Equality Arizona
The Arizona Equals Conversation
Arizona Equals Dawn & Hayden
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Arizona Equals Dawn & Hayden

Two student activists talk about their approach to advocacy and their experience organizing demonstrations against anti-LGBTQ+ bills

On today’s episode of the Arizona Equals Conversation, we talk with Dawn Shim and Hayden Nguyen, two leading members of Support Equality Arizona Schools, a student activist group based in Chandler. There’s a good chance you’ve heard about them in the news, for their protest at Chandler City Hall, the walkouts they led last Fall, or their recent demonstration at the state capitol.

Here’s a statement of their mission and vision (written by Hayden):

Our vision lies in the belief that we should all be treated equally, despite our race, gender, or sexuality. Our mission is to achieve this vision through a grassroots, student-led effort made up of people who are afflicted by discrimination and allies. By emphasizing student involvement, we hope to make our voices heard even as non-voters.

By meeting with local officials, we seek the best way to draw attention to the issues which we view as important to us. By protesting, we can show solidarity with those who have experienced discrimination and lend an audience to those who have been impacted in our community. Through our organizing, we hope to turn hate and apathy into action.

Full Episode Transcript

Jeanne Woodbury

From Equality Arizona, you're listening to the Arizona Equals Conversation, an ongoing interview series featuring the stories of queer people living in Arizona. I'm your host, Jeanne Woodbury. In this week's episode, I got to talk with Dawn and Hayden, two students from the East Valley who are leading members of a group called Support Equality Arizona Schools. Now, like I almost always do, I forgot to ask them to introduce themselves until we had our entire conversation. So to make it easier to keep track, I'm going to play a short clip right now of each of them introducing themselves.

Dawn Shim

Okay, cool. Hi, my name is Dawn. I'm 17. I use they/she pronouns and I'm with Support Equality Arizona Schools.

Hayden Nguyen

Hi, my name is Hayden. I'm also 17. I use he/him pronouns and I'm with Support Equality Arizona Schools.

Jeanne Woodbury

There's a good chance you've heard about their group in the news because they're doing really amazing work. But one of the problems for student organizers is that when you do great work, people want to turn you into a figurehead at best, and as they say later, a sock puppet at worst. So I was really excited for the opportunity to sit down with them and talk not just about the work they're doing, but how they got into the work and how they think about the work. This is one of the most fun conversations I've had, coming from my own personal experience, and just getting to listen to both of these amazing people talk. So I'm just going to roll the tape and I hope you enjoy the interview. Thanks for listening.

(beep) (typing)

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Jeanne Woodbury

Well, I really like the business cards. I think you must've given me one at the Christmas party.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, I think so.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, but it's a fun design.

Hayden Nguyen

Thank you, I made them.

Dawn Shim

Yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh cool, so you do design work?

Hayden Nguyen

That's a, I would refrain from saying that just 'cause I'm solely on Canva.

Dawn Shim

Condemned to design.

Hayden Nguyen

I'm on Canva, I'm not on any real design software.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, I mean, Canva's real design software, but I know what you mean.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

I like the idea of a design curse. It's like your curse to do design.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, that's exactly what activism is.

Dawn Shim

Like the design basement, like you're confined in a basement and you can only do design.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. Yeah, online activism is just —

Hayden Nguyen

Instagram graphics.

Jeanne Woodbury

— being thrown into a basement and forced to make Canva designs.

Dawn Shim

And then sometimes it gets worse and you like, have to go into TikTok. It's like, everything just like keeps getting worse.

Jeanne Woodbury

Do you, are you on TikTok? Like, do you do Support Equals Arizona Schools stuff?

Dawn Shim

We should be. We were for a period of time.

Hayden Nguyen

We made five reels.

Jeanne Woodbury

Okay.

Hayden Nguyen

Five reels total.

Jeanne Woodbury

And did they perform well? 'Cause that's the thing I really — it feels like a lottery.

Hayden Nguyen

It is a lottery. It's okay, with the most recent one.

Dawn Shim

We posted a reel just yesterday and we got like, how much did we get?

Hayden Nguyen

We got a lot of engagement. We got about 1600 views, but like —

Dawn Shim

We did?

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, but…

Dawn Shim

That's huge.

Hayden Nguyen

But that doesn't like translate to likes.

Dawn Shim

Oh yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Right.

Hayden Nguyen

It's like different.

Jeanne Woodbury

Do you feel like getting the views though connects to people at least?

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, I think so. I think the way that the algorithm works, Reels are just like more advertised, so more people see it.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Dawn Shim

They're trying to push it because of like TikTok’s commercial success and whatnot.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I think they definitely amplify Reels on Instagram for that reason.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, we always get more impression, not as much like shares, likes, all that, like as opposed to what…

Jeanne Woodbury

I found if you like have a multi-image video post and you have a mix of photos and videos, I think they amplify that more.

Dawn Shim

Oh do they?

Hayden Nguyen

I gotta write that down.

Jeanne Woodbury

But it's a whole thing. I don't know, chasing the social media algorithm…

Hayden Nguyen

It’s kind of like —

Jeanne Woodbury

…sucks.

Dawn Shim

Yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Like, I feel like I've been doing that in one way or another for like 10 years.

Dawn Shim

Oh my God.

Jeanne Woodbury

And it's just —

Hayden Nguyen

And I need to not be sucked into that.

Jeanne Woodbury

It's not really worth it.

Hayden Nguyen

I imagine, yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

It's not really worth it. But I guess I kind of started doing that when I was like a student activist. And I don't know, like 2009, 2010, social media felt fun and new and exciting.

Dawn Shim

Oh yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

And now social media is just like —

Dawn Shim

It's a curse.

Jeanne Woodbury

— You have to be there. It's the curse of the activism basement.

Hayden Nguyen

Right, the activism basement. Yeah, the walls, the project walls. And we're like, we're perpetually sitting there.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

That's the thing. I mean, that's like, I try to come out with a post every couple of days, but it's like, sometimes you just don't got anything to say.

Dawn Shim

Oh, and I feel so bad 'cause I'm like, very inept at Canva. Like I just cannot do it.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, I'm grinding it out.

Jeanne Woodbury

What do you post for? I think that's a big question I've been wondering. I think people mostly assume, and they assumed the same thing when I was a student, is that young people are tech savvy and they're making everything happen online. I don't think that was true for me and I don't know that that's true for you either.

Hayden Nguyen

I think what we post for is a few things. I feel like we post for events, stuff like that. I recently did an infographic for the first time, which was like kind of interesting. But other than that, we do just post photos of like, us at events, which I think is like, I don't know if that makes us more of like a personable…

Dawn Shim

I think older people like to see that. It's like, oh, look at the kids.

Hayden Nguyen

Look at the kids.

Dawn Shim

They're doing things. They're doing the work. And they love that. I think like the other way that that translates is like, you know, Twitter, where it's like kids are coming out with like fun, snappy responses to weird, creepy bigots.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh right, yeah.

Dawn Shim

People love that.

Jeanne Woodbury

Like the Greta Thunberg thing with Andrew Tate.

Hayden Nguyen

That's awesome by the way.

Jeanne Woodbury

That was so fun. I've got to include a link for that in the show notes for people who have no idea the words we just said.

Dawn Shim

I think also like, it was like an Arizona thing. Like some Arizona Republican posted something and then one of the Maricopa Dems just posted, "Fuck off." That was funny.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, yeah.

Dawn Shim

I don't think they were like authorized to do that, but it was still very funny. It went around in all of our social circles and we were like, "Look at them!"

Hayden Nguyen

Because now we're at the point in the social media lifespan where we're not just ironic, I think we're post-ironic.

Dawn Shim

(chuckles) post-ironic.

Hayden Nguyen

Where you’re just trying to be like a brand and a person at the same time and you have to balance those two things or else you're too weird or you're too personable.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, we mix it up sometimes. We do memes. I think people like it. I don't know. I think…

Hayden Nguyen

Sometimes I let Dawn use the account.

Dawn Shim

(laughs) Sometimes I’m allowed.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, Dawn, you said a really interesting thing about like the old people like to see the kids out doing things. Like, do you feel that that, that helps your work or do you get stuck in a trap of like “the kids will save us” mentality?

Dawn Shim

Well, I do think it's like helpful in a sense because these old, older, like people who have like resources and the means to do so, they like can push our like things out to people who have like financial resources and like media resources and who like generally know more about this field than we do just coming in as young people who are just genuinely interested in it. I guess the other part of it is the fact that they like see us as "oh you're so brave" like you're so like special for doing this like I never did it when I was your age is something that we hear so often and it's kind of like discouraging I think in a way because it's like you never had to do it because well I guess like they weren't really seeing these issues as head-on as we are now (even though like those issues definitely were present) they're like coming in very rapidly and they're spread in a very hateful rhetoric that's not masked by politicians at all and we're seeing that directly and that really is like the precursor to our actions.

Hayden Nguyen

Also like if you win the old people you win, you win the money and the power and the money and the ability to just have a little bit of I guess like a little bit of the mind of the politicians you know be able to like get in their head a little bit because if you just like are popular with young people then like I don't think you could make much change given like I don't know young people vote like 25% of time at best but like—

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, and a lot of young people can't vote, right? So that's another thing like you to a certain degree have to rely on adults doing things even if you're doing all the work of activism, ultimately you're kind of just asking adults to be better.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, that’s what it is

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah and that's kind of what democracy is. You're asking people at the top to just like, be better please, yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. I have my own thoughts of just being someone who was like 14, 15 and doing student activism and thinking like, why can't I vote? Why can't I actually just participate? Because I think like there's two sides of it. You can be someone who just happens to be a student and young and wants to be involved in politics. Or you can be doing activism from the standpoint of like, this is important to me because I'm young or a student or whatever. And you can have, you can have both. But I think when it really leans towards just like, well, I just happen to be young and I wanna do this, it can get really frustrating to feel like your only avenue is to push people who actually have power or have voting rights to make better decisions.

Hayden Nguyen

I totally agree. Like, I feel the same way a lot of the time because like, I feel like we, and I wrote this in my college application essay. (laughing) I wrote like, yeah, like we as young people suffer the most under like new legislation, but we have the least power to do anything about it.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

And that's just vote. And you know, if you don't vote, then that means you're not a voice. You know, it doesn't matter how much you protest. Like if you don't vote, that just means like you aren't present in the political sphere. It means that the politicians can't lose their jobs. You can't vote in referendums, all of that. Voting is the simple thing that makes like this entire like democracy thing work. So like if you don't have it, then you're not a part of democracy.

Dawn Shim

It sucks 'cause I think like adults who work with us and who are supportive of us are pretty aware of that when we talk to them about, oh, we're frustrated about this at the local level or this at the state level. They're like, oh, we know that it's good to talk to them and reason with them and go in and do testimonies. But at the end of the day, we've seen historically that disturbances are pretty effective. And that's problematic for us 'cause we don't wanna get arrested.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, we also go to a high school.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, we like go to a learning institution in which we unfortunately have carried out disturbances.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, and they have power over us, right? At the same time, like, you know, yeah, it's good to talk to these people, but like, I feel like when you walk into the room with a politician, as somebody who has less power than them, like not even as a young person, as anybody who has less power than a politician, you walk in and they kind of have an agenda, right? They kind of want to talk to you and they kind of want to like talk you down from what you want and kind of give you the impression that they're listening without doing anything.

Dawn Shim

Right.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. That's often the case. And I mean, even more generously sometimes it's just someone who has a lot of meetings and they're trying to figure out if you're someone they need to listen to or not. And I feel like for young people, you have the option of just being like kind of dismissed, because you can't vote or whatever it is, or being like the token young person who's like the golden child for everyone. It's like, “oh, I'm gonna listen to this person 'cause they're so special and they're doing all these things.” And obviously both of those can be frustrating.

Hayden Nguyen

Of course, and I think that like, I mean, we talked to Kevin Hartke and to bring up that example, that's like how many times did he tell us that we were going to be the future and sitting in his chair one day?

Dawn Shim

No, yeah, how many times he offered us, “you want an internship?” No, bro, I do not want an internship.

Hayden Nguyen

It's 'cause it's like, I mean like, those are, at the end of the day, they can say anything they want and they don't have to do anything, right? There's no obligation to do anything, which is why like disruption's so important because you need to make an obligation to do something as somebody who doesn't have any power, right?

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I wanna get back to that topic of like disruptions and everything, but Dawn, you said that “I don't want an internship” line, and I feel that so much, but I think it gets to a question I wanted to ask both of you. And I'll just ask Dawn first. When you decided to get into this kind of activism, well, first, like, where did that start? When did that start? And then also, what's your mindset around it? You're someone I know who does like Model UN. For a lot of people, they have the mindset of like, okay, I'm going to get the internship. I'm going to put this stuff on my resume. And you're doing something that's more self-directed. So how did you get into that?

Dawn Shim

Yeah, well, like, even before I got into any of this, I was like a speech and debate kid. So was Hayden. We did the same kind of speech and debate.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, which is why we are so problematically argumentative. Speech and debate, and I did Model UN, and in both speech and debate and Model UN, there's this sense of ivory towerisms, where it's like this bizarrely academic mindset, where we're preaching down on really huge, really important world topics, like, oh, the conflicts in the Balkans and it's like a lot of like craziness and it's like no one actually really does anything about it we're just all talking about it. Like one night I think it was like fourth quarter and I was like reading like the news uh, like any unfortunate academically tortured debate high schooler, and I came across Doug Ducey saying that uh the trans athletics bills were for the betterment of our youth and that was like, whoa, did he really say that? That was weird. So I went on his webpage and it was like, yeah, he really did say that because he is incredibly out of touch. And I was pretty angry because like there was this pattern of Arizona just plunging into like saying things that are like, oh, this is for the betterment of our kids while slashing away at like school dollars. And this is for the betterment of the parents while like slashing away at our teachers. And it's like, so like I drafted up this like pretty angry, like it was like a two-page Google document and I like sent it out on my socials to like my friends and stuff and I was like, "I can't believe they're doing this. This is so messed up. What do we do?" And then people like started texting me like, "I don't know. What do we do?" So I was kind of like plunged headfirst into this kind of thing. Like I didn't really intend to get into activism. I think like going back to what you were saying about like people who are intentionally in this field and people who kind of have been like forced into it I guess I would be like part of the latter but I think like I'm learning to really enjoy it. I don't like feel those weird kind of ivory towerisms anymore.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, cause it’s not practice. The other stuff feels like practice.

Dawn Shim

Yeah it does.

Jeanne Woodbury

Like I'm gonna talk about… I don't know I remember doing something about like the conflict in Chechnya. I'm never, I’m never gonna have anything to do with that in my whole life.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, right.

Jeanne Woodbury

So it's just practice. The other thing you said is like being kind of thrown in head first, but also into leadership because you said, here's this, what can we do about it? And everyone just reflected it back to you and said, “yes, tell us, what can we do about it?” So how did you respond to that? Did you start by just saying, let's have a meeting or let's talk about this more on social media? Where did it go from there?

Dawn Shim

Yeah, well, I pretty much just called up a ton of orgs, and I was like, well, this is who I am and this is what I'm interested in. And a lot of young people are really affected by this. Like, what can I uniquely as a young person who can't really vote and can't really do anything, what can I do? And there wasn't really a concrete answer. So I reached out to teachers, like Hayden's teacher connected us, that's how we met. So I think ultimately it's pretty unfortunate, but people who are not in positions of power are often the ones to first extend a hand towards taking any kind of meaningful action.

Jeanne Woodbury

I think that's true. What was your path parallel to that?

Hayden Nguyen

I think in many ways it's similar, but it's also the opposite path. Because I kind of went into activism —

Jeanne Woodbury

Similar, but completely different.

Hayden Nguyen

Completely different. (laughing) I guess similar in a way that I think we have a lot of lining views now, but opposite how we got here, I think it's really different. Because when I first got into activism for the first time, I attended the Women's March all the way back in my eighth grade year.

Jeanne Woodbury

So what year would that have been?

Hayden Nguyen

2018.

Dawn Shim

Oh wow.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, 2018. And it was, I think that was really impactful because for one, it kind of introduced me into this entire sphere of things, but at the same time, I saw all these organizations and I really wanted to do something that I thought would be contributing and also at the same time look good for colleges and stuff.

Jeanne Woodbury

Sure, yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

Of course, right?

Jeanne Woodbury

There's nothing wrong with that.

Hayden Nguyen

I mean, that's just like, that's just like, was like, oh, this is gonna be like really useful for me. But then the more I got into it, I like, I really hit like every internship. Literally at the opposite end of Dawn. I was like, I ran like two internships the entirety of junior year at the same time. And there was a lot of work. And at the very end of it, I feel like, I feel like I got nothing. And I feel like that's the reason why I kind of got into like doing more kind of out of the box and like student organized grassroots stuff, because I was working with like the Democrats and I was working with like the mayor's office and stuff like that for Gilbert. And it was kind of like, in a way like belittling, just being able to see like all of the things happening in front of you, but at the same time not having any impact on it. And at the same time, you're kind of just like a bit of like a cog in like this big machine going on, like just you know, making the things happen while you're just sitting there on your desk making phone calls all day and it's not enjoyable and you don't really get to push for what you believe in, but rather you're pushing for this agenda that like other people believe in, even though it might not really align with what you believe and at the end of the day I was kind of like, I don't know, I don't really want to do this anymore and I don't feel like I'm gonna get anywhere and make any change and do anything at all. So it was kind of by chance that I met Dawn, but I'm happy I did because that was the moment where I kind of got an opportunity to kind of act on that feeling, like that I was kind of being useless.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, you started out by saying you wanted to make a contribution, and in those internships, I mean, did you feel like you were making a contribution?

Hayden Nguyen

That's how they sell it to you, right? Like the internships are like, oh, you're gonna like be like, you know, you're gonna become a leader and you're gonna make a contribution. And like those two things will never happen. Like when you're in an internship, because all they will do is like — I was in the mayor's youth committee and they were, it felt like they made up the meeting like an hour before the meeting started. And it was like a presentation on like a bridge. And I was like, okay. No, literally, they were gonna build a bridge out of Ocotillo.

Dawn Shim

We know that Gilbert loves their landmarks.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah.

Dawn Shim

The water tower, that thing's huge.

Hayden Nguyen

And then the bridge. And they were gonna extend the bridge in Ocotillo, and I was like, okay, um, sure. And it's like, you just get to see these things happen, but it's like, you don't really get to do anything. You don't become a better person.

Jeanne Woodbury

You’re just watching it.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, you're just watching it all happen in front of you. It brings you closer, but not in a way that means anything, you know?

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I can understand that.

Hayden Nguyen

So, no, no, the internships and all that, like I've been through them, I don't think I took away anything.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, one other follow-up question I wanted to ask was, you said you went to the Women's March in 2018. Did you just go on your own, or did you have people who were going that you went with?

Hayden Nguyen

My sister.

Jeanne Woodbury

Okay.

Hayden Nguyen

It was my sister, because she was with March for Our Lives at the time.

Jeanne Woodbury

Okay.

If I remember correctly. And like, she was like, "Oh, you wanna go to the Capital?" And I was like, "Not really, I kinda wanna play video games." (laughs) But I ended up going and it was really good. Yeah, that was...

Jeanne Woodbury

That's cool. My older sister dragged me into some student activism, so I can relate.

Hayden Nguyen

Honestly, that's —

Dawn Shim

Yeah, I've been trying. It's not working.

Hayden Nguyen

(laughs)

Dawn Shim

We’re like, deep in the video game trench.

Jeanne Woodbury

Do you have a younger brother?

Dawn Shim

Yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Okay, yeah. Did you have anyone in your family or friend circle who you could follow into the work or did you just have to forge your own path?

Dawn Shim

Yeah, I was kind of just like plunged —

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh yeah, okay.

Dawn Shim

— into the cold waters. It's a scary place, so.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. And then you got connected through a teacher, right? And then did you immediately say, "Okay, let's start a group," or did you just start saying, "What's an action we can take?" 'Cause you talked about disruptions, and I think those are maybe like parallel things. So which kind of direction did you take it at first?

Hayden Nguyen

I would say right after we kind of like, we had that first demonstration, there was already kind of like a pre-existing group and like, that I joined and right after like we, like I sought out that demonstration, I joined like their discord server or whatever and I started joining meetings. I think the first thing that happened was like Dawn had called a lot of politicians.

Dawn Shim

Oh my god yeah. I’m blocked from some offices.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh wow.

Dawn Shim

Yeah. (Laughs)

Hayden Nguyen

And we were just like, and I just became like a plus one to Dawn for like a month or two in the summer, right? I was like just following her to like, oh we're gonna go to —

Dawn Shim

Politicians’ offices.

Hayden Nguyen

— we’re gonna go see like, I don't know, like Pawlik, we’re gonna see like Jennifer Pawlik — I’d say like, okay I’ll come.

Dawn Shim

We went to Hartke's office. We talked to the vice mayor about the — what telescope is it?

Hayden Nguyen

The James Webb Telescope

Dawn Shim

Yeah, the James Webb Telescope. (laughs)

Jeanne Woodbury

What was the relevance of the telescope?

Dawn Shim

Oh, no relevance at all.

Hayden Nguyen

No relevance.

Dawn Shim

We called him, we were like, can we talk about the NDO for a second? He goes, no, I'm on vacation, but do you want to talk about the James Webb Telescope?

Hayden Nguyen

It must have been on a chart.

Dawn Shim

And genuinely, like three of us were like sitting there. We were like in like a restaurant in downtown Chandler. And like, I had to put the phone down because we were laughing so hard. Because it was just like, the ineffectiveness of local politics has never been captured so hard.

Jeanne Woodbury

I can't help but find that a little charming, that just like, let's just talk about space. Let's just have a completely unrelated conversation.

Hayden Nguyen

It was crazy because I remember I was holding the phone and I was like —

Dawn Shim

What?

Hayden Nguyen

Wait, what?

Dawn Shim

Did he really say that?

Hayden Nguyen

It was like, wait.

Jeanne Woodbury

So when you're setting up these meetings, is it just you, Dawn, just making a list of people you want to talk to? How do you even start that? I think a lot of people have no idea how to get started with something like that.

Dawn Shim

I think starting out, I just found a list of orgs that are probably likely to support the thing that I was interested in. And I had a list of politicians that I was interested in contacting. I cold called the politicians. And for most of the orgs, I messaged them online and stuff. And I think earlier on, we were a lot more influenced by outside orgs, just as young people who didn't really know what was going on in the political sphere. Like our first action was in the downtown Chandler area for the NDO and that was really, really heavily influenced by the work of GLSEN and the work of Chandler Pride and it just continued what they've been seeking to do but a lot of the times the rhetoric that they're told is, oh, you people who are older, why are you trying to make these decisions for young people? And I think we saw a niche as young people in this area. But we're just calling politicians. We just wanted to see genuinely why they were making some of these decisions and how this came about. ‘Cause I know that in my school and in my personal life, these bills don't seem really culturally relevant. It doesn't seem like they have a place in the environment that I know that I'm in as a young person. It just doesn't make sense. So I think that was what we were trying to do. We were trying to find context around why are we here?

Hayden Nguyen

Right.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh yeah, I'd love to hear more about that idea of context, 'cause that's a whole hobby horse for me is context. So when you're looking at these bills and how they feel disconnected from what's actually happening in your schools…

Hayden Nguyen

What is that kind of like?

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, what is that like? Is there any connection at all? Or is it just like, where is this even coming from?

Hayden Nguyen

It's like a — I think what it has to do with, is it has to do with the source of information that they're getting it from. Because when you listen to the counter-protesters across from you, like at the Capitol, and they say something, and it's completely different from anything that you've ever been told or anything that you've ever seen in your school, it's a little jarring. But that's just kind of how it is. And I think that's why these politicians are… they do the things that they do. Because — Critical Race Theory, that was a huge thing with Tom Horne's campaign, was like “stop critical race theory.” But the thing is like, no one in the state of Arizona has ever been taught the critical race theory, but I guess like at least 50% of the vote was under the impression that that was happening. So it's gotta be like a different source that's saying “this is what's happening in school,” but that's not what's happening in school. So I guess that's where it comes from.

Dawn Shim

Just like adding on to this, not even 5% of people probably know what critical race theory is. So that’s I guess, the bit. Yeah, I think like adding on to that, a lot of times like these far out there politicians are empowered by like the very loud few. And I think as young people, like we don't really like want to look into these bills because like political language is just like, it's so awful. Like they're just like horrific long words that like no one ever wants to spend their time reading. But like, and all of these bills are like framed in a way that seems like just deliberately, like it doesn't make any sense or it doesn't have any relevancy. So a lot of young people tend to just like go past and it's like, oh, that doesn't look great, but I don't wanna read it 'cause like that is really inconvenient to me. And I can see like why that is. But when we walked out with like 800 plus young people across the state, what we learned is that, like when we were initially planning, We were like, we're probably gonna have a lot more kids than we think 'cause kids wanna skip class. But we walked out and we had a long line of kids who were walking out because they wanted to skip class. And they were like, oh, why are you guys doing this? And we told them. And they were like, oh, that's awful that that's going on. And they joined us and they didn't go home. So that was huge.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, and also I feel like, to add on to that, I guess there is, when it comes to starting out, you don't know what the bills are, where to read and find the bills. Like who do you call? Like Dawn started out like just cold calling people. Like who do you cold call? Are they ever gonna get back to you?

Dawn Shim

No.

Hayden Nguyen

Like it's, and they're not gonna get back to you. And that's the thing. So like, it's, so it's, that's the thing with like starting as an activist is that you just like have no idea where that begins and no idea where to even look, like when it comes to your cause, who to contact, what orgs. Like it is, it is just like an extremely uphill battle.

Jeanne Woodbury

And it feels like there's some push and pull because there's that need to reach out to people to get that landscape and to get started. But then, I mean, theoretically, if you wanted to, you could just volunteer with GLSEN if that's the kind of thing you wanted to do. If you just fully wanted to be absorbed into what's already happening. And the push and pull that, that seems to happen for you is how do you actually assert your independence as organizers separately from these groups that already exist, while also creating those relationships and benefiting from that.

Hayden Nguyen

That's something that we already, like, we have to think about a lot, like now and probably forever. But it is something that I think when it comes to maintaining our own independence, I think the only way that you're really able to do that is by having, I guess your own events and just being able to like assert yourself as your own voice and as a part of your own cause in this like unique area. Which I guess when you say, when Dawn said like, we found a niche in the East Valley. And when it comes to like, organizing, like in the East Valley, it's like, it's like almost nothing. There's like, there's like very, there's very few things. In Gilbert especially, like there's nothing. I don't know. There's a, there's a water tower. There's one bridge. We have a Postinos, you know, it's like, that is what's in Gilbert. So I guess like, in a way there's like a niche there; at the same time, maintaining that is like, I think we still have to think about that all the time when we're interacting with organizations.

Dawn Shim

Just going back to the idea of like a lot of like national and larger organizations, like it's surprising to me how limited they are in the kinds of things they're able to allow us to do. I know that GLSEN’s faced some difficulties allowing us to be associated with them when we're doing these kinds of demonstrations. And that's something that we ultimately understand because they're something that's national and they have a board of directors who ultimately know what's best for them and what looks good for them as an organization moving forward. And us walking out of schools and screaming is not great for them. But the thing is, is that it's something that we're really passionate about. I think we've grown together larger than any of these orgs in a sense, because we're pretty close. We just hang out together and we talk about these kinds of issues and what can we do about it. And sometimes our best ideas come out of, we're like, at an art fair in downtown Phoenix and we're like, yo, what if we did this thing?

Hayden Nguyen

We were at Brick Road Coffee and I was like, we should do the body bag thing, like March for Our Lives.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, the body bag thing.

Hayden Nguyen

And then we ended up doing it. I think, yeah, I think being high schoolers is the biggest part of it. Because like, even when you're in college, you don't really have a connection to like, high schoolers back at your own like campus unless you have a sibling there, right? Like so being somebody who's like experiencing it, and at the same time, being somebody who is connected with people who are experiencing it and being able to relate to them on like that level and the fact that you were there first hand is pretty big.

Jeanne Woodbury

Not only are you students, and therefore directly experiencing what's happening in schools, you're also spending a lot of time with all the other people who are directly experiencing this. And so you're not just having your own solitary perspective, but you're having a whole community perspective that almost no one else is ever gonna have, potentially even teachers, I'm not sure. But it feels like a unique perspective to bring to things. And then that gives you, I think, some unique value you can contribute. What do you see as the contribution you're trying to make as a group?

Dawn Shim

I think something that's pretty impactful to me, just like, I don't know if it's really what you're asking, but when we were doing the walkout, a lot of my friends, they messaged me before, and they were like, "Oh, my parents don't want me to do this," or, "I have people who are part of my family and they're asking me not to do this because they see it as dangerous, they don't want to be associated with this, but just know that I'm here for you and you're like my voice is part of yours” and I think that's pretty much what we're here for.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah I mean like think about it this way, like people see their teachers more than they see their parents sometimes and people are at school for most of the day like between sleeping and school that's like most of a person under 18's life. So when we talk about being a voice for those people, I mean, that is our real contribution here, because like, when they spend that much time in one place every day, it has a huge effect on their mental. And just knowing that like, one, they have the option to join a group of people who are fighting on like a legislative level, on like a demonstration level, on a local level in the East Valley, in Chandler Gilbert, and secondly, also have a place that they could look to if they wanna see people fighting for that thing and see people expressing the same views that they have, even if they can't attend those marches or meetings themselves. I think that's really powerful. I think that's what we're here for.

Jeanne Woodbury

So you can be a voice for people and then you can also help people to connect to the power that they have but maybe don't know how to use.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, and I think that's like really what it's all about. I mean, it's about elevating, because these, I mean, how hard is it to really have your voice heard like through your school club or like, even like as a part of like an internship, like how hard is it to have your voice heard and be able to say like, this is what I wanna fight for, but really you're fighting for some politician's agenda, helping them get reelected, right?

Jeanne Woodbury

Right, you end up being a face on something. It's like, oh, here's the —

Hayden Nguyen

Look at all these grassroots volunteers and it's — (laughs)

Dawn Shim

And I just think like at the end of the day we're like really lucky because a lot of the people that we work with, a lot of the young people we work with, they would be incredible in some of these political campaigns. They would be great, great little figureheads. Like, “look at this kid over here, they support me.” But they're not doing that. They're here with us. And I think that's incredibly powerful. It says something about young people and the future of young people in the state, no matter how like awful our legislature is.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, that you don't want to just be absorbed into someone else's vision. You have your own vision.

Hayden Nguyen

And it's a unique vision because it's a vision of you know people who are actually experiencing what these bills are targeted at. You know like parents, they do get to live that through a second hand, but it's I mean again you know you spend most of your time at school. If these, if these bills that they're talking about pass that's most of the time where you might be misgendered, you might be forced to use the wrong bathroom, you might not be allowed to play sports, and that's serious. And it's something that even a parent can't really witness firsthand. It's something that is deeply emotional only on the level that somebody experiencing it firsthand could go through.

Jeanne Woodbury

When we talk about the power that people under the age of 18, students can have, We've talked a lot about how it's limited, right? You don't get to vote. You aren't gonna be listened to a lot of the time, or you're gonna be listened to, but not actually listened to. What can you actually do that makes a difference? I think one of the things I wanna hear more about is how you think about disruptions and protests and things like that. But what's kind of the spectrum of things that you actually can do?

Hayden Nguyen

It's a narrow spectrum, because on one hand, I think MLK said, "Violence is a voice to people who are voiceless," right? But we can't be violent, because if we're violent, then we're expelled.

(laughing)

Dawn Shim

We're 17. Oh my God.

Hayden Nguyen

And that's like it. But there's a narrow window where if you have, especially if you have a lot of people experiencing the same thing, if you have a lot of people suffering, a lot of people willing to fight, that expands the window a little bit about what you can do. But there's a narrow window of both being able to work on a legislative level, so talking and testifying and having voices, and also being able to protest that you're able to have, peacefully protest within the law. And we have to be extra careful about being within the law in that circumstance. But when it comes to the, when a lot of people experience the same thing, when a lot of people wanna be a part of that voice, that widens the window and in Chandler, the Chandler walkout. At Chandler High, nobody had to call in attendance from their parents because they eventually just had… the administration was just like, "Okay, we're not going to do that for just one day because so many people walked out." That's the type of stuff that gives us a little bit more wiggle room, given that if you were to tell your parents, "Oh, I can't be at school today. I'm going to be walking out due to a protest," a lot of parents would say no.

Dawn Shim

They'd be like, yeah, “are you crazy?"

Hayden Nguyen

So that expands the window for us, but it's definitely a narrow window. 100 percent.

Dawn Shim

I think like going back to what Hayden's saying, like for a lot of students, the demonstrations we do isn't just to show our opposition for people who are doubting us that we're here and we're strong and we have a lot of numbers, but for people who support us and can't be out here due to whatever circumstance, that there are people like us and there are a lot of us and things are going to change. Like, especially with the narrow line of demonstrating, it's, we're young people and we're non-white, young, queer people in Arizona.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

That's —

Dawn Shim

And we don't know a lot about policy. These like big words are incredibly confusing and we're having to figure out how to navigate them because we need a means to show that we have political power and we wield political power and we can do something. And unfortunately, sometimes that means like the boring part before a walkout where we're scrolling through like hundreds of pages of law going, is it like okay for us to do this or are we going to get arrested? Or is our school administration liable to target — ‘cause we're on social media platforms, that's been one of our biggest things — to target the kids whose faces are on this event.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh, right, yeah.

Dawn Shim

And just have them face the consequences. And I think we faced the same kind of issue for our body bag demonstration. We did so much emailing to the Capitol, like, "Is this something we can do? "Can we do it?" And they gave us incredibly vague answers, and then we were relocated to a side lawn.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah.

Dawn Shim

That's how it is.

Hayden Nguyen

And it's like, when you look at the requirements to reserve the lawn, it's like event insurance, and all these things, it's like, oh my gosh.

Dawn Shim

Yeah, you have to be an organization and you have to pay millions of dollars if you set fire to a little blade of grass. It’s craziness.

Hayden Nguyen

And it’s like, I just wanna, you know, like, all of this? And it's, and you know the reason it's there is just to discourage people from doing anything.

Dawn Shim

Right

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, it's designed to make it less accessible.

Hayden Nguyen

Right, and in a way, that's a part of our responsibility too as, if we have a growing platform like this, we need to be able to be something that people could join onto and look towards when they think about support for whatever cause they have because it's hard to start. It's hard to start, and it's easier if you have somebody who already knows how to read the 200 page bill.

Dawn Shim

I think ultimately one of the reasons that we do walkouts and demonstrations is that we know there's a lot of people who want to take part. There's a lot of people who want to organize, but there is not a lot of people who want to deal with safety ramifications. There's not a lot of people who want to be doing that kind of work and it's totally understandable but we want to make these things happen because there are so many of us and we have the means and the power to do so, so we will. I think the other thing is the fact that like we actually have the power to make change in Chandler. Like as he said, the admins saw how many kids were out there, they were like, “this is going to look really bad for us as a school if we report this many kids as missing. So we're just going to have to excuse them.”

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh right.

Dawn Shim

That's what happened. And even though we did face a lot of backlash from admin, we had a school that was walking out and their principal locked the gates on them. And they were like, you cannot leave the school premises cuz this looks bad for us.

Jeanne Woodbury

Oh wow.

Dawn Shim

And at our school actually, at Hamilton, our principal came out and I was like talking about collective responsibility and how people in power are like no matter how much power they wield, they still are doing things and they have the means to help us and they're not doing that. And kids looked at he saw that he was coming out and started shouting "do something" and then he started like hightailing it back into the room, and kids are yelling at him and we got so much video of that, but I feel like that really just exemplifies like why we're doing this, right? It's a means to hold these people responsible for the actions that they're taking because we know that our politicians and the people who represent us are just like my principal cowering in our like library window watching us because he's like kind of scared of us and like if he retreats any further into the library we were like, we were like yelling at him he could clearly see.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah. (Laughs)

Jeanne Woodbury

So part of what you're doing is about accessibility, like making it more accessible for people to get into this, to use their voices. Before long you're not gonna be in high school.

Hayden Nguyen

Right.

Jeanne Woodbury

So I imagine part of that work is also about making it more accessible for people to not just be involved but be leaders, right? Because I mean, I don't know if you're thinking about this yet or not, but I imagine that you have to find people who can fill your shoes.

Hayden Nguyen

I sent Dawn a 250-page book that I ripped from my sister's DSA, like membership or whatever library they have.

Dawn Shim

I have 50 pages left.

Hayden Nguyen

And it's Organizing in the new Gilded Age, written in 2016, and it's a really great book. My sister told me, "You need to read this. It's the organizing Bible." And ever since then, I've been trying to get as many people as possible to read it. Because I know like, I'm out of here September at the latest? I'm a senior. Dawn's out of here — Dawn's a junior — Dawn's going to be out like in one year.

Dawn Shim

We're both leaving the state.

Hayden Nguyen

So, and we're probably both gonna be leaving the state. So, in the event that happens, we can't say that we're an accessibility organization if we just cut off the entrance to accessibility at 2025, right?

Dawn Shim

That's crazy.

Hayden Nguyen

You know, or 2024. So, I think a really important thing is being able to get a lot of new leadership as well and be able to take people who are willing to be passionate and bring them up there. I recently sat down a few people in Brick Road Coffee and was like, "We need to have one-on-ones."

Dawn Shim

(laughing) - Yeah, we’re at that stage.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, and I was like, "We need to have one-on-ones." And I made this entire diagram with the bullseye, like, recruitment model and everything, and I was like, "We gotta have diagrams." And “we gotta have leadership.”

Dawn Shim

Yeah, for a second there, I was like, "Are we in Succession the TV show?"

Jeanne Woodbury

(laughing) - Yeah, I was gonna say, you have to think about succession planning, I mean that is what it is. That's really cool, that's really cool.

Dawn Shim

I think the other part about accessibility is the fact that we don't wanna structure this like some of those national orgs that were derived out of youth organizing and now have a big panel and a board of directors and hidden funders. That's not something we ever want to do. What we want to do is have a group of kids who are working together, they're collaborating, and all of their voices are heard on an equal level. That's why I didn't wanna come alone, is that I genuinely think that it's better to have multiple voices at the table than one voice who knows maybe a little bit more than the other ones, because I think at the end, like something that really distinguishes us from anyone else out there is our lived experience as queer people and queer youth in Arizona.

Hayden Nguyen

Yeah, and I mean, that's huge, because I feel like the thing is that nobody is more, I guess, has any more expertise on this than students. I mean, there are people who have read all the bills and know all the bill numbers, and they aren't us, but we are the people who have the lived experience, and I think that's the real difference, and I think that's why we should be able to have, we should have everybody's experiences included, because we have these lived experiences, and everybody's experience is slightly different.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I can list a dozen bills off the top of my head about schools and it's like, I don't even know what it's like in a high school, right? I really don't. Like, I know things on a factual level and that's it, because I haven't been in school for over a decade, right? And so that's something that I just have a huge blind spot for, no matter how much information I can gather. It's a huge blind spot.

Hayden Nguyen

And going back to like what Dawn said about national organizations, I mean, there's national orgs… and it's like, and you know, I've talked about how many internships I've done. I mean, national organizations are stuck between, you know, a chapter is stuck between having the agenda from national and no funding from national.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

And it's absolutely, and I'm sure you have your own experience.

Jeanne Woodbury

I have my own experience. Like, the idea when I was a kid and I was doing political stuff, I was like, I don't want to be a chapter of someone else.

Hayden Nguyen

Right.

Jeanne Woodbury

And there would always be the chapters of these bigger organizations. And they would always be mad at us for doing our own thing and not being their local chapters. Like, “well, what are we even going to get from it? We can do all of this on our own. And it's more fun and we can be collaborative and creative.”

Hayden Nguyen

Right.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I mean, I'm always going to look back on that as like one of the coolest things I ever got to do, because it was just, we made the form, we made the rules.

Hayden Nguyen

And the thing is like, National will tell you, well, you know, there's bills, and National will tell you, you know, we need to do these things, and you need to, you know, this is a part of our agenda, we're gonna have a national, you know, lobbying day and stuff like that. And it's like, cool, but where do we start when there's no money? You know, they don't know what it's like on the ground in Arizona itself. I mean, you know, they only know that there are, there's a little bit of a potential of bills. They don't even know the politicians, and I know when it comes to a local level it’s completely ridiculous when I see these national systems going down, they completely expect the most and demand the most, at the same time, give zero freedom to do anything, and zero funding to do anything. It's almost like, it's less of a chapter, it's more of a puppet, and it's a puppet that has no money and no arms, has no ability to do anything.

Dawn Shim

It's a sock puppet.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, sock puppet.

Hayden Nguyen

It's a little sock puppet, and that's all it is.

Dawn Shim

I think, just going back to what you were saying, I think you're totally right. I think even though we probably are moving out of the state and we're probably going to go on to different things that probably are going to involve politics, this is something that's going to be immeasurable to the experiences that we're probably going to be having later on because I don't know, I think this has really just influenced the fact that I feel like there needs to be more work in politics and unfortunately maybe I'm the person who is gonna be doing the work in politics. I don't think anyone really genuinely enjoys working in politics a lot of the time, but I guess like, you know, the creation of a monster — it’s happened right here.

Hayden Nguyen

Right, you know? And it’s —

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, you've been cursed.

Dawn Shim

Yeah.

Hayden Nguyen

As high schoolers, you have so much to do, and you only have four years until you're out of the high school, right? You're out of the environment. You're on to bigger things. And it's a very limited time frame. You could only do so much. But it's something that we know that is going to happen. We know that we have to continue both ourselves, as through our own out-of-state means, and also our organization. We have to continue our organization with new people in state. Because that's the only way that we're… because there's no way I'm going to be like, “Hey guys, it's me. I'm calling from,” you know, like, “Michigan.” And also get on the Zoom call and “I heard there's these bills. You guys could go testify. Thank you.”

Jeanne Woodbury

You're gonna be national.

Dawn Shim

I have a presentation.

Hayden Nguyen

I’m gonna be national, yeah.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, thanks so much for talking with me today. I really loved this.

Jeanne Woodbury

Thanks again to Dawn Hayden for being my guests this week on the podcast. If you're interested in catching up on past episodes of the show, you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in any podcast player, or you can visit our website directly, equalityarizona.org/stories. While you're there, you can sign up to be a guest on a future episode of the podcast. But if being on a mic seems a little bit intimidating, we've got a lot of other great ways to get involved. And you can find all of our upcoming events on our website too, equalityarizona.org/events. Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you soon.

Equality Arizona
The Arizona Equals Conversation
Arizona Equals is a conversational interview podcast chronicling the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ Arizonans. Listen to new episodes weekly on Wednesdays, featuring conversations with queer people living in Arizona.
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