Laura Grayson recommended JJ to participate here. Laura and JJ have gotten to know each other through JJ's friendship with Laura's daughter and she had great things to say about his community involvement. We had a wonderful conversation about affecting positive change and I found JJ's perspective on the matter, as an activated student leader, to be inspirational.
When I was 17, I was living in a bubble of extreme Christianity in an economically impoverished part of rural Maine. I know I was thinking about a lot, but I don't think it was about cultural phobias and racism and climate change and mental health. However, those are issues I've become aware of and engaged in since. And after talking with him, I am so curious to know what change JJ's generation will instigate as these are the issues defining this time and these are the issues they've grown up with. I'm sure JJ is a stand-out example of his generation, but my interaction with him did inspire some feelings of hope that there are more eager young folks looking to influence big change.
JJR: I'm JJ Riddell. I would describe myself as a student leader who advocates for student impact and student voice.
ACT: Where do you get your ambition and heart for others? Why is leadership important to you?
JJR: I think I get it from my great grandma Lois. She's still alive and kicking today, which is amazing. She went to UCLA way back when and she was telling me how she was handing out flyers for Rosa Parks - equal opportunity to sit wherever you want on the bus. And I remember by grandma was like, I didn't even think it was a problem until someone came up to me and told me that it was a problem. So I grabbed a stack full of flyers and I just started walking around the campus handing out flyers. And then from there I joined all these other civil rights clubs. So, I think just listening to her, how it just kind of fell in her lap and how then she used that to voice her opinion has always inspired me to do the same. Whether if it's just falling in my lap or if I'm going out chasing what I want to make a difference with, I always think back to that story she told me. And I just always try to do the same.
ACT: What concerns you? What breaks your heart? What affects you personally? And then what motivates you to do something about it?
JJR: Our community, we're all one, but then there's a whole bunch of different sub-communities and we're all different. And everyone who's a part of the community is different in some way. And when people don't accept each other for their differences is what breaks my heart. Sometimes when you look at someone, all you think is stereotypes that might surround them. And that just breaks my heart because people are too focused on what society might think of them instead of actually getting to know them. So, I just try to live my life the way that I want to and not have to worry about the stereotypes that surround me or don't surround others with stereotypes. So, when I meet someone it's just blank slate. It's not, Oh, you look this way or You're dressed like this or You have this type of background. It's more of just, Hi. I'm me and you are you. What's up? It's more just building a relationship instead of trying to think of what's already going to happen.
ACT: Have you had experiences with this that have affected you personally?
JJR: Yes. So, I am gay. And there's so many different stereotypes that surround the gay community. It's like you're supposed to be flamboyant or you're supposed to dress this way or talk this way or act this way. And I don't fit into a lot of those things. So, when I do come out or when people do find out, they're like, Oh, but you don't dress like this. Or why don't you act like that? Or talk like this? Or do stuff like that? That's just not how it is. Not everyone fits into that category or not everyone wants to. And so, that's difficult. But then, also, I do put people in stereotypes and I just have to take a step back and be like, Oh, I'm doing what I don't want others to do right now. So, it goes both ways, I guess. Sometimes people view me [with] stereotypes and I can do it to others, but I just keep myself aware that it's happening.
ACT: What do we mean to each other, individual to individual?
JJR: Everyone that I meet has their own story. I view people as their each special, unique story and getting to know them is awesome. And then also being able to share your story. So, individual to individual, I think there's so much potential to share, to relate, or to even argue - if it's respectfully. It's not just the community that we're in or the space that we're in, it's more connecting with people. I think that's where a lot of people kind of lose it because the connection can get lost because they don't push for it. So, I think individuals are about connections and then getting to know one another and then growing with or helping them grow or them helping you grow in some sort of way. So, connections and growing.
ACT: Your grandmother and her ability to just learn about an issue and then be proactive about it and then her modeling that has been enough to influence you. That's pretty rare these days. We are hearing a lot about the differences that are splitting us apart and a polarization. Does that make you more motivated or does that depress you?
JJR: When I first started voicing my opinion it was mostly about school funding. I went to a budget meeting because I was on a budget committee and I had a packet. I was the one that made the packets for everyone. And some old guy came up to me and said, You don't need this packet; I do. And just took it from me. So, then, as we sat down and I'm the one that's announcing the meeting and going through everything with a new packet, I look across the room and he's mouthing Sorry to me. So, those points make me sad. I'm a student, but I'm in a room full of adults right now, but they still don't see me as someone who can make an impact or whose voice matters because I might not have the proper education that they have or that they think they have or they think that I don't have. Those points make me sad and depressed because I'm not taken seriously for a subject that I am super passionate about.
But then there's also points where there's adults that I know will celebrate the things that children do or the things that students do through advocacy. It's hard sometimes because you don't really know the crowd that you're gonna get. Some adults are super accepting and they want to hear from students and then some adults are the total opposite. But when I do get sad or I do get depressed, it just motivates me more to not feel that way - to find people who will listen or to kind of make people listen by going to those meetings and not having someone take your packet. Or little things like that to show that you're there for a reason and just because someone's older than you or just because someone might not view you the same way as them, you can't just let that affect you. You just gotta keep pushing through. And I think I get a lot of my motivation from the kids who are doing the same exact thing as me. We'll share stories and sometimes theirs are worse than mine or mine is worse than theirs and then we just pool on ideas - How can this go better? How can we do this differently?
ACT: Do you find with your peer group that there's a lot of frustration and hope for change and passion?
JJR: So, there's a lot of things going on in the world. And a lot of kids are finding their own thing that they're passionate for. I would say mine's education and mental health-related subjects. And then others might be climate change or more political or more in society and I think it's frustrating for a lot of kids because when they try to promote or advocate for it, they can't reach a lot of other people because they might have a different passion. I think some kids are frustrated because there's so many problems that not everyone can keep up. But when they do put on marches or conferences or something like that it does make an impact and I think they start to see it more. That's what happens to me a lot. I'll try to advocate in my community and it might not make a big difference, but then I'll go to a conference and I see people from all over the state come together to this one place just to hear me talk or just to hear others like me voice their opinion. So I think, Okay, if I can't do it in my community, maybe they can do it in theirs.
ACT: It's interesting that you mention the different interests of your activated peer group preventing cohesion. I'm experiencing something similar in that there's a group of people who want to keep things how they are. That group seems unified and they're able to get quite a lot done. And the people who are advocating for change are disjointed. So, I have a theory that we're doing it wrong. We can't beat it one issue at a time because the issues are growing too fast. I think what's beneath the many different issues is the same root cause - maybe it's greed or selfishness. That's what makes a person be homophobic or litter or generally not give much of a shit.
Is anybody in your peer group talking about generally changing the base levels of compassion so that we don't have to educate someone to not be homophobic and to not be judgmental about someone's right to have an abortion and to stop making racists comments or whatever it is? Or do you find that people are content to whittle away at racism and whittle away at homophobia and whittle away at environmental issues and whittle away at education and whittle away at mental health?
JJR: I think that a lot of people are fighting for change, but then they can't look at the overall picture and see what's in common. I didn't really think about that until you just explained it. I think it's hard for all walks of life to find the common thing. Maybe it's not so much right now they're trying to change or make a big impact, but I think it's more as training the next generation on how to act. And teaching them to be nice to one another or view everyone as an equal so that way you don't have all these divides in society. Because there would be none if you treated everyone the same. Oh, well, I was taught, I was shown to act this sort of way, so that's how I'm gonna do it.
And I think a lot of people who are advocating for things, they had to find the way to open up their mind or to do the things that they do because they taught themselves that. But I think my generation and generations surrounding me are going to be more of teachers and then future generations are gonna be more of the people who are actually influencing it. I think it's a process. It's gonna take a while. I think the root cause is hard to get to right now. It's gonna get there, though. And then everything's gonna be good. Hopefully. I like to say that my generation is being an example so that way future generations can live up to it.
ACT: What does community mean to you and what does it mean to be part of it with so many differing agendas?
JJR: I say community so much! Everything I'm a part of I think is just a little community, whether it be friends, family, at work, or just in town, or anywhere. Also, Redmond is super community-based, so I think I've always just lived and been raised in tight-knit community circles. Even if it's just with a group of friends, it's always a little community. Or at work - I worked at Dutch Bros and so it was a super hype, energetic community that I was always a part of. My goal in life is to find my community or find a community I can either raise children or live in happily.
The number one people that I like to talk to are people that have different opinions or different views as me because I get to learn so much and so do they. If you talk to someone who has the same opinion as you, you're not really learning or getting new information. But, at the same time, I think it's hard to be respectful because you're so passionate about something and then someone's doing the opposite of what you're doing or taking away from the projects or the influences that you're having. But being able to understand and know the why is also important. That way you know how to interact with them and communicate with them and build that connection and they understand how to do the same with you. You're not always gonna have everyone the same. But if everyone treats each other as equals, but also understanding that we have different viewpoints and we have different ways of life, I think we'll be fine. You can't really get upset at someone else's viewpoints if they're not the same as yours, but you can learn to understand them and respect them. And that's what a community is about.
ACT: As one example of a major difference, what has homophobia meant to you? And what does it mean to you that it is still so prevalent? How do you find the patience and peace in learning about the why behind that particular issue?
JJR: I came out to my family my freshman year of high school but my whole community didn't know because I was scared of the stereotypes and I was scared of the homophobia that might be surrounding it, especially coming from Redmond, [which] is mostly, I would say, very conservative and set in their ways. But then also living in Bend and having Pride just a month ago and so many people there or seeing so many stickers... I can live in Bend and it seems like so many people are accepting, but then I also go to school in Redmond and live there, as well, where a lot of people aren't.
So, homophobia was hard because when I came out to my family not everyone in my family was super supportive about it. So I was like, How can I tell my peers who I'm not even related to to be supportive and to be accepting if I don't even have family members who feel that way? So, it took a lot of just, Oh, I'm not gonna come out until I graduate high school. Or, I'm not gonna tell people because I don't want people to say things. Or, I don't want to be bullied. Or, I don't want people to view me different because I guess I'm a large community member, but I don't want my reputation to go bad just because people know that I'm gay. One day I just said, Screw it! and I brought a boy to the school dance and then I just came out. And some people like to talk crap and to say rude things, but I think, overall, if you know who you are and if you know that what you're doing makes you happy, then you can't let it get to you.
Sometimes I will hear words, especially in music, too, or phrases or things that they say - it does affect me, but I just can't let it get to me. There's no point in letting it get to you because then the people who are saying it know that they're having an effect on you. And they know that it's pushing your buttons. But if you jus take a breath and recenter yourself to who you are, then I don't think you should let it affect you or control who you are. And, for a really long time, I did let the idea of homophobia and people being rude to me shy and take away from who I was. And then, finally, I was just like, Enough's enough. I can't let other people live for me. I think it's more of that I don't really care part because you can't really care what other people think of you; you just have to care about what you think about yourself. I know it's kind of cheesy to say that, but it's very true.
I think coming out to my school and my community was a very big thing for me. Because, for the longest time, I didn't do it because of the things I liked to do within the student council. I'm not gonna get voted in for certain things. Or I'm not gonna be able to reach new goals because that's gonna be a barrier. But I think if it is a barrier, then it's their problem not mine and I can always just fight through it because so many people have before me. And so, why can't I?
I have also learned that some of my best friends who I know have had opposition points about homosexuality have totally flipped. I came out and then the next day they texted me saying how much they love me and how much they care for me. I don't know why I was so scared when all these people love me for me. Just because there's one part that might have changed, it doesn't affect it. I think that's what made me feel comfortable in who I was and the people I surround myself with, too.
ACT: Homophobia's not dead, right? You've still got obstacles ahead of you. And there's a major issue with Islamophobia. And we're still actively keeping black people down with the inappropriately named 'War on Drugs' and wrongful incarceration. Does it grow your compassion to have gone through something? Or did you have it already? And what can you do to help change this ignorance?
JJR: Being a part of a minority group, I knew that there was certain things that we face as a minority group. And being introduced to state leadership, I got to meet people from all walks of life. My best friend on the board is Muslim and we just talk about [our experiences]. We're part of different minority groups but we're still facing the exact same thing. The compassion just comes from people understanding what I'm going through in a minority group and then also understanding what other minority groups go through, too.
I think a lot of the hatred comes from the stereotypes. And then media has a very good way of publishing and drawing attention to the negative stereotypes that come with it. So, that's what all people see. Instead of getting to know and building connections, it's more of, Let's watch the news and see what's happening - whether that be true or not. I think my compassion has grown through talking to other people in minority groups or someone within the gay community or whatever community that they're in - just talking to them and understanding that it's kind of the same battle or it's the same thing you have to go through every day. It just encourages me to make a difference for what I'm a part of, but then also be a support and to be someone that other minority groups can rely on - whether that be with the Hispanic... or with the Muslim community or literally with any type of minority group. We're all different, but we're all experiencing the same things. And I think there's power with that because we kind of know that we're all accepting of each other. I think a lot of minority groups are very accepting of other minority groups, as well. Finding compassion for that is just watching other people do it the same. And kind of finding joy and relief that you're not the only one doing it. And that the only way that they can keep doing it and that you can keep doing that is just to motivate and to encourage them and have them do the same to you.
ACT: Do you feel a sense of purpose?
JJR: I do, but I don't think it's fate or destiny or my calling or my birthright or anything like that. I found something that I love doing and why not just keep doing it? And maybe if I fell out of love for the work that I do today, I can find something next and then find my purpose within that. I don't think I just have one purpose; I think I have many. A purpose with my family or a purpose with my friends or a purpose with my life - I think there's many different things that I have a purpose for and what I can accomplish. It's not just one big one.
ACT: I had an interesting conversation with Jared yesterday about hope and how maybe it conjures up imagery of wanting to avoid the obstacle or just wanting things to be magically different. We're not going to wake up tomorrow to world peace and acceptance of all walks of life. So, what gives you the energy to deal with the issues that we have and come out the other end?
JJR: I think it comes from literally history class in school. You read and hear about all the struggles that people have gone through and all the things that they had to witness or were a part of and then you see how that's not how it is today. Or how actions like that are not how we do it today. Then you also think of the time it takes. I just draw from past events. Seeing the women's suffrage movement - it took forever for a woman to gain the right to vote, but now my mom voting is just a regular thing for me. Because it took time and it took people fighting and getting nos and getting yeses and having to march and rally and do whatever they needed to do for their cause. And I think so many people are doing the same and I am as well.
But the part that I think is unrealistic is that the change is just gonna happen overnight. It's gonna take time. And it's gonna take more people doing the same things for a long period of time to actually make it known and to make a change. So, learning from people in the past or learning from big leaders who are not with us today because they made an influence and you learn and get the foundation of how they did that. That's what I try to do.