Lately, I have been doubting the power of protests. I used to believe that civic engagement, peaceful demonstrations, and protests were the way to have our voice heard and affect change. I thought that with the numbers and the passion, we could push for the social change we so strongly believed in. I went to protests in my hometown of Chicago and on campus, hoping that adding one body to the crowd would make all the difference.
But coming of age in the Trump presidency, my confidence in protests has taken many hits. A few weeks before coming on this trip, the harshest abortion laws in the history of the US passed throughout the states. It hurt. I hurt for the women who had spent years and decades fighting for the right to abortion, for the right to bodily autonomy. I felt pain for every woman that this would affect.
A few days before we left for South Africa, it was the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My dad was a doctor at the time in Beijing. He, together with my mom helped monitor my uncle and all the other students who sat in the square hungry for days and weeks. My parents were young and hopeful that change would come to China. But in the chaos of the night, they lost faith. So, when my parents tell me to be wary of protests, it hurts in a different way and I start to believe.
In the time we have been in South Africa, we have walked through the histories of countless failed protests, and saw the armies of people that pushed back against a hateful system. And I have been reminded that protests are powerful. I was reminded of the power of women, whose stories were often erased to make way for larger men. I learned of the power of children, who knew being forced to learn in Afrikaans was wrong and led to a nation in to protest. I saw the power of students, kids my age, who stormed their universities, toppled statues, and made their voices heard.
I think it’s pretty common for people in the US to dismiss protesters, especially young student protesters – they are seen as trouble-makers, not change-makers. But here in South Africa, I see the impact that kids my age have had on shaping the national conversation and the trajectory of a nation. And here, I am slowly learning to believe in the power of protests again.