Updated: Dec 15, 2020
By: Madina Amber
Andera Alejandra Gonzales [she/her] is a phenomenal Queer, Mestiza youth activist who I was delighted to talk to about what it’s like to be an activist. She is currently the Director of Operations at Youth Over Guns whose mission is to help decrease gun violence in underserved communities. As a Muslim American Pakistani and Movement Correspondent at NYCYCI, I felt it was important to spotlight Andrea’s remarkable work to inspire other young activists whose voices often are silenced.
I started our conversation asking Andrea about her upbringing and its impact on her becoming an activist. “When you are born...into a community that is severely impacted by systems of violence, you are an activist in your own right by existing, you are like an act of resistance...Once I started really recognizing who I was, I realized that I needed to be present in these spaces for my ancestors for my family/people that I love.
...I’m representing Latinos...Queer folks... young people and so I am really passionate about being an activist and making sure that our voices are being heard. Whenever someone asks me what I want to do when I grow up, I say I want to be a great grandmother. Because I wanna see generations feeling safe and loved and protected...“I am really grateful that I’m able to be an activist in this moment and continue that connection that intergenerational baton-passing between generations...”
Hearing Andrea speak about the importance of making an impact so that future generations can keep the movement alive made me realize how vital it is to consider the next generations when carrying out our work. It’s amazing that Andrea is making an effort to help inspire youth so that they can carry on the work. I then asked about the first time she demonstrated leadership and engaged in activism. . Her response resonated with me. “Leadership appears in so many different ways, there is no one way of looking like a leader”.
She continued: “When I was in my sophomore year, my friend and I created a photography series for a class project and wrote on my back, “No means no”, “My body My rules”, “This does not mean yes”. The project was talking about rape culture & dress codes and how like they’re really discriminatory towards girls and gender conforming folks
“was super proud of myself but the school deemed it as “pornographic”. But, I was going to make sure this photo got back up and so...I made a petition, I started going on the news, I was like, f*ck the school...I’m gonna do it and I like we got 3000 signatures. We were on three news stations. I come from Staten Island so the community there is really tight so word spread out fast. Unfortunately, the photos didn’t ever go back up in school...but the photos got up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Capitol Hill in DC.
The first time I really was a leader was when I was organizing my community members and friends to sign/share petitions...It became a mini movement to advocate for young women to dress however they wanted...and that was the beginning of my gender justice work.”
Listening to Andrea, I thought how amazing it was that she had learned how to get involved and advocate for herself and others at such a young age even though she was not yet “in the front” of a movement, I shared an early memory of mine as a child when my parents took my family to a march in DC for the lives of those living in Kashmir, I watched the marches, speeches, and signs made by many and how much it meant to them. Andrea responded “...That's so important for a young person...to witness a community on the other side of the world that he/she is fighting for and want them to know that he/she loves and protects them...”. At that march, I learned to believe in the power of solidarity in the fight to make the world a better place.
Andrea related to my story and told me that when she was little her father would tell her stories about the Afghanistan and Iran War, though she was too young to understand. “I wanted to learn more because it's important to think about the way capitalism and the government destroys Black and Brown folks...young people see that...it's important to have adults guiding them, making sure they...move past this moment and actually turn it into action”. My father, just like hers, did the same thing. He inspired me to research and connect to the common enduring issues that exist. Having a family who supports and inspires you can help shape you into an outstanding leader and activist.
Andrea continued our discussion on the impact of our fathers' storytelling “It’s important to have activists present in telling their story...narratives are so important...when we reclaim the narrative...the possibilities are truly endless. You get to inspire a whole generation of people...like my ancestors did the same thing...I’m continuing that work for them”.
We picked up on the discussion relating to the government’s perception of POCs and their association of them with guns/violence. “Folks like to blame the person who looks different for everything....there's a systematic issue with policing that was rooted in slave patrols...and folks really want to blame Black folks for getting killed by the police...We’re talking about the fact that people who want to hurt others have access to guns, we need to make sure that we have systems in place that stop the cycle of violence.
People have been systematically disenfranchised. They don't have jobs, access to healthy education/foods, or a safe relationship with the government...Gun violence is the end result of a really big web of issues when we have racism, transphobia, homophobia, xenobia you have gun violence...It's important to redirect that conversation...and make sure that everyone has access to what they need.
So it’s really important that young people across the country are advocating for the true telling of stories...and reshifting the narrative the media...tries to put on us.”
I then asked her how her identity impacted her as an activist “The identity that I carry, all carry privileges and oppressions within them”. I thought that was such an interesting point; how we can use our privileges to help others and be allies but also use our struggles to contribute to movements trying to fix it.
“...Being a WOC is very dangerous. But also understanding that I'm not Black and Black folks have to experience anti-blackness. And so I use my privilege to advocate for Black lives. In regards to my queerness, I am really grateful that I'm now becoming more open about my sexuality...People can't recognize that I am Queer and that's a privilege in itself...with that, I am a defender of Queer lives...I advocate for Trans lives. The liberation of Black Trans folks, (we have liberation of everyone.) ..That's what I do with my activism, recognizing my oppressions but using that to privilege others and making sure that they’re being uplifted and being protected.”
Privilege is a big thing that everyone carries but most fail to see and use to help others. This made me think about how celebrities often misuse their abundant privilege in the moments that are needed such as with Black Lives Matter, because they are afraid of losing support. BLM was treated as a trend with celebs jumping on the bandwagon posting a black square, instead of starting a serious discussion or sharing resources.
Andrea shared the same frustrations, “Like what the f*ck is that? We have work to be done, there’s so many activist influencers..that just show up when it's convenient. They’re good with words, but they don't show up when it's time to protest...donate...and give resources.
You have all this platform...what are you gonna do with that? Like where were you?...I went to the party in Washington Square park to celebrate Joe Biden winning. It was frustrating because most of these white folks, were out here popping bottles, dancing and singing. Where were they when we were getting pepper sprayed? When we were getting arrested? When we were protesting for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony Mcdade?
We need to be uncomfortable...We all have a role in building that future...everyone has a conversation that needs to be had, everyone has one a racist family member- call them out!
Honestly celebrities, they’re not gonna be our saviours...there are no saviours, we are all collectively helping each other...Either celebrities get on board or are gonna be kicked off the train because we're gonna build something that's more...We need to...understand that your liberation is my liberation and my liberation is yours...we are building a collective circle to make a safer world for everyone”
I asked Andrea about the impetus for the creation of Youth Over Guns and its successes. “Zarina and Luis are the co-founders I started working with and the reason why we continue to put so much love and passion into this work is because we see the way that the media like white rich folks often the ones who command that conversation about gun violence.
...less than 1% of our gun violence is mass shootings and the whole other 99% is community violence...people who are most impacted by gun violence should be leading these conversations and presenting the solutions...We're gonna end gun violence by getting rid of cops & metal detectors...and instead making sure we have restorative justice programs in our schools.
We are taking a holistic approach...making sustainable changes...a safe community and not the illusion of safety. We’re trying...to make sure we center Black lives in our conversations...that’s what we do at Youth Over Guns, we make sure that we are talking about all of those things and how they relate to gun violence.”
One of Youth Over Guns’ great successes was the passing of the Red Flag law, also known as ERPO. It is triggered “when a person may be dangerous to themselves or others...prohibits a person from purchasing or possessing guns and requires the person to surrender any guns they already own or possess”.
“There are warning signs before someone commits a mass shooting. And so we’re really happy after years and years of work alongside...New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, LIFE Camp, all these amazing New York centered organizations, we learn from them and they've been advocating for the longest time...Statistically when you fund violence interruption programs like LIFE Camp, Save Our Streets, GMACC, they actually stop gun violence more than any other gun law reform.
We’re grateful that ERPO was passed, but so much work needs to be done...ERPO was one step we needed to do like, defund the police and fund mental health, have adequate healthcare, well-funded schools, and build safer communities cuz we're not about trying to make laws and put people in jail, we are trying to give power to communities.”
I asked Andrea if her activism changed during the pandemic
“Definitely it's harder now because folks...have family members that are dying due to COVID, school that’s piling on us, other work/responsibilities, but we keep on going. We find ways to continue working for the betterment of our community and making sure that we are masked up and have all of our protective gear.
We are...writing workshops for disenfranchised folks, showing up to community events...We don't want the conversation about COVID to completely overwhelm conversations about gun violence...especially because the numbers between this year and last year in terms of gun violence tripled. But definitely...we are definitely changing our strategies so people can organize in any way they can...”
These are hard times, but I so much appreciate how Andrea and other youth leaders are working to keep the movement alive, while keeping their communities safe. I asked about the ways Youth Over Guns was engaging young people, “...We have a program, Anger to Advocacy...at which young people who aren't necessarily organizers can learn how to organize/empower their communities...they can apply on our website to join the team...And folks can get involved with social media. We have events, marches, rallies happening even though we’re in a pandemic...just stay tuned!”.
For those interested in these opportunities, you should definitely check it out at https://www.youthovergunsny.org/
I think it’s important as budding activists and leaders that we are open minded while exploring different ways to be civically engaged. To those who don't see themselves as leaders and/or are afraid of taking initiative in new spaces, I understand the fear of not being qualified. It is a struggle when we don't have confidence in our abilities. Trust me I also struggle with them too. I asked Andrea whether if she had any advice
She reassured me that anyone can be a leader and that what matters is the mission and the impact you make on it. As long as you say true to yourself, you'll be fine.
Andrea is such an inspiring individual and everyone should definitely look into her work. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to meet with her. I hope one day my work will be seen and make a difference, just like hers.
And we both believe that YOU can too! Take this journey with us and help make a difference!
The mention of Assata Shakur led to me understanding her role model and how she influenced her activism.
I asked Andrea about a role model, Assata Shakur, and how she influenced her activism
“She envisioned a world full of love and freedom and peace. It was a world without the military, cops, borders.She was part of folks that made the free food program in our schools, and made breakfast programs for the Black Panthers. And all I can hope for is to get the world a little bit closer to how she envisioned.
She had so many amazing quotes and so many chants that we continue to say. "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains”...“(r)evolution is love”...I think that she really embodied that definition of radical imagination, of that radical love that's gonna save our communities and also by default save the world.
It’s so important to have role models who inspire you to keep going even when things get tough.”
For those interested in being an activist or feel like they don't have the potential to be one, what advice would you give?
“Activism is something that looks a million different ways. You don't always have to be the person speaking in front of the protests, kicking gas cans back at the police or organizing panels. You can be shy or reserved, and that's the beauty of this work.
We don't live one issue lives and we can be in a lot of different movements and advocate for many. That's what makes us well rounded activists.
But also at the same time, don't overwork yourself. It's not about how much work we produce, it's about how many people we champion to our cause and making sure that we have an empowered community to continue the work.
It takes a long time to figure out what you want to do but after a while everything will become clearer when you start trusting yourself. I promise.”