Nau’s ongoing monthly interview series is our chance to sit down with the people whose bold visions and rebellious spirits have directly inspired our own. Taji Chesimet is a fellow activist, a junior in high school actively involved in Black Male Achievementand the Multnomah Youth Commission, anda co-founder of a non-profit called Youth Educating Police. Taji is one of the activists at The Center organizing this year’s What Now? event on December 1. Here, we learn a bit more about what motivates Taji’s activism, and his ideas about how to participate in a democracy when you’re not even old enough to vote.
First, like always, we’ll start with our fast five questions.
How did your activism begin?
Student council was my first step into student government and student voice. I did that all throughout middle school. I was the president during my seventh grade year, and then I became a tyrant president during my eighth grade year because I got hormonal or something. I was like a dictator! (laughs). A tyrant for middle school, you know, I had posters everywhere. Then in high school I would probably say what really lit the spark for me is The Center. I don’t want to sound like I’m pandering, but I do think it has provided a lot of platforms for me. I attended my first event here on the American Dream hosted by OPBduring my freshman year. I listened to an amazing group of youth talk about what the American Dream meant to them. They all came from different backgrounds, different socio-economic classes, different races, different genders. That discussion alone would probably be the spark that took me to where I am now. From there I started doing work with The Center. I was so nice doing advocacy work outside of school because school can sometimes be super limiting, especially at my school because I go to a catholic school.
Does being a student in a catholic school create more challenges for you?
Yeah. I mean, I am at a point in my life where I feel like the work in student council, and in all student government, is stagnant. On one hand, we’re being toys to plan a dance and not really do anything meaningful, or we’ll go once a week to a houseless shelter and give food to individuals who are houseless. It can become a repetitive cycle, spending a whole month on houselessness and homelessness, but it’s stagnant. We do the exact same things over and over, and nothing seems to change. We’re just patting ourselves on the back. I don’t want to give up on my school or anything like that but, in regard to my work in social justice, I can’t use my school as an avenue for my work. I participated in Black Student Union, which just started this year despite the fact that our school has been over 80 percent students of color since its inception 17 years ago. That is really reflective of possibilities of what we can get done.
Does your activism feel like work, or is it fun?
I’ve always asked of any social justice work I’m doing, does this feel like work to me or do I feel like I’m doing this for a better purpose? Making sure my work has a better purpose has always been super important to me. It’s probably a very cliche thing to say, but I will never feel like I’m working if I enjoy what I’m doing. If I’m at a point where I felt like, oh, I’m drudging through because someone asks me to, and I feel obligated to do it, that’s when I know it’s not something for me. So far, I have had the privilege to say no to things. I don’t regret any of those opportunities that I’ve given up on. But I only want to put 100 percent into my work and that’s why everything I do is super on point with what I want to do in my future. So, that work is with urban education and training.
For What Now?, you’re heading up a plenary session. What will yours be about?
I’m interested in the idea or ideology of anti-blackness and how that plays out in our politics and our democracy. It’s going to be focused on how anti blackness really ties into police brutality, and how gun violence affects and shapes all our other social issues. We’re talking about environmental issues, we’re talking about indigenous issues. They’re all rooted in this idea of the oppression at the genesis of our country.
What other issues have your attention?
I’m working on designing a new workshop called Queer is Color. It’s going to be all about how queerness and people of color are integral in the experience of America and how, instead of separating those ideas, I’m looking at the intersectionality of them and how they’ve interwoven. That sounds complicated. I’m not necessarily saying they’re crossing, but more like that they’re a part of each other. And the lessons are super focused on these topics that Americans already know about but how we don’t understand the lenses in which queer people or people of color have influenced them. I’m going to lead this workshop at What Now, but also later at the Oregon Students of Color Conference.
What else can you tell us about your activism?
My activism isn’t just a question of how I’m affected personally. Because I’m black and gay, or because I’m of a lower socioeconomic class doesn’t make me any more qualified than the next person to do the work that I’m doing. I think that that’s reflective in what The Center stands for. We want to be very inclusive to all people, even people with different politics and ideas. Democracy and activism don’t have an age limit, they don’t have a race. You don’t see black to be involved in activism. It may have been decided in the past who plays a part in our democracy, but that does not have to be the future of it. Right?
Taji has been interested in activism since the 5th grade when he was in student council. He’s been an active student voice every day since, but it wasn’t until he attended an event on the American Dream hosted by OPB at The Center that a spark was lit. “There were people there from different backgrounds, different socio-economic classes, different races, different genders. That discussion alone would probably be the spark that took me to where I am now.”
After getting involved in Black Male Achievement and the Multnomah Youth Commission, Taji co-founded, with his friend, Britton Masback, a non-profit called Youth Educating Police. He spends his time as the vice chair of that organization working directly with the Portland Police Bureau’s Training Division around how anti-blackness ties into police brutality, and he also recognizes how all issues are interwoven. “We’re talking about environmental issues, we’re talking about indigenous issues. They’re all rooted in this idea of the oppression at the genesis of our country.” Taji always asks himself if he enjoys the social justice work he’s doing, and if it is purposeful, “I want to make sure my work has a better purpose has always been super important to me. It’s probably a very cliche thing to say, but I will never feel like I’m working if I enjoy what I’m doing.”
Photos courtesy of Ty O’Steen.