The Key to the Zs
Watch out, world. We’re a generation of activists.
Story by Sam Stall
Since the day you started coming into the world, members of Generation Z (born between 1995 and now) have been studied and quantified. Allegedly disengaged and disinterested in the “real” world, modern kids—that’s you—supposedly spend the day staring at computers, TVs and phones—and doing little else. Indeed, a recent survey placed your average attention span at a paltry eight seconds.
But that sad picture hardly describes the life and achievements of 16-year-old Orlando, Florida, resident Sarah Dewitt (left). A Key Club member at William R. Boone High School, she’s deeply involved in club-related community activities. And she’s also started her own charity.
“I would say Kiwanis, and especially Key Club, has really broadened my horizons when it comes to activism,” Dewitz says. “It’s been a huge part of my high school life so far.”
But the desire to “give back” is hardly dead among Gen Zers (see the numbers below!)
Indeed, surveys reveal that approximately 76 percent of the youngest generation is concerned about humanity’s impact on the planet; 60 percent want their jobs to have an impact on the world; and 26 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds currently volunteer.
And, not surprisingly, Key Club offers a great outlet for that desire to help, while also providing the practical training necessary to create effective activists. Which was certainly the case for Dewitz, who started doing community-service work while still in kindergarten. An avid reader, in the fourth grade she decided she wanted to supply books to people who couldn’t afford them. So she put together a drive at her school, asking each student to donate one volume.
“That’s how it got started,” she recalls. “It’s snowballed from there.”
Actually “snowballed” hardly covers it. Thousands of supporters started donating books, and Dewitz’s idea, now called Just 1 Book, took on a life of its own. Today it puts thousands of volumes into needy children’s hands each year. Finding others like her—and you—was no problem.
“In my experience, I’d say teenagers do want to get involved in activism, because we want to help the world,” Dewitz says. “We want to help our peers or our communities, and we like seeing the impact we make. And in my opinion, it’s very important for us to see that and do these kinds of things, because it inspires us for the future.”
Key Club, she says, offers a ground-floor chance to learn about public service. Perhaps not surprisingly, her own club is deeply involved in Just 1 Book.
“We have actually done book drives in my club and in other clubs around Florida,” Dewitz says. “Not only that, but we also have Key Clubbers come out for informational events and hand out literature about my nonprofit to passersby.”
Energizing Gen Z is important, because you’re poised to make a huge impact on society. You already make up roughly 26 percent of the US population, with 2 or 3 million more of you born every year. And though the oldest of you are now turning 21, you already contribute some US$44 billion to the U.S. economy.
And your work ethic is equally earth-shaking. You almost universally share an all-American faith in entrepreneurship, with approximately 72 percent of current high schoolers aspiring to own their own businesses, and 76 percent hoping to turn current hobbies into full-time careers.
Colombian American artist (and former Key Clubber) Yazmany Arboleda (left) knows all about turning one’s passion into meaningful work. It’s hard to pigeonhole what he does, though the phrase “participatory artist” might best describe his eye-catching international endeavors. Most recently he’s traveled the globe for his Monday Morning project, in which volunteers give away 10,000 balloons, all of the same color, to people heading to work on a Monday morning. He’s put together these displays in India, Japan, Kenya and even Afghanistan.
Arboleda sees a sharp divide in Gen Z. Lots are interested in activism, but others just seem to want to tune out. And these days, thanks to modern technology, it’s never been simpler to do the latter.
“I think it’s very easy to run around chasing Pokemon, yet there are tons of homeless people everywhere, and tons of problems to be resolved,” he says.
The 35-year-old artist awakened his own passion for activism during his Key Club service.
“I completely, absolutely believe that it informs where I am today and everything I’ve done since,” Arboleda says. “Key Club made me aware of my own agency. It helped me understand that I could actually do things that made a difference to a few people, a bunch of people, even a community.”
But he thinks Key Club does more than just interest a generation in helping. It also, through participation in community projects, teaches you how.
“In some ways when I think about my art practice, I think of it as community organizing,” Arboleda says. “And all of that was built with the foundation that was created by Key Club.”