Interview w/ Writer and Activist Adora Svitak: Speaking Up for Youth Empowerment

Adora Svitak is what you would call a child prodigy. She has been a prolific short story writer since she was seven-years-old. When she is not writing, she spends her time speaking to adults and children all over the country, advocating for literacy. She took some time to talk to us about activism and the importance of youth empowerment. 

Adora, can you talk to me about the importance of amplifying the voices of the youth? What got you inspired to advocate for youth empowerment? Why is it important to change the perception of “childish” thinking?

At a young age, I began going to a lot of education conferences where I delivered speeches to audiences of educators. I realized quickly that although all the adults at these events were there to talk about how to help students learn, that those students were almost never invited to the room. Seeing the lack of student representation in conversations about education, which affects us as young people directly, made me consider the lack of channels for youth voice on issues that matter to us more generally. I decided to start organizing a conference for youth in my hometown with an all-youth team and all-youth speakers. As I said in my 2010 TED Talk “What Adults Can Learn From Kids,” young people provide different perspectives from grown-ups: a lot more optimism, naïveté, willingness to speak truth to power, and the good kind of impulsiveness that we sometimes need to get things done. Particularly when we think about issues like climate change and gun control, we need young people to speak up because adults are too scared or apathetic. It’s weird because we’re accustomed to using “the adult in the room” as a shorthand for the person who fixes things, but sometimes we need “the kid in the room” to point out the emperor has no clothes.

Can you tell me about a specific time you felt like you were misunderstood?

This is a pretty on-brand story: as a high school student I tried to organize some classmates in an English class to sign a letter to our teacher to give us more creative assignments and less test prep (we were receiving a lot of multiple choice practice tests, and I just wanted to write). It turned into a surprisingly political experience, with a bloc of students being really supportive of the petition and another being skeptical, and then someone spilled the beans to the teacher before we finished drafting the letter and my teacher, with a disappointed expression on her face, came to ask me what was going on. I think that she felt a little betrayed that I hadn’t gone to her directly with my concerns, but I had really been trying to gauge other students’ opinions and build consensus before approaching her with a proposal that had the potential to affect the whole class. In the end, we didn’t really get anything done, but I’m still glad that I tried; my teacher and I had a longer conversation about the class, and we stayed on pretty good terms.

What do you love to write about?

I enjoy writing about a lot of things. As of late, I’ve found myself drawn to writing about where I live — the San Francisco Bay Area, with all of its excesses and contradictions. It’s a place with extreme wealth from the tech boom that lives alongside grotesque deprivation; it’s not uncommon to walk past encampments that stretch for blocks, and even our supposedly politically liberal enclaves drag their feet on constructing new affordable housing. It can sometimes feel very surreal and dystopian, and that leads me to write both nonfiction (e.g., I wrote an opinion piece on why not to call the police on homeless folks for a local publication, The Bold Italic) and short stories.

If you could give your 13-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t worry so much about wanting to be normal. You’ll have the rest of your life for that, plus the people who matter are the ones who appreciate what you bring that’s special, not how good you are at pretending to be something you’re not. Also, it’s okay to be sad a lot, and you don’t have to keep quiet about it; your friends won’t desert you because you let them know that you’re struggling, and being vulnerable with people you love is how you deepen your friendship with them.

What are some things you like to do with your friends for fun?

I just got back from a camping trip on the California coast with three friends, and watching the sun set over the Pacific ocean and reading aloud from a collection of short stories in a cozy tent (in short, spending time in nature with good people) pretty much exemplifies a perfect day for me! I also love going to movies and talks, dancing badly, and playing board games.

What are five things you can’t live without?

Aside from the obvious (love of friends and family, food, water, shelter), I’d say my journal, a good book, my New Yorker tote bag, cheese, and running shoes.

If you could have a dinner with someone dead or alive, who would it be and why?

I would love to have dinner with my favorite poet, the late Edna St. Vincent Millay. She lived a very free life at a time when women’s roles in society were quite circumscribed, and I admire her ability to write about love with an almost callous insouciance at turns, innocent sweetness and sincerity at others. You can be both, because life is nuanced like that. It’s a hard thing to remember.

What can we expect from you next?

I graduated from UC Berkeley last year, and I’m lucky to be working for the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia, which does important work on ensuring access to knowledge everywhere. There, I’m helping to organize a contest called the Heart of Knowledge soliciting arts submissions on the theme of “what does open access to knowledge mean to you?” and I hope to get a lot of submissions from young people in particular — if you’re reading this, the deadline to submit is April 30th! I’m also working on editing an anthology of speeches from inspiring youth activists — feel free to follow me on my website or Twitter to get updates! I hope to continue amplifying the voices of youth in all my work.