photo by Blair Stenvick

Spend half an hour chatting about feminism with the young womxn of color who run the CENTER Youth Collective, and a lot will come up.

The CENTER—it stands for “Create. Engage. Notice. Teach. Empower. Remember.”—is a social justice-oriented youth outreach center in North Portland. Its Youth Collective is made up largely of teenage womxn of color, all of them juniors and seniors at different Portland high schools.

They’re coming of age at an extraordinary time for womxn in US culture, as #MeToo and the Women’s March continue to dominate headlines, and as womxn see more representation in politics, media, corporations, and other leadership roles.

I visited the CENTER to learn about their experiences living in Portland, their struggles with white feminism, and their hopes for the future. Here’s what the next generation of leaders has to say.

On living in Portland

“Although Portland is labeled as this super progressive and super liberal city, the under-the-floorboards situation is not that,” says Jazkia Phillips, a senior at Catlin Gable School. “That has some impact on how women, and specifically women of color, are viewed in Portland and especially in the media. We don’t get a lot of coverage or a lot of airtime.”

“Since the 2016 election, it has motivated people to be more outward with their racist beliefs,” says Bella Myers, also a senior at Catlin Gable. “It’s kind of scary in a sense, because they had those racist thoughts before, but it wasn’t publicly okay to be so outward.”

“It’s scary being a woman in certain neighborhoods sometimes,” says Rama Thioub, a Grant High School junior whose mother gave her Mace to carry during her walk home from work at night. “And it’s like, as a person of color, am I even going to come home?”

On intersectionality and white feminism

“With these movements, like #MeToo and the Women’s March—a lot of times women of color and Black women, their voices are de-centered and they’re pushed out of the format of those movements, when a lot of times they’re the ones that are creating them,” says Phillips. “There’s a lot of white feminism, where white women are taking ownership of those things.”

“We have a club at school called SAFER [Students Active For Ending Rape], and they do incredible work,” says Gabby Cosey, a senior at Lincoln High School. “But it’s also really obvious when they have, like, a hundred people turn out for their club, and then our Black Student Union, which is open for everybody, has 15 on a good day. It’s much trendier to go to the Women’s March, and trendier to go to a Kavanaugh protest, than it is to go to a Black Lives Matter protest.”

“I want to support all women of all cultures,” says Karina Alcantara, a senior at Benson Polytechnic High School. “Feminists are portrayed as just white women. It’s hard for me to identify as a feminist.”

On role models

“I’m looking forward to moments where I can mentor young women of color, because I definitely wish I had a more local role model,” says Myers, who looks to Michelle Obama for inspiration. “I wish I had more people when I was, like, eight when I was in elementary school, because that definitely would have set me up differently.”

Phillips names Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as her role model, because “it’s really important to see a woman of color not shy away from her identity, or the things that she cares about, or the things that are important to her.”

On the future

“I definitely have hope, especially because people my age are finally going to be able to vote in the 2020 election,” says Amira Tripp Folsom, a junior at La Salle Catholic College Preparatory. “I think people are waking up and realizing, ‘Oh [crap], we could do something.’”

“I wouldn’t be involved in this work as much as I am if I didn’t believe that things could change,” says Cosey. “My advice for anybody is to think critically about the world around us. It’s okay to acknowledge the wrong to be able to get to the right.”