"The future of the world belongs to the youth of the world,” the Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann said, “and it is from the youth and not from the old that the fire of life will warm and enlighten the world.” The generation just beginning their journey through adulthood grew up with an unprecedented series of apocryphal crises. But rather than despair, a few have started movements that are ‘warming’ the world, in Mann’s proverbial phrase.
In this episode of Common Ground with Jane Whitney, young people leading our journey into the future talk about their visions and how they crashed through the limitations imposed by conventional wisdom to build movements that are powering change all around us.
DANIELLE BUTCHER FRANZ
Raised in a liberal Minnesota household, Danielle Butcher Franz has become a prominent conservative environmentalist, a leader in the effort to reverse the right’s historic denial of climate change and convince it to focus on how to cope with the existential threat instead.
The co-founder of the American Conservation Coalition, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing young conservatives to take action to combat environmental issues, Butcher Franz is a champion of the “Eco-Right movement,” which works to turn Republican skeptics into committed environmental activists.
Growing up in the natural grandeur of rural northern Minnesota, Butcher Franz became a budding environmentalist while exploring the “land of 10,000 lakes.” Despite coming from what she describes as a “quite left of center” family that is involved in local Democratic politics, she began to identify as conservative in the seventh grade, a shift she, fearing her family’s disapproval, initially kept secret. She only came out to her parents as conservative after an anonymous twitter page she created to discuss politics and share her views garnered over 18,000 followers.
After graduating from high school and beginning college, she was quickly disillusioned and decided to drop out to start her own political strategy and consulting business. A few years later, in 2017, she founded the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization run entirely by twentysomethings, including her co-founder Benjamin Backer, whom she met on Twitter. The organization’s work focuses on college campuses, where they have over 200 satellite groups spread throughout the country, as well as on advocating for conservative environmental policies in Washington.
With a widening divide over environmental policy, Butcher Franz is a firm believer that environmental protection should not be partisan. Harnessing the power of Gen-Z and Millennial voters, which are now the largest voting block, she has noticed the tides shifting. Once infamous as climate change deniers, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents acknowledge that human activity is causing changes to the world’s climate, according to a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll. Even more young Republicans express concerns about climate change.
“Over these past few years we’ve seen the dialogue shift, [we are] not debating whether or not the climate is changing or if humans have an impact on it but now we are debating solutions and what the best pathways forward are,” Butcher Franz said on the podcast EcoRight Speaks in 2023. We can still have those disagreements and we can work around those to find areas of common ground. But the fact that we are talking about real solutions and how to implement them rather than arguing the premise is so important.”
From the beginning, when Deja Foxx was 15-years-old and started fighting for reproductive rights and comprehensive health care, it was personal.
Growing up in Tucson to a single mother with substance abuse and financial struggles, she experienced homelessness and, despite her driving ambition, felt uncertain about her future. Knowing how an unwanted pregnancy could derail young women with aspirations like hers, she visited a Planned Parenthood office to obtain contraceptives.
She garnered national attention the next year when an exchange between her and then-Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who had just voted to defund Planned Parenthood, went viral. “I’m a young woman, and you’re a middle-aged man, I’m a person of color, and you’re white, I come from a background of poverty, and I didn’t always have parents to guide me through life. You come from privilege,” Foxx said to the senator at a town hall meeting. “So I’m wondering, as a Planned Parenthood patient and someone who relies on Title X, who you are clearly not, why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood?”
The soundbyte went viral and Foxx became “the new face of Planned Parenthood,” as The Washington Post coined her in a 2017 article. A crusader to reform sex education and abortion access, first locally and then nationally, she went on to attend Columbia University, where, as a freshman, she founded GenZ Girl Gang, an online space offering career and life support for young women. After finishing her first year at Columbia, Foxx was recruited to join Kamala Harris' presidential campaign for the 2020 election as Influencer and Surrogate Strategist, making her one of the youngest presidential campaign staffers in modern history.
“There’s nothing I would rather be in this life than a good role model,” Foxx said while accepting an award for her activism in 2023. “The kind of person that sees potential in someone and pushes them to see it, too. The kind of leader that meets people where they are and removes barriers so that [those] most affected can lead.”
Hadley Duvall, a Christian college student, stared into the camera and delivered the words that rewrote Kentucky’s politics.
“To tell a 12 year old girl that she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable. “I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options.
Duvall filmed the 2023 campaign ad in an effort to help re-elect Governor Andy Beshear, whose Republican opponent was an abortion absolutist who had disavowed the procedure even in cases of rape and incest.
Though powerful on its own, the ad sent shockwaves through the body politic because it mirrored Duvall’s personal story. She was raped repeatedly since she was 5-years-old by her stepfather, who impregnated her when she was in seventh grade and gave her a choice: lie and say the baby was fathered by a local boy or get an abortion at a Louisville clinic.
Duvall eventually miscarried. But the fact that she had options stuck with her and compelled her to speak out after Roe vs. Wade was overturned. “The father figure in my life had planted his child in me at the age of 12,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Thankfully, I had my CHOICE… If you can look at a CHILD and tell them you think they should have to carry their parents’ child, you are sick.”
Beshear’s campaign saw the post and asked Hadley if she would be willing to tell her story in an ad. She agreed the same day and Beshear swept to victory, a notable Democratic triumph in a state President Trump had carried. Political pundits and even Ronna McDaniel, the chairperson of the Republican National Committee, admitted that the ad clearly helped decide the election.
Since the election, Duvall, now a senior at Midway University in Kentucky, has been speaking out about the necessity of access to abortion in cases of rape and incest, imploring Americans to contemplate the many gray areas involved in abortion legislation. She has also described an outpouring of support from classmates and messages she has received from therapists saying the ad has helped patients process similar traumas.
In addition to her plans to fight for abortion rights in the upcoming elections, she vows to continue speaking out on behalf of abused girls. “Keep digging for your voice,” she said on a 2023 CNN interview when asked about what she would say to abused girls. “Find your strength. And there’s power in women sticking together, so we just need to stick together.”
Aalayah Eastmond had great hopes for her four years of high school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas—and the doors she imagined would open once she left. Instead, on Valentine's Day 2018, when Eastmond was just 17-years-old, she became a survivor of the Parkland massacre, one of the country’s deadliest school shootings, and was catapulted into the public eye as an unrelenting activist fighting to end gun violence.
At the time of the shooting, Eastmond was in a Holocaust history class, presenting group projects on hate groups in the United States. Minutes later, as the shooter sprayed her classroom with bullets, Eastmond had no choice but to shield herself from the gunfire with the body of her dead classmate, Nicholas Dworet.
“I will never forget what I saw, what I did, and what I experienced that day. I will never forget Nicholas Dworet who, even in death, helped protect and save my life,” she said in a 2018 testimony in opposition to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
For Eastmond, her life is defined by the stark chasm between before February 14th, 2018 and after.
In the years since the tragedy, Eastmond has become an activist and advocate against gun violence, co-founding March for Our Lives, a gun control movement and advocacy organization with a $4 million budget. One month after the shooting, in March 2018, the organization led hundreds of thousands in a rally outside the Capitol for the eponymous March for Our Lives, the largest youth protest in Washington since the Vietnam War.
Eastmond has focused her advocacy efforts on ensuring that the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on Black and Brown communities is included in the national dialogue on the epidemic. Mass shootings, like Parkland, Sandy Hook, and Columbine, which tend to dominate airtime, are only a fraction of the number of gun murders nationwide.
The issue is personal: "I lost my uncle due to gun violence in Brooklyn 15 years ago. And nothing has changed. Columbine happened, nothing changed. Sandy Hook happened, nothing changed. Parkland happened. Nothing changed," she said to the hundreds of thousands who attended the March for Our Lives in 2018.
Six years have passed since Parkland and Eastmond remains an outspoken changemaker. She is now twenty-two and recently graduated college with a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice. She is an executive council member of Team Enough, a youth-led gun violence prevention organization that brings together leaders from marginalized communities, and co-founder of Concerned Citizens of DC, a team of organizers protesting police violence.