James Wellemeyer is an 18-year-old Yale University student deeply invested in social justice, political awareness, and youth activism. For the past year, James served as Executive Director of Redefy, an international teen social justice 501(c)3 organization. James also created and published a civics e-textbook titled Young Voices (youngvoicestext.org) focused on youth narratives in an effort to raise political participation among teens. The book is currently being used by over 35 schools. In college, he’s hoping to continue his activism in whatever capacity he can. Agha Haider, founder of Positivity + Creativity, interviewed James regarding his work.
Why did you decide to get involved with redefy?
I got involved in Redefy because I saw division and hate around me. Where I lived–a generally wealthy, but economically segregated, predominately white town–I saw racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia grow unchecked in my own school and my own community. On one level, as a gay man, I was personally impacted by much of this hatred, and I faced countless incidents of homophobia and gay bashing from my straight peers. But at the same time, as a white person, I was privileged enough not to experience the racism some of my closest friends dealt with everyday. I saw Redefy as a means through which I could reconcile my identities, an organization that would allow me to not only fight my own battles as a queer person but also use my privilege as a white man to support communities of color in their fight against racism.
What is the mission of redefy?
To put it simply, Redefy seeks “to boldly defy stereotypes, embrace acceptance, redefine our perspectives positively, and create an active community,” as stated on our website. We work to accomplish our goals through publishing stories on our website of students’ experiences with prejudice and their opinions on current events in their own communities and around the world at large. We also work with communities and schools across the country and around the world to help them defeat prejudice early before it manifests into hate. We accomplish this by providing our student-run clubs and chapters with resources focusing on prominent social justice topics that they can use in their meetings.
What other community/political work have you done?
This past summer, I created a civics e-textbook, Young Voices, in an effort to raise political participation among young people. For the past few years, I looked at civics curricula at local public and private schools and found that most of these courses focus almost exclusively on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While these documents are certainly important, they might not intrigue a sixth grader who hasn’t been exposed to much US History before. What is that sixth grader really going to take away from an assignment that tasks him with memorizing the Bill of Rights, word for word? I thought that our civics curricula would be more effective in engaging young people in politics and encouraging voter registration if our civics textbooks focused on the stories of other young people involved in politics. For example, let’s say that same sixth grader is reading about a 16-year-old girl who worked with a local lawmaker to change a policy in her community. That sixth grader, I’d argue, will be much more interested and engaged in the class because he will be able to see himself in her shoes. So I interviewed over 50 politically active young people from around the United States and compiled their stories into the textbook along with other essential information about the structure of our government and voter registration. On a side note, many of the civics curricula I reviewed beforehand never mentioned voter registration–how crazy is that? I then marketed my book to over 35 schools and the entire state of Iowa, and I have received a lot of positive feedback from schools about it.
How has this impacted you as a person?
Doing work for Redefy and writing my Young Voices civics textbook has been absolutely amazing in a variety of ways. As a result of my work with Redefy, I have learned about so many social issues and movements I wouldn’t have known about without the organization. Much of this learning came through reading about the experiences of our writers, students from around the world who write articles for our website. Likewise, as a consequence of my work with Young Voices, I have learned so much about political participation among young people in this country. I always knew that kids my age were involved in politics, no matter what the media told us, but I didn’t quite comprehend the extent of that involvement until I talked to so many young political activists across the country. We have young Americans fighting climate change at the UN, demanding seat at the table and relentlessly fighting for one until they get it. That is the kind of work young people are doing today, and that needs to be recognized.
Who do you look up to?
I look up to Claudette Colvin, who at 15-years-old refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. Colvin went on to testify as a witness in front of the Supreme Court, which would later declare Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional.
Colvin’s heroic decision not to bow to white supremacy contributed to a Supreme Court ruling striking down racist laws. Yet Colvin’s efforts were not recognized in the same way Parks’ were simply due to Colvin’s age. However, despite this lack of recognition, Colvin’s ability to spark change demonstrates both the importance and power of youth in social movements. It is for her bravery to so boldly stand up to a world that didn’t want her at such a young age that I admire Colvin.
What do you plan on doing in the future?
I’m not exactly sure what I want to do in the future, but I definitely want to continue social justice work as well as fighting for the rights of marginalized peoples and encouraging political participation in whatever capacity I possibly can.