his work ethic — and his love for cars — from his dad.
"He isn't the type to be like, 'Something's wrong with the car. Let's take it to the shop,'" Habtemariam said. "He wants to figure out what it is, even if it doesn't work."
Habtemariam said his dad brought a hardworking attitude with him when he moved to the States.
"Very much like, 'You have to be responsible and stay working because if you stay working, you won't get in trouble,'" Habtemariam said. "He doesn't understand that trouble can find you even when you aren't looking for it."
Habtemariam said he tried to live by that mentality for a while, but he eventually realized that it wasn't good for his mental health. Nowadays, he tries to take little breaks for himself, even if that just means going up the street to play video games at a friend's house.
During quarantine, he grew more comfortable spending some of that downtime alone. Aside from that, he said he hasn't changed much.
"I was kind of winging it before, and I think I'm still winging it," he said. "There are some mistakes I can still make at this age." He added, "I'm trying to not be reckless, but still experience."
Kinsey Ratzman, artist and disability advocate
By Andrea Michelson
Things were going well for Kinsey Ratzman in March 2020.
The Mount Holyoke College student, 21, had just wrapped up a weekend of doing publicity for a Model UN tournament hosted at her western Massachusetts school, sent in at least 20 applications for summer internships, and was balancing a campus job on top of everything.
She was getting her credits together for a double degree in politics and studio art, with an additional concentration in media and journalism.
But coming off that weekend, everything changed. First Amherst College, a sister school to Ratzman's, said it was shutting down because of the pandemic. A few days later, other schools in western Massachusetts followed suit. Eventually, on March 10, Mount Holyoke announced that campus would close the following week.
Ratzman remembers the refrain at the start of the pandemic: Yes, schools are closing, but COVID-19 was a disease that affected the frail and elderly, not the young and healthy. There's no need to worry.
But Ratzman has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue, causing problems throughout the body. The assumption that all young people are healthy and can't be harmed by the coronavirus rubbed her the wrong way from the start — and the pandemic has continued to reveal people's prejudices.
Ratzman has been managing symptoms of EDS, which progressively worsens over time, since she was 12.
While she's been hospitalized before, things took a turn for the worse in fall 2020. Her symptoms flared up and she needed a surgical feeding tube, as opposed to the nasal ones she's had in the past.
Ultimately, she had to take medical leave from school: The stress of navigating the healthcare system while going through an accelerated, remote semester was too much to manage.
If you are an immunocompromised, disabled, or chronically ill person versus someone who is not, it's two different pandemics.
Being stuck in the hospital without a bed because it was so crowded with COVID-19 patients felt maddening, especially as her classmates — even her good friends — posted Instagram Stories at parties.
"If you are an immunocompromised, disabled, or chronically ill person versus someone who is not, it's two different pandemics," Ratzman said. "My Instagram is all people hanging out and partying, and these are normal, morally conscious people. It's just like two different worlds."
While many of her peers could bend the rules of quarantine, Ratzman retreated, moving into her parents' house in New Jersey with little social contact outside of "Animal Crossing." The social isolation has only made things harder.
"Already, the only way people get through college is by leaning on each other," Ratzman said. In the pandemic, "you don't have those little moments of support."
Although the strain on Ratzman's mental health is heavier than ever, she finally has the resources to manage it. Her insurance made
therapy free during the pandemic, and she was finally able to get a diagnosis from a psychiatrist.
"It's like I've been the most mentally healthy but also the worst off with everything else at the same time."
Ratzman is not the only person who's had a hard time keeping up.
"Every single person I know at my school who's chronically ill struggled," Ratzman said. "Most of us didn't end up doing the full year, or had to drop a class here and there. It was not good."
With vaccines being rolled out, there's a general feeling of getting back to "normal," with schools ready to reopen. For Ratzman, it's like whiplash.
"I sometimes feel like I'm going crazy because I'm like, 'I would love for things to be normal like that, but what world are you living in?'"
Map Pesqueira, film buff and aspiring political leader
By Canela López
Map Pesqueira entered his freshman year of undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin just as his world was falling apart, he felt.
It was 2018. The Trump administration had just announced that it would bar trans people from participating in the military, compromising his ROTC scholarship and future.
But he leaned into student activism, and school became a lifeline. Soon, Pesqueira was one of the most prominent faces in the fight against the barring of trans people from the military, speaking on college campuses as a trans ROTC scholar.
It was both a challenging and invigorating few years. But just as he was reaching the end of this era, with the hope of Trump's presidency coming to a close, his world shifted again: The World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a pandemic.
The 21-year-old film and political communications major said he went from living on campus to living at home with his mother in a tiny 240-square-foot home outside of Austin — smaller than the room in his old apartment.
It came with its perks and challenges.
"Living with your parents — it's an adjustment for sure," Pesqueira said. "But I've been saving a lot of money in the long run."
I found some solace out here in the middle of nowhere. Corn fields, no fencing, horses — all of that stuff.
While the home is small, Pesqueira said living in the desert outside of Austin made finding needed solitude and space easier.
"I found some solace out here in the middle of nowhere. Corn fields, no fencing, horses — all of that stuff," Pesqueira said.
He filled his time with watching films, running, and working on film sets and at on-campus facilities to pay for school, as the trans military ban had halted his ROTC scholarship.
Right as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began in the US in December, a light at the end of the tunnel shined bright.
President Joe Biden announced that he would reverse the trans military ban in his first 100 days as president, opening up new possibilities for Pesqueira to join the Marines like he had been dreaming of since middle school.
He doesn't know what his military future holds, but he does know that he wants to pursue a career in political communication after coming head-to-head with the federal government.
Pesqueira said that when the ban first went into effect, he described it as being led into a room by a body of people. "It was a very dark room, and they just turned around and left me there and shut the door on me," he said.
He added, "Now, it feels like the door has finally been opened and the light is shining through, and we're finally out of this really dark tunnel."
Raymellia Jones, dancer and fitness instructor
By Anna Medaris Miller
Raymellia Jones felt like her life was finally on track by the end of 2019.
Jones, who is 21 and lives in Chicago, was living her dream dancing, traveling, and performing — and getting paid for it as a new member of a touring dance company.
It was a bright, fresh start after she had dropped out of college, where she'd sunk into a depression, just months before.
So when the coronavirus pandemic shut down Jones' burgeoning dance career, "it hit really hard," she said.
She took the opportunity to pivot once again, launching a virtual dance-fitness business that she named "Ray's Movement" on YouTube and Instagram.
"It's not just about fitness or dancing," she said. "It's about moving in life — physically, emotionally, mentally. It's just that mindset of growing and pushing forward."
It started with Jones working out at home, like many quarantined Americans, and uploading her routines to social media. But when her personal trainer asked her to start teaching virtual dance-aerobics classes with his company, she was set on the trajectory toward creating her own. Ray's Movement launched as an LLC in spring 2020, and she's now looking toward getting a fitness teaching certification.
Now, as Jones' dance company slowly resumes distanced rehearsals, she envisions a future touring as a dancer and helping viewers around the world find joy in movement, too.
"I know people, especially young people, are having trouble navigating through 'How is my life going to look now? What does this mean for my future?'" said Jones, who's living with her parents, two siblings, and a cousin in her childhood home.
"I just want to let them know: Don't be discouraged about what's going on right now because there's still an opportunity to be something."
The mental and physical release of Jones' dance practice became even more critical in summer 2020 when the movement against police brutality reached a fever pitch.
Now we have to deal with our people being targeted on top of COVID-19 and losing our jobs, getting our kids out of school and finding a way to feed our families. It just got to the point where it was unbearable.
While she was all too aware of people in her community who had died over the years at the hands of police, George Floyd's killing was different, Jones said.
"That just adds another level of trauma," she said. "Now we have to deal with our people being targeted on top of COVID-19 and losing our jobs, getting our kids out of school and finding a way to feed our families. It just got to the point where it was unbearable."
To cope, she led movement and
practices, which participants called "a breath of fresh air," Jones said. "I had to find a way to center myself and find peace in the middle of chaos."
Jones knows she doesn't have the stereotypical type of thin, white dancer's body that one tends to see on social media. But that's a strength, she said.
She wants people to know that "you don't have to be a certain shape or color to do what you love or to pursue something. There's a platform to do those things and still be 100% confident and comfortable in the skin and the body that you're in."
For her, that confidence comes from dance — something her dad told her she's done since she was a baby, bopping along as he beatboxed.
"If I'm in my room dancing and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, it's really unexplainable," Jones said. She added, "It just helps me when I'm going through things."
Jones described the combination of music and movement as "a beautiful feeling."
Reneé Rapp, actress and singer
By Anna Medaris Miller
When Broadway went dark in March 2020, Reneé Rapp, the star of Tina Fey's acclaimed musical "Mean Girls," lightened up.
"I remember for the first time, my shoulders were not painfully so tight, and I didn't have a headache for three days," said Rapp, who used to get stress headaches daily.
Rapp, who turned 21 in January, had never had the sort of pauses built into a typical young adult's life trajectory.
Broadway snatched up the vocal sensation soon after high school, where she earned the Best Actress award at the Jimmys, the highest acclaim for high-school musical theater across the US.
So when her run as Regina George, the top "plastic" in "Mean Girls," abruptly ended just five months in, she said she felt "a strange sense of relief."
"It was the first time I had been forced not to do anything," Rapp said. "Mentally, it's changed the person I am. It's also made me rethink my career and my values in my career."
The day after her show, like all others, closed, Rapp hit the road, eventually landing in her hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, where she stayed for most of 2020.
She didn't sit still for long. She began teaching musical theater to aspiring performers, who were often her age, on Zoom.
"It was really cool and really stressful," Rapp said, because she felt like a "100% unqualified teacher." She spent lots of time on Zoom, relishing the rare opportunity to connect with people whom she'd never met in her life and talk about why they love the art form.
Soon, Rapp's routine was upended again. After a series of auditions over the summer, Rapp was cast in Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble's upcoming
series, "The Sex Lives of College Girls." She moved to LA in December for her TV debut.
Mentally, it's changed the person I am. It's also made me rethink my career and my values in my career.
"Every day I walk into work, I have mad imposter syndrome, like I'm waiting for somebody to kick me out," Rapp said.
But the learning experience drives her. She said she's "becoming very obsessive" over how TV production works. She's also driven by the topic the show is destigmatizing. "This is a slap in the face as a title," she said, "and that's something I want to be a part of."
A lot has changed in the year without theater, and reopenings should reflect the reckoning many Americans have had with issues such as race and diversity, Rapp said.
"Broadway and theater at large has a whole lot of work to do," Rapp said, referring specifically to "the safety of BIPOC actors, of marginalized actors, of trans actors, of disabled actors."
It's young people like her who are going to be driving that work.
"We are going to be the people who will sit at the tables and say, 'No, actually, that's not OK. This person needs to be in for this role. This person is not feeling seen. Here's how we do that. Here's where the accountability comes in,'" she said.
She sees herself producing one day, whether it's music or screenplays or theatrical works.
"It makes such a huge difference when young people invest in artists and not institutions," Rapp said, adding that it's important to support art that is going to uplift others and "shake s--- up."
That mindset — that individual artists and their stories are to be valued and celebrated — is a reversal from the way Rapp grew up. "You grow up in theater with people telling you that you're replaceable and you're just a number," she said. "And unlearning that and divesting from that is extremely challenging, but so worthwhile."
Sally Ziskind, photographer
by Julia Naftulin
Sally Ziskind had her routine down: Wake up for school at Pasadena City College, go to class, study, spend time with friends, and do it all over again.
That routine was lost when the pandemic struck, forcing Ziskind to move back home with her parents in Santa Clarita, California. In addition to taking a semester off from college to save money and work full time, Ziskind tapped into her passion for photography.
"Coming from high school, I was just always around people. I played a lot of sports, and then I would come home and my family would be there. But spending so much time isolated, I feel like I've grown into myself more," said Ziskind, who turned 21 in June 2020.
But when Ziskind first moved home, the anxiety and depression she'd dealt with since childhood got much worse.
After a late-night heart-to-heart with a friend who was also dealing with depression, Ziskind made a promise to take charge of her mental health. They both landed jobs at Target, where Ziskind puts together online orders that customers pick up in-store.
I've definitely learned that I'm stronger than I ever thought I was.
"Once I finally did go out and start interacting with people again, I was just too hyperaware and in my own head, overanalyzing everything — what the other person is thinking, analyzing every interaction, being afraid to speak with people, introduce myself, ask questions even," Ziskind said.
Ziskind kept at it and noticed the job, which keeps her on her feet for an entire shift, was positively affecting her mood.
That's also when she dove into photography, a hobby she'd always enjoyed but wanted to explore more.
"I don't even really know what it is about photography that I love so much. I just know that it makes me feel good. I love taking portraits of my friends and making them feel more confident," Ziskind said, adding that she wants to delve into social-justice topics in her art in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
As someone with Black and Jewish heritage living in a Republican-majority town, those events hit close to home, she said.
Focusing on hobbies and personal well-being with journaling and meditation helped Ziskind get through the rough points.
She said, "I've definitely learned that I'm stronger than I ever thought I was."
Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, Indigenous leader and powwow dancer
By Moises Mendez II
Dance is an integral part of Native American culture, said Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, a 21-year-old member of the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island. "When we dance, we're calling the spirits into motion with us. When we dance, it is a profound prayer," they added.
Harris disrupted the heteronormative nature of the Native American community after they performed a dance traditionally done by women at a social gathering. This move led to a call for larger acceptance of two-spirit individuals — an umbrella term used to describe Indigenous people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community — in the Native American community.
Harris said they've been a dancer since before they were born: "In my mother's belly," they said. They have been dancing at powwows, which are social meetings among Indigenous tribes that usually happen in the summer. The August meeting has taken place every second weekend in August for over 300 years, making it the oldest recorded powwow in North America.
In Northeastern Native American communities such as the Narragansett, members of the tribe participate in two different dances based on their sex. The Eastern War Dance would "traditionally be done by the men before or after battle, telling stories of their acts of war or of the hunt," Harris said. The women, meanwhile, participated in the Eastern Blanket Dance, which is a traditional Narragansett "dance of courtship, where the women present their fine weaving ability and they tell the story of their lives through the dance." The women also choose their partners during this dance, Harris added.
Harris started out doing the Eastern War Dance, following in the footsteps of their father. But after coming out as two-spirit, they began to do Fancy Shawl dancing, an intertribal contemporary dance, in the style of their mother.
Narragansett issues exemplify Indigenous issues. I can only tell my people's stories, but through them I speak to our collective invisibility and resilience.
"I faced tremendous backlash, initially, from what turned out to be a small few in power," Harris said. At a powwow in 2017, they signed up to compete and partake in the Fancy Shawl Dance. The powwow committee ruled not to let Harris dance, and in retaliation to the ruling, the judges walked out.
"People began to speak up, and there were large protests in my defense," Harris said. "I realized that there was a community of tremendous support and people that remember the old ways that fought against this discrimination of people that did not want me to dance with my sisters and peers in the circle."
Harris said there is a "paradigm shift happening" in tribal communities in terms of acceptance of two-spirit people, but the coronavirus pandemic made them feel dismayed because it has kept them from being visible within their community.
Harris said, "Luckily, I have been able to inspire two-spirit people across the country. It's been overwhelming the messages and support that I've gotten."
They are pursuing degrees at Brown University's five-year dual-degree program at the Rhode Island School of Design. They major in painting and ethnic studies, with a focus on Indigenous studies. After graduation, they said they would most likely continue to pursue schooling and create more art, publish their writing, and continue to work with museums, libraries, and other organizations to educate them on their tribe.
"Narragansett issues exemplify Indigenous issues," Harris said. "I can only tell my people's stories, but through them I speak to our collective invisibility and resilience."
Sneha Sharma, intercultural relations specialist
By Monica Humphries
Sneha Sharma credited two things with getting her through the pandemic: her feet.
The junior at the University of Pennsylvania spent the first seven months of the pandemic in Memphis, Tennessee, where she enjoyed walking through a pristine golf course and venturing into her hometown.
More recently, her walks take place on the bustling streets of Philadelphia.
"For me, I feel like the walks are essential," the politics, philosophy, and economics major said of her daily 45-minute strolls. "Everybody has that routine that centers themselves."
Sharma spent the pandemic reexamining her future and strengthening her desire to create positive change at the intersection of healthcare and policy.
Sharma said she's known in her friend group as the walker. Her friends count on her to always be down for a stroll, and when someone needs advice, Sharma will likely suggest a walk.
Walks with friends and family were her main outlet of human connection throughout the COVID lockdown.
Sometimes a high-school friend would join, and they'd search for Orion's Belt in the night sky. Other times, she and her family would explore a nature trail before work or class.
"I just needed people," Sharma said. "And I think that was what got me through it."
Ultimately, the outdoor adventures led her to reconsider her definition of success.
Going back to my hometown, it just stripped everything away. When everything shuts down and the world takes a pause, you realize how arbitrary all these schedules were.
Before the pandemic, Sharma had her future mapped out.
The junior had her senior classes lined up. Her vegan-leather-shoe startup was going to take off, and she had ideas for internships and research opportunities to fill her résumé. She planned to start studying for the LSAT, and law school would naturally follow undergrad.
Then the pandemic hit, and Sharma spent the majority of the year living in her pink and purple Barbie-themed childhood bedroom.
"Going back to my hometown, it just stripped everything away," Sharma said. "When everything shuts down and the world takes a pause, you realize how arbitrary all these schedules were."
Giving back had always been at the forefront of Sharma's mind, but the pandemic reignited the urgency.
Sharma replaced her LSAT prep courses with tutoring roles, and she picked up a medical-device internship at the Critical Path Institute's System of Hospitals for Innovation in Pediatrics.
Sharma said she wants to join a postgraduation program such as the Fulbright Scholar Program that would allow her to use her education and skills in a new country.
For now, she's living in West Philadelphia and taking online classes this semester.
She loves hearing laughter from the elementary school across the street, and she craves the Indian meals a nearby neighbor cooks and delivers.
The pandemic hasn't been without its challenges, but Sharma said the year was filled with growth.
She added, "It just gave me breath back in my lungs to have a more intentional outlook on what I want to be doing."
Soi Lee, visual artist
By Julia Naftulin
For Soi Lee, traveling, meeting new people, and learning about different cultures are life's greatest joys.
It made sense, then, that Lee spent much of the pandemic locked down in Denmark, an ocean away from her family in Nashville, Tennessee and school in St. Louis.
Lee headed to Poland in December 2019 to meet up with friends, and then to Denmark, where she planned to study abroad for the spring semester. When the pandemic hit, Lee, who is originally from Korea, ended up stuck in isolation with two new roommates in a country she'd never been to before.
Though lockdown in Denmark proved challenging, Lee leaned into her curious nature, learning to ride a bike for the first time with help from her Italian roommate. She also perfected a cake recipe, which she said distracted her from how much she missed her family and friends in the States.
Lee was able to make it back to St. Louis for the summer, but racially charged events, such as the murder of George Floyd, soon overshadowed her reunion with friends and family. The reality of racism struck again when six Asian women were killed in Atlanta-area spa shootings in March.
I'm really interested in and passionate about social justice. I think art, for me, is a language to express.
"As a Korean living in the States now, especially because I go to a predominantly white institution, I see some people don't even realize what's going on in the world," Lee said.
To raise awareness, she turned to her longtime passions: painting and drawing. Lee and her roommate created posters and chalk art in support of the Asian community and plastered them around St. Louis University's clock tower in the center of campus. Lee also created a mixed-medium art collage titled "Say Her Name," to honor Breonna Taylor's life.
"I'm really interested in and passionate about social justice. I think art, for me, is a language to express," Lee said. She added that it's a "universal language that people get," and that creating helps her release sadness, loneliness, and stress when she's feeling down.
The pandemic also caused Lee to think more about her postcollege plans. Originally, Lee was set on becoming an art consultant so she could travel the world and meet new people.
But with so much up in the air, Lee has decided to focus on her art at home, where she can make beautiful things that honor the Asian American community while reminding us of the preciousness of humanity.
Tal Simon, music producer
By Brea Cubit
When COVID-19 led to lockdowns across the US in early 2020, there was a collective yearning for escapism. For Tal Simon, a music producer in Brooklyn, revisiting his pre-pandemic life by looking through old photos was the most effective way to cope with life indoors. He perused snapshots of himself hanging out with friends in Buffalo, New York, sans masks and fear of contagion. "We were just having a good time and not worrying about a pandemic," he said.
Around that time of reflection, Simon had been laid off from his catering job, joining the millions of Americans who were out of work because of the novel coronavirus. But after experiencing "the New York grind" of working nonstop just to make ends meet, he found the silver lining in his newfound free time and started to work on his music.
Just as he'd retreated from reality through old photos, Simon took a retrospective approach to channel his musical creativity. He found old hard drives that housed unfinished and unreleased beats and recordings, eventually compiling them into his EP, "Reworks," which dropped on April 13. "I was able to stop running around every day, take a step back, and listen to my old music," Simon said. "The fact that I was able to do that was really rewarding."
The artist — whose sonic DNA comes from British synth-pop and rock artists such as David Bowie, Eurythmics, Yaz, The Jam, and The Style Council — said making music was his main form of therapy. "Hours will go by, and I'll just get lost in making music and writing," he said. "That's the one thing that has kept me sane. You just enter a whole different world that you can create."
At the beginning of the pandemic, I definitely was not in a good place. Every day was blurring together, and I didn't have a schedule or a sense of what I really wanted to do.
Having the opportunity to craft his own realm of artistry pulled Simon out of the doldrums. "At the beginning of the pandemic, I definitely was not in a good place," he said, thinking back to spring 2020. "Every day was blurring together, and I didn't have a schedule or a sense of what I really wanted to do. I was kind of stuck, and I felt like I was in limbo." Now, Simon said, he's in a much better place, especially after moving to a new apartment in Bushwick and making music his priority.
Every now and then, Simon said, he still feels anxious about life and world events, including the long-standing Israeli–Palestinian conflict that has escalated. Simon, who's Jewish, has been having complex conversations with relatives about what's happening. "It's just terrible, and it's been going on for so long now," he said. "I think what Israel is doing right now is extremely violent. I just don't have the answer. I don't know who does, honestly."
Whenever Simon gets overwhelmed, he takes a break from social media to recenter himself. "I'm just trying to take it day by day," he said. "That's my life motto because you don't know what's going to happen until it happens." And contrary to where he was a year ago, he feels "prepared for anything" and "the most productive" he's been in months, he said, as he continues to work on more projects full time.
"I feel like it's only going to get better," Simon said.
Tanaya West, interpersonal communication enthusiast
By Andrea Michelson
Cooped up in her family home in Long Island, New York, Tanaya West has had plenty of time on her hands this year. She took that as a chance to slow down and reevaluate.
The 21-year-old Baruch College student lived at home before the pandemic, but she was always on the go: commuting to class, meeting up with friends, and traveling at every opportunity she could get.
"I really loved to travel all around," West said. "The pandemic put a damper on that and a pause on exploring the world."
For most of the pandemic, West hardly left the house aside from going to work at Loft, a clothing store. She had her mom, older sister, and younger brother around at home — which meant butting heads sometimes, since there was nowhere else to go.
West said she grew closer with her sister as they passed the time binge-watching Shondaland classics and working out to Chloe Ting's exercise videos. She also came to enjoy her own company.
"I'm more okay with being alone and interacting with myself, and caring for myself, too," West said. "In the last year, we couldn't really go out with friends and do things, so I found things to do in my own home."
West is studying communication at Baruch, with a focus on interpersonal communication in group settings and work culture.
In the past year and a half, she's watched her own communication with friends and family evolve. She wasn't able to hang out with friends or visit her grandma nearly as much as she did pre-pandemic, so FaceTime became a lifeline.
I'm more okay with being alone and interacting with myself, and caring for myself, too. In the last year, we couldn't really go out with friends and do things, so I found things to do in my own home.
Even though she didn't see her friends in person very often, she said they've remained close — just differently so.
"I think the bond is still there, but it's changed in how we communicate with each other," West said. "It's more communicating digitally, instead of face-to-face interactions."
West said she prefers FaceTime as a means of communication over texting and social media. She said that sometimes she needs to unplug from social media entirely to check in with herself, especially with violence so frequently in the news.
As office culture has declined during the pandemic and many people now work from home, West said she looks forward to having the choice to make her own workplace.
As a lover of travel, she is itching to get back to exploring the world, and working remotely would give her a lot more freedom to do so. She hopes to soon visit the beaches of Thailand and explore the food scene in Japan.
As a college junior, she has another year to decide where she'll go next — and she's not in a rush to figure it out.
"I think that 'adulting' can come in different stages," West said. "Some people my age, they moved out of their parents' house. Some people still live with their parents."
She added, "Everyone's at a different stage in their lives, and that's okay."
Tianna Arata, Black Lives Matter activist
By Moises Mendez II
Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets in summer 2020. Amid worldwide coronavirus lockdowns, the police killings of multiple Black people impassioned millions to speak out against police brutality. In the town of San Luis Obispo, California, a 19-year-old was organizing these protests.
Tianna Arata was arrested at a protest she organized on July 21, 2020, and was released the same night. Less than a month later, she gained national attention. The video of her arrest went viral on Twitter, garnering over 4 million views. It also prompted a petition, which has over 560,000 signatures, that asks the district attorney to not pursue any charges against Arata.
The college student, who turns 21 in June, said the catalyst for her first protest was the murder of George Floyd, who was killed when Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck for over nine minutes. A video of the incident caused national outrage, which eventually caused an international wave of protests against police brutality.
Arata said the first protest she organized only had about 15 people, and they marched through downtown San Luis Obispo during the town's "Cruise Night," an event where residents flaunt their old, flashy cars.
"We had people yelling at us to go home," Arata said. "Some dude was telling us, 'If you don't like it here, go back to Chicago where you belong.' And then later on that same evening, the same dude actually hit me and my mom with his car." Arata said the police showed up but didn't take any punitive action.
But when I can have joyful moments with my friends, which is just a group of amazing Black and brown women, and we can support each other, just be honest about our experiences, and protect each other — that's something that brought me joy.
She said these events further exemplified the work that needed to be done. She continued to organize protests from late May until the end of July, when she was arrested after stopping traffic on a busy highway during a protest that she had organized in San Luis Obispo.
Arata said she recalled thinking during her arrest, "F---, I hope they don't body-slam me into the ground right now." She said she was "being as mellow" as she could be because she knows "how Black people get brutalized in this country by police."
She said the arrest ultimately resulted in 13 misdemeanor charges, which she is now fighting.
Arata said the experience has had negative effects on her mental health. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April found that on average Black Americans reported more "poor mental health days" when deadly racial incidents were highly publicized.
"My mental health has been the worst it has ever been in my life," Arata said of this past year. "But when I can have joyful moments with my friends, which is just a group of amazing Black and brown women, and we can support each other, just be honest about our experiences, and protect each other — that's something that brought me joy."
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, climate activist and hip-hop artist
By Lindsay Dodgson
Growing up as the fourth of six siblings meant Xiuhtezcatl Martinez's home was always bustling. His father is Mexica — a population indigenous to central Mexico — and Martinez always had a strong connection to that side of his family. It was especially important to him because he grew up in a white community in Boulder, Colorado.
"It has a lot of significance with my cultural connection, my cultural identity, my ceremonial identity," he said. "My exposure to my own culture and to other people who spoke our language and were teaching me these things has been very important since the beginning."
The past year has been "heavy for sure," he said, as he was separated from his family after he visited his girlfriend in Philadelphia and couldn't return home during the pandemic. His musical partnership with his older sister, Isa Roske, was also halted.
But having to create music on his own gave Martinez the opportunity to be introspective and reevaluate his identity.
"Over the last year, there was a lot to unpack and learn," he said.
From a young age, Martinez was involved with climate-crisis advocacy through Earth Guardians, an activist organization founded by his mother, Tamara Roske. He received worldwide acclaim at age 15 for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, which he gave in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl.
"The climate crisis is so all-encompassing, I've heard it described as a 'hyperobject,'" he said. "So it's something that is literally inconceivable in its whole to the human mind because of how incredibly complicated and just massive it is."
Corporations and world leaders minimize it to recycling, paper straws, and Teslas — "tricking ourselves into thinking it's just everyday actions that can help save the planet," Martinez said. But the climate crisis intersects with every social-justice issue.
It helps me remember what we do this for and what it is that we want to be intentional about building, not just what we are fighting against and what we are angry about.
"The climate crisis is a result of a dysfunctional relationship that capitalism has forced us into with one another and with the planet," he said.
Martinez started realizing the limitations of being part of an organization and stepped down from Earth Guardians a year ago. He's finding more purpose by redirecting his energy toward the Landback movement — a campaign that aims to decolonize land and give physical and economical control back to Indigenous people. These communities are often where the real-world effects of the climate crisis are felt the most.
Now, Martinez defines himself as an artist, specifically through what he's achieved with his new album, "Voice Runners," alongside fellow hip-hop artist Tru and producer Jaiia Cerff.
Martinez said that having his audience listen to what he has to say through his music has always been more authentic and powerful to him. He said he no longer stands in a box or conforms to anyone's idea of who he is, what he does, or what he believes.
Martinez's 21st year has been a difficult but transformative one. What's brought him joy this year is joining a virtual book club with other young Indigenous people, relearning Nahuatl, and growing his plants, which he is propagating in every corner of his home.
"It's not just a lot of pain and devastation and destruction," he said. "It helps me remember what we do this for and what it is that we want to be intentional about building, not just what we are fighting against and what we are angry about."
Zanagee Artis, climate action advocate
By Lindsay Dodgson
To say Zanagee Artis grew up in a politically active household would be an understatement. His parents, Geraldine and Suzanne Artis, were two of the plaintiffs in a 2004 lawsuit that led to a Connecticut Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Then, in 2013, they were instrumental in the Supreme Court ruling that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional.
"Just being in that atmosphere of advocacy, and my parents fighting for something that they really believed in, I think that contributed to my getting more involved with activism, too," Artis said.Growing up along the shore of the Long Island Sound in Clinton, Connecticut, and being homeschooled, Artis spent a lot of time at the beach, developing a keen interest in marine life and conservation. In high school, this materialized in him raising funds for a water-bottle station and a campaign to get rid of Styrofoam trays.
In the summer of 2017, Artis founded Zero Hour — a climate-crisis campaign group focused on getting young people's voices heard by elected officials — with friends Jamie Margolin, Nadia Nazar, and Madelaine Tew.
Over the past few years, the Zero Hour team has organized climate marches and summits over Zoom, which turned out to be pretty helpful when the pandemic happened. They were so used to video calls, breakout rooms, and meeting up just once a year that their dynamic didn't need to change, Artis said.
I think that the pandemic really forced people to pause in a way that nothing else really has before.
Artis is in his junior year at Brown University, studying political science and environmental studies. He said it's been an exciting semester, despite studying remotely. He digitally campaigned for President Joe Biden from his hometown, and then voted in a presidential election for the first time that November. When he returned to school in January, his first day of classes fell on Biden's Inauguration Day.
"We knew that we needed to win Pennsylvania to have a really good shot at winning the presidency, so I was making calls all the time," Artis said. "Every new person contacted was a new conversation. It was really exciting to be a part of the actual democratic process."
Over the past year, Artis has learned what he wants to prioritize. In a pre-COVID world, you could run into your friends, he said. But now you have to spend energy on choosing the things you want to do and the people you want to reach out to.
"I think that the pandemic really forced people to pause in a way that nothing else really has before," he said. This has helped bring awareness to causes such as the climate crisis and Black Lives Matter, Artis said, because so many more people were suddenly paying attention to their surroundings and communities.
"That really did put into focus what is happening with the environment from daily human interaction with the world," he said.
For a long time, Artis said he and many environmentally conscious young people around the US felt powerless because they weren't old enough to have their voices heard in elections. Now, their work is being seen in real life: Biden canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and hosting Climate Day at the White House, for example. But Artis said he and Zero Hour are just getting started.
Story Editors: Mia de Graaf, Brea Cubit, Ariel Schwartz, Rachel Greenspan, Ben Goggin, Julia Hood, and Julie Zeveloff West
Copy Editor: Shakeema Edwards
Photo Editor: Hollis Johnson
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