April was supposed to be a jam-packed month for 19-year-old immigration activist Matthew Tikhonovsky.
Tikhonovsky had speaking engagements lined up at local high schools and donation drives planned as part of his service initiative, Refugee Thrive. He even had posters designed for a pro-immigrant rally.
Then COVID-19 shook the world to its core and disrupted all of Matthew’s original activism plans. “Within a week, everything I had planned was canceled,” he recalled.
Tikhonovsky’s experience is not as unique as it sounds. In fact, across the nation, COVID-19 has changed the lives of most. With schools closed and social distancing measures in place, activism work has temporarily been put on pause.
To remain engaged in their work, youth activists have increasingly turned to technology, relying on digital webinars and social media to continue their activism work.
“Zoom is every youth activist’s best friend now,” he said. Over Zoom, Tikhonovsky has tuned into webinars with prominent activists and politicians and engaged in virtual conversations with other grassroots activists.
But even with Zoom, things are not the same. “Of course, I can’t hold a march or collect clothing donations over Zoom, but I think there’s still value in Zoom,” he stated. “It’s really cool that webinars in a way democratize activism communities, allowing us youth activists to engage directly with big-time figures, like AOC, who are fighting for (and making) change.”
“Personally,” Tikhonovsky added, “I’ve also spent my extra time connecting on social media with other activists and brainstorming with them about how we can change the world once life returns to normal.”
Although most of his activist work prior to March had been done in person, he is no stranger to utilizing technology to advance social justice missions. In 2017, he launched Walk a Campus in my Shoes (WACIMS), a nationally-recognized refugee awareness campaign. WACIMS was originally designed as a poster series to be displayed on classroom walls and college campuses, but it was quickly digitized.
“I recognized that a physical poster series was limited in its reach, but a digital version of the awareness campaign could be shared with virtually anyone anywhere,” Tikhonovsky said. “Technology helped us reach and educate so many more young people about immigration issues.”
After going digital, WACIMS engaged over 5,000 young people and was part of an initiative recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative Social Venture Challenge.
Tikhonovsky stated that “for youth activists, technology, especially social media, is a game-changer, and it’s really on us to take full advantage of it.”
Youth activists are now relying on technology more than ever. This has sparked a broader discussion about how youth activists can better harness the power of technology to advance their missions.
“Zoom allows us to collaborate with really anyone anywhere in the world, and we need to utilize it more in the future.”
He added, “Many youth activists who have large social media followings already use their platforms to spread their messages. But how can we use it more? Specifically, I use social media to raise awareness for causes—like by reposting something on my Instagram story—and also sparking dialogue and conversations. And I think there’s still so much untapped potential with social media.”
Although he shared insights about the benefits of social media, Tikhonovsky acknowledged that social media has its downsides as well. “It’s easy to think, by just looking at social media, that activism work ends with reposting graphics about climate change and racial injustice. Obviously, that’s important, but these issues require us to do so much more than just that.”
When asked what more needs to be done, Matthew replied: “We need to take tangible action, which comes in so many forms, like holding a strike, collecting signatures and presenting a petition to elected officials, calling your representative, collecting aid for these in need—the list goes on and on. But all of these actions can be facilitated with social media.”
Tikhonovsky concluded by saying that “Overall, I feel like quarantine is a time for all youth activists to get more energized so that once life returns to normal we can fight harder—and smarter—to change the world.”
“In the meantime, though, I’ll be asking myself: How can I better use technology to advance my missions?”
Kimmie Kardam is an 18-year-old Ghanaian-American from Atlanta, GA, who is passionate about social justice and technology—and how those two fields relate. She’s involved with her school’s Black Student Alliance and March For Our Lives Chapter, and she contributes articles to Voices of Youth, UNICEF’s global platform for youth. Kimmie is passionate about using writing to shine a light on youth activists who are harnessing the power of technology to affect change.