How to Become a Youth Activist: Q&A With Matthew Tikhonovsky

Kimmie Kardam

If you are like me, you want to get involved with activism and fight for causes you believe in. Like me, you might be passionate about a particular issue or movement, ranging from climate change to racial injustice, but you don’t know where to start or how to get involved. Luckily, I’m here to help. For the next month, I’ll be interviewing youth activists who have made a positive change in their communities and sharing their secrets and insights.

For the first interview, I chatted with Matthew Tikhonovsky, an American youth activist who is passionate about refugee advocacy. He is the founder of Refugee Thrive, a youth-led initiative that provides clothing items to refugee families, and co-founder of Walk A Campus In My Shoes, a nationally-recognized refugee awareness campaign. Matthew’s also a VOY contributor!

Matthew, how did you get started with your activism work?

Frankly, when I first got involved with activism at age 15, I had no clue what I was doing. I simply recognized an issue in my community: many newly-resettled refugees lacked clothing items. For me, this issue was entirely personal, since my own parents are refugees, and I was determined to somehow address it. So, in 2016, I started partnering with local youth to hold clothing donation drives at their high schools, and that year we collected over 500 clothing items. That experience taught me that I, even as a young person, could make a positive impact in my community.

The following year, I founded Refugee Thrive, a youth-led service initiative that has collected and provided over 10,000 clothing donations to refugees in my community over the past 4 years. I’ve rallied hundreds of students behind my initiative, and I’ve seen firsthand the power young people have when they come together. 

Matthew Tikhonovsky

How did you get young people to support your initiative? 

I’ve been lucky to receive incredible support from young people in my community. I’m a firm believer that most young people want to somehow get involved and support their community, but what's holding them back is that they just don’t know how to get involved. So, what’s been critical for my initiative’s success is advertising the clothing drives through social media and word of mouth, so that we reach as many students as possible. Pro tip: social media is an activist’s best friend. 

What advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved with activism?

First off, identify what it is you are passionate about. What cause compels you to take action? What need in your community keeps you up at night? And what issue makes you angry? Racial injustice, climate change, and gun control are just three possible answers to these questions, but the key is to find what cause you are passionate about. 

Secondly, you need to identify how you can make a difference. What steps can you take? From joining a club to organizing a march, there are countless ways to get involved. And it’s okay to start small and take small steps! In fact, all activists, myself included, started off somewhere. The first year I held clothing drives, for example, I held them only at two high schools. This past year, I held clothing drives at 22 high schools. It has taken me almost five years to get where I am now. So, as long as you put in the hard work, you are bound to make a difference. 

So, my best piece of advice is to start small and recognize that even if you impact one person, you are still making an impact. No impact is too small, and every activist has to start somewhere. Also, the connections you make and the networks you build are both critical. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your other initiative, Walk A Campus In My Shoes?

Of course! So, I co-founded Walk A Campus In My Shoes (WACIMS) in 2017, when I began to hear a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric and prejudice at my school and local schools. Again, this issue was entirely personal to me, as I grew up hearing people mocking my parents’ foreign accents and my family’s hard-to-pronounce last name.

What is WACMS?

In short, WACIMS is an educational exhibit composed of 7 posters, each of which debunks common myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about immigrants. WACIMS empowers young people to foster more inclusive environments for their immigrant classmates, friends, and community members.

Again, I started this initiative off small. After I designed the posters, I first displayed them in the hallways of local high schools. And over time, through word of mouth and social media, the campaign caught the attention of many prominent youth activists in America, and was eventually featured at over 30 colleges nationwide. 

What has your work with WACIMS taught you about being an activist?

I’ve learned that to be a successful activist, you need to be bold and willing to take risks. You need to take initiative. Whether it be by joining a club, signing a petition, staging a protest, or collecting clothing donations--activism requires you to take bold steps.  Luckily, you are not alone. Young people around the world are increasingly using their voices to speak out against injustices and champion causes they believe in. Try to connect with other youth activists at your school or in your community.

Also, to be an effective activist, I’ve learned that it's best to focus your time, energy, and resources advocating for one single cause, not multiple causes. You may be passionate about multiple causes—I am, too—but you will make the most impact when you put yourself behind one cause. The key is to find that one cause that keeps you up at night and stick with it. If you do that, you are bound to succeed and make a difference. 

Kimmie Kardam

How can young people get involved with activism now, when most of us are in quarantine?

Great question. Now is the perfect time for education. If you are like me, you’ve probably had a lot of spare time recently. I’ve stayed engaged with my activism work by researching more about the causes I am passionate about, educating myself about important issues, and reading books and articles by prominent youth activists and community organizers. 

For example, if you are passionate about climate change, you can spend your additional free time educating yourself about climate change. What threat does climate change pose? How can governments respond to the climate crisis? In order to be an activist, you need to be knowledgeable about the topic you are advocating for. Now’s a great time to read a book, watch a documentary, or research certain issues. 

Also, I’ve spent a lot of time recently on Twitter, connecting with other activists, brainstorming how we can change the world, and inspiring each other to continue our work. 

Have you received any mentoring or guidance with your initiatives? 

I’ve been fortunate to receive mentoring and guidance from many sources, ranging from other youth activists in my community to national figures, such as Hillary Clinton. In 2018, a service initiative I was part of was selected as a semi-finalist for the Clinton Global Initiative Social Venture Challenge. As part of this recognition, I was able to attend an advocacy conference, where I heard from Hillary Clinton, among others, about grassroots activism and advocacy work. I’ll never forget Secretary Clinton’s advice that being a leader is not about directing others or telling others what to do. Instead, being a leader is about inspiring and stirring others to action. 

Any final advice for an aspiring youth activist? 

Being a youth activist takes a lot of work, but I am confident you can do this! At the end of the day, activism is all about passion and hard work. Luckily, you are in control of both of these factors. 

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