Deja Foxx: "My Biggest Form of Resistance is My Existence"

Image/Teen Vogue

Image/Teen Vogue

Deja Foxx is an all-around activist, badass, and the future president of the United States; she embodies The Defiant Movement’s message of defying every boundary and obstacle that has stood in her path. You may have just been introduced to her through her Vice News panel on feminism, or been following her for years because of her viral video confronting Jeff Flake during his townhall. Either way, you’ve probably come to admire the amazing work she does as much as we have! After experiencing homelessness, she is now in her freshman year at Columbia University and launching her new initiative - Gen Z Girl Gang, later this month.

How did your childhood and experience with homelessness shape you into who you are today?

I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, about an hour north of the border, two hours south of Phoenix. I was raised by a single mom who graduated high school but didn’t go to college. We always kind of struggled to make ends meet and my dad wasn’t really present in my life. Around 11, just due to economic pressure, and gaps in the medical system, my mom started to struggle with substance abuse. It got really bad, to the point that when I was 16, I ended up moving out. So, when I think back on how those experiences have shaped and influenced the way that I do my work now, I think a lot about growing up really fast. I think about being able to see the world through this different lense; being able to take a step back and look at the world differently.

Being 15 and homeless, it influenced my activism because I started to see that the sex-ed system, particularly at my high school, did not help disadvantaged students like me. I noticed that if you didn’t have a parent at home, the information that they were giving you just simply wasn’t enough. It got me into activism through that route, but it also taught me about what makes a good organizer. I was one of those people who couldn’t really pursue activism as everyone else because I didn’t have a car to go to rallies and protests. Having an organizer who went out of her way to pick me up and drive me to those events really made all the difference. When I look back on it, meeting people where they’re at is a priority and I think I learned that because I had someone who knew about my adverse circumstances and met me where I was at. It totally shaped the work I do with Gen Z Girl Gang about where teenagers are at right now, and how I can meet them where they are at.

Can you explain to our readers about Gen Z Girl Gang, and how people can get involved in that community?

Gen Z Girl Gang is an online community open to anyone; any gender expression or identity, and any age, but we center women and femme who are born after 1995 as our leaders. Anyone can be a part of the community and there are valuable things to learn from our content regardless of who you are. The center of our mission is redefining sisterhood for a new generation and looking at a generation like ours, that has been raised on social media. Obviously the way we are interacting with people is changing, and so the way that we practice sisterhood is changing too, and we want to keep up with that.

When I connect all the work that I have done, from sex education, to birth control access, to starting the first first-gen low-income special interest community at Columbia [University], it all comes down to equal opportunity and helping communities realize their full potential. And that’s what Gen Z Girl Gang is for me. It’s about creating relationships. Mentorship Mondays is one of our programs that helps bridge generational gaps and leverage resources that millenials and baby boomers had that they can share with our generation. One of our other pillars is creating and sharing opportunities, there are so many opportunities out there that you probably see on your Instagram stories and in the newsletters you get in your email.

To me, a community it making sure that when we see an opportunity, we  don’t just think ‘that would be great for me’, we think ‘we should share this with our community because we want everyone to have access to it.’ But also the idea that even though we are young, we know a lot; by ourselves we know a lot, but together we know even more. Recognizing young people in our community who have ideas and opportunities that they can share.

Our three points are that we bridge generational gaps, we create and share opportunity, and we learn from and teach each other. One of our other things that we say is that ‘anyone, anywhere, and at any level.’ We want to create a community, not just an Instagram account, we are a community. And we want people to be able to engage with it at any level that is right for them; whether that be submitting 2 minute training for our ‘Together We Know A Lot’ series on IGTV, or running a live series every week or month. Or maybe it’s just sending us a post that you saw on your feed that you think would be perfect for our community spotlight.

There’s lots of opportunities to be involved, whether it’s creating content or sharing content, and the best way to do that is to email or send us a DM.

Why do you think it’s crucial for young women to get involved in leadership opportunities?

I think as someone who has been able to realize my leadership potential pretty young, I realize that there is so many voices lacking from so many groups. I just want to give everyone the opportunity to realize their fullest potential, especially in terms of leadership. I think that there are sometimes really narrow ways in which we are taught to see ourselves as leaders.

I tell the story of when in my sophomore year of high school, I didn’t get elected to student council, it was also the year I became homeless, I had a lot going on in my life, and my life kind of fell apart. I had to put it back together. I was really lucky to have people at Planned Parenthood who believed in me, saw me as a leader, and invested in my potential. And that made me see myself as a leader in a much bigger sense; in the sense that I could identify a problem, recognize that it was a valid problem, take it on, build a strategy, and mobilize people around it.

This was all because someone else believed in me, so with Gen Z Girl Gang, what we do is we create this audience, build this platform and then we give it to, and share it with people who we believe in.

Being a woman of color and considering the massive disparity in wealth among students at Columbia, how has that shaped your experience?

It’s exhausting. Getting used to a college environment, moving across the country, it’s like you have to relearn everything. You are also coming from a community of color, a family that has a structure radically different than the structures that are here to support me. It’s just exhausting to readjust and relearn, and it’s also really exhausting to resist some of the learning here. I don’t need to assimilate. I have my own culture and my own background, that even though are different than the majority, are still valid and are valuable to me. And so, if I could explain it one word, it’s exhausting.

I think that these institutions were not built for us, they were actually built to exclude us. The school needs to be intentionally inclusive of identities that it has intentionally excluded, but in a lot of ways they are not. They think that after the acceptance you are good to go, and that’s just not the case. When I look at my identities, the identities that have really come to the forefront here are being a first generation and low-income student. Seeing the ways that I never understood wealth in this way, seeing people whose parents are worth literal billions of dollars, and being confronted face to face with the huge gap in opportunity between us, even though we are at the same institution. It really gives you insight into a world that I previously only had glimpses of in the news or through celebrities but never saw face to face how much wealth could create disparity.

I go to boarding schools sometimes to talk to students because a lot of the times the only schools that can afford to bring me out are boarding schools. When I go out to these people’s schools, I notice how radically different their high school experience is from the one I had. I am a product of public schools; been to public schools K - 12. And to see the way that they have the opportunity to do sports everyday after school, and play an instrument; they aren’t working a job. I often think back on my high school schedule, where 8 am - 3 pm I was in school. 3:30 to 10 I was at work, 10 - 11 I was driving back home because it was so far, and at 11 I got home, did homework, went to sleep and did it all over again the next day.

The idea that I could’ve played a sport, an instrument, or prepped for the SAT or ACT all at the same time is insane to me. I was definitely not meant to be the ‘perfect’ applicant to this school.

Has Columbia helped you in amplifying your voice?

Image/Teen Vogue

Image/Teen Vogue

I think Columbia is a very traditional school, I don’t think that they understand the value of a voice like mine just yet. They admitted me, fully understanding the work that I do, and how I am of value to their community, not just now --- at their campus, but for the long run for the future alumni. So, I think in that way they understand the value of people like me who do the work that I do, but in terms of existing on this campus, and everyday structures and institutions, we have yet to catch up.

For example, I always struggle with being absent a lot because my work takes me places and often times events collide with classes, and Columbia is very strict on their attendance policy. Athletes have a lot of leeway, yet people like me who are equally as professional, equally as invested in their work, are not given that same leniency. That being said, my teachers work with me as much as possible.

I would say the biggest benefit Columbia has given me is amplifying my voice, not by handing me a microphone, or by putting me at panels at the school, or anything like that. When I walk into a door, and I tell them ‘my name is Deja Foxx, I’m a first time student at Columbia university’, people treat me differently than they would’ve in the past. In that way it gives me a platform I otherwise wouldn’t have had, it gives me a sort of ‘in’ into elite spaces that would otherwise reject someone like me and my platform would be viewed as less-than. Because I have Columbia’s stamp of approval, I have a lot say in spaces I otherwise wouldn’t have. I have the opportunity to talk about my experiences and bring my community into that room.

What advice do you have for other young women of color who want to become active in their communities?

I always give the same advice in terms of how to get started in activism. That advice is to start personally, think about issues that are personally affecting you, that’s how I got started, I thought about the sex-ed curriculum and how that was personally affecting my life. Start with that issue in your personal network; your friends, your partner, your family, your sisters and brothers, your teachers, people who have some kind of bias towards you and your wellbeing. Tell your story to them and how this issue is impacting you, why you care, how they can get involved. Lead by example, bring them along with you to protests, and start to grow your work from there.

The other advice that I give people is that I think it can be really easy to discount success, especially when you are seeing people’s highlight reels on social media and you are seeing success everywhere. Take time to celebrate your successes, and remind yourself you are deserving of every success you’ve ever had, all that you have now, and all that are to come. Internalizing that you are deserving of things is an important skill to learn young.

At The Defiant Movement, our mission is to empower and enable youth to “dare to defy” the boundaries, barriers, and expectations placed on them. How have you embodied that, and defied barriers within your own life?

One of my greatest forms of resistance is my existence. When I am sitting in a classroom at Columbia, that’s defiant; defying literal hundreds of years of tradition, oppression, obstacles and boundaries that have been placed on me. I think about my existence, and these institutions that my ancestors and even my family and friends back home today would be barred from. That is a really big form of defiance. Not just going to Columbia, but even the work that I do with JUV; giving presentations to CEOs and executives, being in big corporate offices, that people from my hood could never have access to.

My biggest form of defiance is seeing faces and being places I am ‘not supposed to be in.’