Jade Villegas ’24, a student in Ezra Stiles College, comes to our Zoom interview fresh off a nap, in between p-sets. Before the actual interview, we talk about how taxing it is to be at Yale.
“One night, I slept on the toilet,” she said, referring to the stressful atmosphere of the midterm season on campus. “I sat down, bent over and knocked out.” Despite the harrowing schedule, Jade has still made time for what matters most to her: protesting the world’s contempt for Black lives.
Jade is a 17-year-old Filipina and Dominican woman from New York City. Being a Black woman means that she has spent the majority of her life taking care of other people. In her senior year, she began looking after her grandma, who was sick. The year before that, she started interning as a peer leader in her city, teaching young children to create inquiry-based exhibitions on issues affecting today’s youth such as climate change and police brutality and organizing civic education workshops for kids in the city. Her social justice advocacy stems from a deep passion for service.
“I feel like a lot of my activism is about learning and trying to teach everyone what you learned,” she said. Upon hearing about George Floyd’s murder, she felt paralyzed. But the COVID-19 pandemic left her stranded in her home with no way to publicly demonstrate. She usually goes to protests, but since that wasn’t an option, she turned to Instagram.
Over the summer, social media networks became critical sources for Black Lives Matter information. Images of brunches and family vacations were replaced with infographics, links to donations, live demonstrations and videos of personal experiences. Instagram stories exploded into communal spaces, full of people ready to contribute to lasting change. Jade was one of them.
Between the months of May and August, Jade’s own Instagram page became the go-to spot for information on the BLM movement, especially among prospective Yale students. “This free knowledge,” one of her posts read. Although her following isn’t large, she knew her audience was engaged, and she began encouraging them to educate themselves in addition to just viewing her posts.
“A lot of activists and BLM protesters had to get really, really, creative with it,” she said.
Getting creative with it is Jade’s forte. In June, she began to offer free college application consultations upon proof of donations to BLM foundations. Her first post alone garnered 912 likes and several reshares, and other activists followed suit.
Once she felt more comfortable going outside, Jade took to the streets. She protested almost every day for the entire month of June, taking time to organize her own protests as well as helping others execute theirs. She spent hours directly messaging schoolmates, friends and family, trying to persuade them to participate. Before this spring, Jade never discussed politics with her friends. The BLM movement, however, was a kind of tipping point. “If you were truly my friend, you’d care about my life,” she said. Even though she had close ties with some of the people she reached out to, the movement became more important to her than any interpersonal relationship.
“I started hitting people up at my school,” she said. “You say the N-word like it’s your business, you’re not even Black. Where’s your money at? Donate to an org.”
Since moving away from New York, though, she’s stepped away from Instagram, mostly to preserve her mental health. “Taking rest is radical too,” she said. “I can’t be full Jade if I’m on like, two hours of sleep and it hurts to be on Instagram everyday.” Her presence has been missed — since she took her break, she’s received several messages asking what happened to her posting and encouraging her to resume.
The fight, however, has not left her. At the time we recorded our interview, Jade was organizing an on-campus protest. She’s learning to balance her school and social life with her justice work. With regards to how the pandemic has affected her activism, Jade says that nothing has changed. When she began protesting, her friends and family tried to intervene, because she is immunocompromised. Jade was disheartened.
“You’re more mad at COVID than you are at the fact that Black people are being systemically killed in the streets?” she said. “People need to be more mad that I had to go out and protest in the first place.”
Because of the way that COVID-19 is transmitted, she has witnessed a pervasive stigma against protesters that have chosen to go into the streets these past few months. The concurrence of the BLM movement with the pandemic meant that people had to choose between standing up for what they believe in and protecting themselves and their loved ones. Jade believes this is a false choice.
“People think we’re out there because we like it,” she said. “Protesting is stressful. We risk getting arrested, getting COVID, we risk dying. I’m not out there because I wanna snap a quick pic. I’m out there because I have to be out there.”
Since moving to Yale, Jade actively recognizes the University’s place in the New Haven community as a gentrifier, and is thinking deeply about how to interact with citizens of Elm City. “I’m not from Harlem, but I understand what Columbia does to Harlem,” she said, drawing on her own experiences as a New York City resident.
But organizing the protests has served as a bridge to the citizens of New Haven. “As a Black person on campus, I haven’t been having the greatest experience,” she said. Jade felt that by protesting, she could show her support for citizens of New Haven as well as other Black students on campus. “The only time that I felt uplifted and genuinely connected to my community was at a protest here,” she added.
I asked Jade what she thought about the future of the BLM movement after the recent outpourings of public support. She predicted that the most active people would continue posting, but that the “people who posted black squares will go back to their brunches.” She wishes Instagram was still the place it was in May. “For a lot of Black people, it’s still May,” she said. “White people got to graduate out of that. We don’t.”
For now, Jade’s future includes finishing her p-sets, living her truth as a Black woman at Yale and continuing to protest. Recently, the attention paid to the Black Lives Matter movement has begun to dwindle, as people get back to their normal lives and shift their priorities. Talking to Jade, however, reminded me that there are people that are continuing to do the good work. It’s a rough time for all of us. As long as we have leaders like Jade, though, I think we’ll be alright.
Awuor Onguru | firstname.lastname@example.org