Florida youth activists protest DeSantis agenda in Tallahassee

From all over the Sunshine State, more than 40 university, college and high school students traveled hundreds of miles to join forces in Tallahassee with a mission: to prove that the Florida governor and Republican legislators will never extinguish the fire of youth activism.

Florida Student Power Network hosted a “youth power at the capitol mobilization” from March 27 to 29. The organizers wanted to provide a political safe haven for students to speak out against the many proposed laws that attack racial justice, immigrants, the environment, the LGBTQIA+ community and reproductive rights.

“I have hope for what we’re doing because the youth realize they have more power than they think,” said Nery Lopez, Florida International University alumni and Migrant Justice Coordinator for Florida Student Power Network. “They overcome the struggle of speaking out by being open and vulnerable, and that is the most beautiful thing.”

United with chants and protest signs such as ‘Abort the Capitol’, students from as far away as Miami and Jacksonville wore black hoodies and crewnecks with the organization’s logo to display their support for state-wide change. Event organizers were inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘Alright’ to create the chant and motto ‘We ‘Gon Be Alright’ to remind students that their efforts, despite the Republican majority legislature when voting for bills, are not in vain. 

The organization, a state-wide network of youth and student organizers, paid to allow students of varied backgrounds, who may not have been able to afford the trip, to speak to legislators. Every student also had a personal connection to at least one of the Florida House or Senate bills being opposed or supported. 

The measures they were concerned about would widen the use of school vouchers, ban most abortions after six weeks, and limit immigrants’ rights in the state. But, there is one bill that worries these students the most: the so-called Stop Woke expansion act, which they said would limit freedom of speech and thought, as well as anti-discrimination measures and more, on college campuses. 

“Today is my seventh anniversary of being in the United States,” said Alicia Rosales, Cuban-born president of FIU’s Immigrant Scholars Organization. “Instead of spending the day with my family enjoying the freedoms I was promised when moving to this country, I am here fighting for the rights of immigrants like me. [The Stop Woke expansion act] will completely eliminate my organization and criminalize our fight.”

The Stop Woke expansion act would eliminate all diversity, equity & inclusion programming at public universities and grant the state university boards of trustees power to hire and lay off faculty. If approved, it will take effect on July 1. 

The measure will also permanently end many major programs, such as Women’s and Gender Studies and African & African Diaspora Studies.

Some students who came through Florida Student Power Network study these majors and do not want to be in the dark about the future of their college careers when HB999 passes. One expressed her intention to look into continuing her education in another state, for the risk of not losing her major.

Gharlah Fils-Aime, youth member and student at the University of South Florida said she recently changed her major to sociology because of the program’s DEI curriculum.

“It was the first time in my life I was finally interested in reading what was in my book, she said. “HB999 affects me directly.”

The students fanned out across the capitol to speak in press conferences and testify before lawmakers about how they and other Floridians will be affected.

Some legislators, such as Rep. Daryl Campbell (D – Broward), spoke to the students and explained how the Stop Woke expansion would affect the constituents in their districts.

Anthony Barrios, a student at Miami-Dade College’s North Campus, said he aims to inspire students to take action. 

“Politics will play you, or you play it,” Barrios said. “I would like to be a middle man to inspire people to be aware that Florida politics is real and to engage in it.”

Many of the students said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican majorities both in the state House and Senate are fueling a fire of dissent by passing these bills. 

“Being here has been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us,” said Mayumi Kanashiro, Digital Media & Communications major at Florida International University. “We are going to fight for our future, for our kids, for the next generations to come, so they don’t have to fight for their fights. They are just going to have their rights.”

Alexandra Howard is a senior pursuing a dual degree in digital journalism and political science. She intends to later graduate from law school and become an immigration lawyer and political journalist.