After the 2016 presidential election, Sonia Chajet Wides decided she needed to do something. Even though she was just a kid at the time, she wanted to find a way for teens like her to stay educated about global issues.
Sonia, now 16, began a shared Google Doc with her best friend and now co-director Kate Griem. The document had a few notable organizations and phone numbers to reach legislators. Soon, that Google Doc became Teens Resist, a “website and resource center dedicated to making political activism easier for teens in a time when youth involvement is imperative.” To date, Teens Resist has published 59 action lists and articles and has a staff of over 20 teens from around the country. This election season, Sonia worked with her team to teach teens to phone bank, canvass, and campaign for elected officials.
Even though she can’t vote yet, Sonia is dedicated to making her voice — and the voices of teens — heard in the national conversation. The Brooklyn teen was named one of the 2020 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award winners. Over e-mail, we talked about everything from political activism to the writer that changed her life.
Why is youth involvement so critical in political activism?
The world that is being shaped by (mostly) adults right now is the one that we will grow up into, so we absolutely deserve to have a say. Beyond that, young people have been drivers of social change throughout history because of our openness to new ideas and our lack of numbness to bad things that have been going on for a long time. That passion is absolutely necessary in shaping change.
Which are the most popular resources that Teens Resist has created?
When there were major national uprisings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in May and June, we got the most traction that we had ever gotten. We put out a LOT of resources with specific things for people to do, and I had never seen people so excited to take action.
Even though you’re too young to vote, what does being involved in politics mean to you?
Voting is obviously a huge aspect of being involved in politics in this country, and it’s definitely what is emphasized the most to us throughout our lives. But it is definitely not the end-all-be-all, and for young people, it’s not even part of the process. Elections are not the only time that we can hold elected officials accountable. To me, being involved in politics means taking all of the passion and anger I feel at the situations in our country and trying my best to channel that towards productive action.
What other youth activists do you admire?
There are so many! I admire all of my fellow Diller awardees; they are all incredible and I was so honored to be among them. I really admire Brea Baker, who is an activist and writer that I think represents a truly grounded leader. Most of all, I admire Kate Griem, my best friend with whom I run Teens Resist — she is a deeply thoughtful and passionate person and I am really grateful for our partnership.
Do you feel your Judaism influences your work? If so, how?
Absolutely. I grew up in a Jewish community that is very politically active, where we were taught that it’s a major aspect of Judaism to do something when you see something wrong happening in the world. I think that not only was that something that propelled me to start Teens Resist, it’s also threaded into the core idea of Teens Resist: that anyone has the power to effect change by turning their opinions into action with the right resources.
What does tikkun olam mean to you?
To me, tikkun olam is a beautiful term because its use of the word “repairing” implies that there is a better world out there that we are working towards at all times. It represents a continuous process that anyone can participate in.
How do you balance school, social life, and everything with your work?
It is definitely not easy! One of the biggest things that I have had to learn with Teens Resist is how to be a leader by getting more people involved. Teens Resist started with just me and my friend Kate, and now we have a staff of around 25 amazing writers from around the country. I appreciate that I can be communicative with Teens Resist leadership and staff about what I’m capable of doing at any given moment because we’re all dealing with similar stressors. That rang particularly true when the pandemic happened and we were able to take a minute to regroup, as all of us were dealing with the transition to online school; there was a really nice mutual acceptance and community in that. I also just think it’s important to treat yourself with kindness when it comes to balancing all the aspects of life as a teen. Taking breaks is really important, and that can include taking breaks from social media when that feels like it’s putting pressure on you.
What has been the biggest challenge? How have you dealt with it?
I think one of the biggest challenges that we deal with at Teens Resist is sorting through the slew of news and information and a) not getting overwhelmed and b) choosing what to highlight and how to do so. The way that we have dealt with that is by taking time to make observations: What does it seem like people are feeling strongly about? What is there a lack of resources about? What things seem to be getting misconstrued on social media? What are urgent actions that people need to be taking? Trying to make everything we do intentional and thoughtful has allowed us to sort through the noise and make things comprehensive and easy-to-understand for Teens Resist readers.
Who’s your social justice inspiration?
My work with Teens Resist, and the way I live my life, are guided a lot by adrienne maree brown, a brilliant writer and organizer whose book Emergent Strategy changed my life. I feel like I can truly always depend on adrienne to deliver nuanced and thoughtful ideas about anything that is going on in the world, and the way that she thinks and writes about organizing and political action has really shaped me.
What are you proudest of?
I am proudest of Teens Resist’s authenticity and commitment to our mission above all for the past three years. We have always chosen to focus on making sure that the resources we’re putting out and our work in general is of the best quality, and know that growth and reach will come along with that. That philosophy has served us really well, and has given Teens Resist sustainability and consistency in uncertain times. Regardless of the size of our audience, people’s tendencies towards action at any given time, or what is going on in the world, we are consistently putting out helpful resources for people to use.
Header image design by Grace Yagel.
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are — showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Alma is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.