SCPN Spotlight: Jason Bohner on Supporting Youth Activism

All across the country, members of our State Climate Policy Network (SCPN) are fighting to make an impact on climate change in their communities. We have individuals in our Network from all 50 states, each experiencing climate change differently in their local areas and finding unique solutions to build resiliency efforts.

Jason Bohner is an 18-year-old graduate from The Bronx Science High School in New York City, and co-founder of the organization New York Youth Civics Initiative, which engages and provides accessibility to students in civics. From young people taking action for the climate crisis to mass shootings and standing in solidarity with victims of gun violence, Bohner was inspired by the involvement of young people in civic engagement. He works to ensure that students have resources, action items, and opportunities to participate in taking action for issues that are important to them. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Faiza Azam: My first question is, what inspired you to start the New York Youth Civics Initiative (YCI)?

Jason Bohner: I would say I was inspired after the walkouts, strikes, and marches in 2018-2019, and seeing all the energy that was garnered from these protests. You had thousands of students in New York City showing up to the climate protest in 2019. There were thousands of schools all across the city, state, and country that participated in walking out after the Parkland school shooting, and more that walked out after President Trump’s election. It was great, and there was so much energy that would go into organizing those events, and so many people that were so excited on those days. But then the following weeks — and the following months and even years — that passion and energy dissipated. Not that young people still didn’t care about those issues, but there wasn’t as much of a way for them to get involved in a sustained way to take action and make a difference. 

As we know, change doesn’t happen overnight, as much as we would like to think we can do one protest to end racism or fix climate change. Change is a result of long-standing movements and these movements, as I saw it, were spearheaded by youth-led advocacy organizations who are on the ground day after day. They were not only attending or planning those protests, but also showing up to all the other things that get the ball rolling like public hearings, testimonies, lobby days, and organizing on the ground in their communities. I saw these organizations as the key to connecting interested young people after these protests and after these marches, so our tagline is helping students take the next step after a day or week of action. It is kind of a play on words to take the next step after a protest, steps as in walking, but also take the next step to keep your activism journey engaged, after a walkout or after a black square social media post (Instagram trend to post black squares in solidarity to Black Lives Matter).

Faiza Azam: Well I love that answer and I love your passion, the way you’re discussing it. That’s awesome the way that you were inspired by those protests. So, what does YCI do exactly?

Jason Bohner: At YCI, we’re a platform. What we do is connect young people to opportunities for systems of engagement. With over 70+ organizations, they come from everything young people care about, like climate change, education, racial justice, youth empowerment, and our goal is to make youth activism accessible. When you go on our page, you can find educational resources, action items, and more specifically, opportunities for you to go out and get involved in a sustained way to take the next step. And to follow up with a passion that you have, really meeting students where you are and finding an opportunity that fits for you, because there are so many ways that you can just take an opportunity. Whether it’s you, Faiza, I know it’s Climate XChange or at Our Climate, just taking one opportunity in a group and just blossoming that into a career or engagement and activism that means a lot to me. 

Faiza Azam: You do need a gateway to get more activists. It’s great that you’re on that frontline recruiting from other organizations. Were you politically active in your high school years? What issues were you interested in?

Jason Bohner: I was very politically active. Now I am in the nonprofit, apolitical space. YCI is part of the coalition so we’re non-partisan, and we don’t do anything political. Before YCI, I started my activism and advocacy career in my local Democratic club. I founded the first youth board of any Democratic club across the city, For Freedoms Democratic Club, and the goal there was to get young people more engaged in local politics and give young people a seat at the table with the local power brokers in our city. Then, I also did some work for the Biden Campaign, and I had a lot of time to devote to Young Progressives for Biden as the President of the New York State chapter. We did a lot of work trying to engage younger progressives in the Biden campaign. The idea was to connect his policies to younger voters. These policies aren’t the most progressive, but trying to get more on their level in terms of what he was doing with climate change or what he did with Bernie to make policies that came out progressive-friendly. We tried to make young voters motivated and understand that Biden’s not the number one guy, but he’s the best option. A lot of the people who started Young Progressives for Biden are former Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren people. They understand that this is a very binary choice between for better or worse — between another four years of death and destruction or suffering, not just theoretically on an infographic, but real people suffering from lack of healthcare, deportation, or separation from families. The ideas implemented by Young Progressives for Biden were essentially a step in the right direction. A good metaphor we like to use is that “politics is about a bus, you take the bus as close as you can home, and you try to walk the rest of the way.” We saw it as our responsibility to meet [Biden] where he is, and push him on other progressive fronts to make him do more and hold him accountable for what he does and what he says.

Faiza Azam: I did phone-banking in a lot of political campaigns and being the only youth there or one of a few young people, I connected with my Assembly Member’s Office and they took into account this dedication and offered me an internship and a job. It goes to show how much youth voices should be valued in civics. Do you think the voting age should be lowered to 16?

Jason Bohner: One hundred percent. This is a position that a lot of our organizations are taking — 18BY.VOTE, Y Vote, I’m sure I’m missing more. I know a lot of our organizations are taking that position, especially the voting civics ones. I always defer to their research, expertise, and advice from their perspectives. The more people we can engage in politics, the better. I feel like voting is important from the perspective of feeling like you have a say. You have a stake in the way things are going. Not everyone thinks that it matters as much, but it is a good thing to have young people feel more connected to the system. Also, as you’re saying, if nationally, we can mobilize 16 to 18-year-olds, it makes a really powerful voting block. It can get more people engaged early. The earlier, the better.

Faiza Azam: Do you think that your organization might push for that, as one of your incentives, even though it is a nonprofit?

Jason Bohner: For YCI, we only see ourselves as a platform. We leave the advocacy and the lobbying to other organizations, so young people that are interested can connect to opportunities. I know it is something our partner organizations are pushing for, so if the students are interested in doing that, we’re the ones to connect them to the organizations that have been building expertise day after day.

Faiza Azam: Speaking of that, I know you get different outreach from different groups about different issues. Would you want to divide your team into different departments that deal with different issues specifically, so there is a broader range of educational resources, action items, and opportunities effectively and efficiently put onto your platform?

Jason Bohner: We are breaking our outreach team into issue groups — that’s something that we’re starting this year. It’s a great way to have that personal relationship with a network, understand what our organizations are doing better, and understand how we can connect them with more students. There definitely will be kids who are part of the outreach team that is managing organizations that are in climate, gun reform, or any issues. We try to keep it as streamlined as possible with our organizations. We tell them “Hey, keep us updated so we’ll do the rest to get that up on our platforms,” and help do the outreach for them.

Faiza Azam: What high school did you attend, are you attending college? If so, what major are you pursuing?

Jason Bohner: I went to Bronx Science High School and graduated in 2020. I took a gap year this past year and I’m matriculating into Princeton University. I am majoring in either history or sociology. Obviously, I want to continue my activism and advocacy work, but I also am interested in the sociology of the internet and social media. I am a “trying to get to the root of things” kind of guy. I feel like a lot of the issues that I see on the ground, for better or for worse — and I’m not gonna say social media doesn’t help at all, you need it – but at the same time it is extremely divisive and a catalyst for so many of the adverse things that we’ve seen in our society and our political discourse.

Faiza Azam: I agree, I think that social media is the future and I’m a cybersecurity major, it will play a big part in the future. Would you want to pursue what you do at YCI as a career or would you want YCI as a side project with other career aspirations?

Jason Bohner: Definitely whatever I do out of college will have a social justice element to it, whatever that means. I am looking forward to YCI continuing and blossoming beyond me. I will draw upon everything I’ve done at YCI and everything that’s taught me. I don’t see myself going into something like Goldman Sachs, but I think whatever I do will be towards social justice and helping people in whatever sense that has real tangible virtue. 

Faiza Azam: Definitely agree! It is a hard life but it is very fulfilling! What is your initial form of outreach and do you have any ideas for how Climate XChange members can connect to youth? How do you think we can get young people in your network more connected to the various experts, professionals, scientists, etc. in Climate XChange’s network?

Jason Bohner: I would say making it accessible to students. I feel like a lot of young people are interested in climate. That is one of the bigger issues a lot of people care about. I would say pointing out specific opportunities with professionals like you said with getting a lot of internships. Also, kids like to hear from other kids that have gone through the process, so you can have other kids that can come and speak to the ones looking for the opportunities. 

Faiza Azam: I think the big thing is focusing on the intersectional part. I would say the environmental movement has grown and expanded on its inclusion and diversity, especially with prioritizing BIPOC and other marginalized communities to ensure that the climate movement is also a social justice movement. A common misconception is that a lot of students don’t see how these issues intersect, so if they are interested in one topic, but don’t know that it is directly intersecting with environmentalism, that would be also a great way for young people to engage in the movement. I started in climate change and went to wildlife conservation, and now social justice along with it, so my environmental career is building that aspect of intersectionality. As a youth, there are many obstacles activists face, especially in disadvantaged communities. What inspired you to launch YCI?

Jason Bohner: Great question! So what gave me the confidence? This is such an iterative process. I think that’s what young people need to understand. It doesn’t just fall on your lap, nor does it blow up overnight. What that means is that you start with something small. In my case, right after the protests, I just wanted to put on a job fair-styled event for youth advocacy organizations. Simple as that. You‘d come to this event, meet them, and see how you can get involved, and follow up towards the next step. Very simple, it would be just one event, one thing, and it would be over and you would move on. It would cease to exist or maybe it would be another thing in the future. Then after the coronavirus happened, we had to shift and were talking about how we do this virtually. Well, now we have all these organizations together, how can we create something that exists beyond just one event? Having one event is cool, but not everyone can make it. So how do we have it so that kids can always access these opportunities, and always connect to these organizations? So you think, ‘oh, we can start a website.’ When you start a website, you can think just like you said, how can we best break down this website to promote the work of other organizations? What are the best ways to connect students? How can we better connect young people beyond just sharing stuff? That’s where our publication is born. We wanted to tell the stories of our organizations as well. 

That’s so important for inspiring young people, hearing those personal stories, and relating to young people to get them more excited about getting involved in other opportunities from our organizations. So, what are the best ways to do that? It is an iterative process. YCI today looks nothing like YCI did three months ago. It doesn’t look like what YCI looked like six months or a year ago. It’s not like, yeah, you have the confidence to run a huge organization, and that’s what you get yourself into to start, but you start small. That’s something people need to understand. You think it’s trivial or insignificant, but it’s the first step to building something bigger down the line.

Faiza Azam: Did you face any obstacles? 

Jason Bohner: I feel like everyone has been super supportive in the activist community here in the city. Personally, everyone that I’ve met has had a similar shared goal to go and help inspire people and empower people, and what has made us unique at YCI is we’re not here to do anything but promote them. It’s hard for them to say ‘No! We don’t want you to help get the word out about what we’re doing!’ People can get territorial, but from what I’ve been doing it’s hard for them to get threatened. There’s no catch to YCI. It is just what we can do to help you connect to our students, and that’s kind of that.

Faiza Azam: How do you prioritize the inclusion of communities of disadvantage, where students don’t frequently have access to resources to be civically active or often discouraged?

Jason Bohner: First and foremost, that is our target audience. Our whole goal is to make this movement more accessible and connect to young people who may not have these opportunities, to begin with, to help them feel empowered and to have their voices be heard. So that centers around BIPOC individuals and people in the BIPOC community, as well as underserved and under-resourced schools. That is our target audience because, as you know, you see the same faces kind of circle themselves around the same organizations. Often it’s maybe because you come from a school that has a lot of extracurriculars, and you’re in the speech and debate team, and you can connect to this internship and that internship. Not everyone has that privilege. That’s why YCI is there to be an accessible one-stop-shop for them to connect to organizations of people that look like them, come from the same places they come from, and help them in their empowerment journey. 

Faiza Azam: Since you are the Executive Director of YCI, what do you do for fun outside of your job? What do you do in your free time? You must be busy.

Jason Bohner: It’s been a lot of work but it’s been fulfilling work. You never work a day in your life if you’re having fun. There are highs and lows. A lot of what I like to do, I like to do for fun. It’s been involved in the activism space, whether it’s my work, or meeting with new people, or meeting with new organizations. I’ve been tutoring. I’ve tutored students for the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test). I’ve tutored students in calculus and science this past year. I like to work out, play basketball, and I was a captain of the basketball team at Bronx Science. Not many things to do this past year besides YCI, but I love to learn. I started learning and listening to podcasts and reading books.

Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Jason Bohner