From the mouths of teens: Gen Z shares their thoughts on life in a pandemic and the new civil rights movement

By now we’ve heard time and time again how the moment we’re all living through is historic, anxious and unprecedented. A global pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands, wrecked the global economy, and created record unemployment. Anti-racism protests have mobilized millions of people around the world calling for major reforms to policing and public policy. It’s changed the way many of us live, work and think.

For young people, it’s changed more than just the high school experience, though that’s no small change. It’s changed the way they think about their futures, and the kind of world they’ll inherit.

For the last two months, we’ve been checking in with a few high school students across the New Orleans area. They’re all journalists with the New Orleans Junior Journalism Program, a non-profit organization that prepares high school students for careers in media. 

We got in touch twice: first, during the middle of Louisiana’s strict stay-at-home order, meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as they navigated remote classwork and the loss of structured time with friends. We reached out again after continued protests of police brutality, sparked by the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, shook the world and demanded change from institutions and people in power.

In audio diaries and in emails, they talked about missing out on milestones, new responsibilities at home, when and how change will come, and more.

What do you miss most about being in school?

“I mostly miss the interaction with people and the work at school that keeps me occupied. Plus, I find it hard to concentrate at home, so I miss having a workspace like school.” — Lana Lawson, 15, International High School of New Orleans

Lana Lawson takes a selfie in her home. (Provided by Lana)

“Surprisingly, I miss the schedule of the normal school day and how it occupied my time. Now I feel like there’s all the time in the world and there’s nothing to do during quarantine, especially now that school is out.” — Isabella Brown, 17, Lusher Charter School

“The thing I miss the most about being in school is the atmosphere and community that I was surrounded by on a daily basis. We’ve created such a sisterhood with one another at school, and walking in the halls and seeing friends in different grades was always a highlight of my day. I miss being a part of my activities and clubs and getting to spend time doing the activities that I love with the people I love being with.” — Hannah Darcey, 16, Mount Carmel Academy

“As my senior year comes to a close, the greatest aspect of high school I miss is the social interaction. I miss my close group of friends that I talked to during classes and lunch. I miss the camaraderie of fast-paced conversations. I’ve Face-Timed a few of my friends (in state and out of state), and we also text a couple of times a week. But honestly, I’ve lost motivation to keep in contact because it feels odd committing to senseless promises about meeting soon when we truly don’t know if this lockdown will end.” — Evelynn Coffie, 18, Lusher Charter School

“I miss being able to interact with my peers, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.” — Chris Taylor, 16, St. John STEM Magnet High School Program

Chris Taylor at his home in LaPlace, Louisiana. May 19, 2020. (Ben Depp/National Geographic Society)

How has the pandemic changed your home life?

More from Chris Taylor

“My parents aren’t home, they’re working. So I’m here watching my little brother. … I’m watching him a lot more. We’re home alone, by ourselves, during this time. Even when my parents do come home, they can’t get him right away. They have to change their clothes and shower, just in case they were exposed [to the virus].” — Chris Taylor

More from Taylor Pittman

“The pandemic has changed my home life because I’m usually the one taking care of my brother now when my sister isn’t around. … My mom and my dad are starting to work again and get back into their regular life. So now it’s just me and my brother and the dog. I take care of those two while everyone else is busy, including doing everything else that I have going on with school and extracurriculars and things of that nature.” — Taylor Pittman, 17, McDonogh 35 Senior High School

How have you been staying connected with friends?

“I’ve been keeping in touch with my friends via text, Instagram DMs, FaceTime, Google Meet, and Zoom.” — Lana Lawson

“We’ll occasionally FaceTime. For “prom,” me and my friends dressed up and hung out on Zoom. Otherwise, we stay connected through text, either talking about school or sending each other memes.” — Isabella Brown

“During this time I’ve been staying connected with most of my friends mainly through video games and FaceTime.” — Chris Taylor

What’s one thing that surprised you about life under quarantine?

“Honestly, I’m surprised at how much I missed school and the purpose it gave me. Now I’ll never even get to have one last normal day of high school.” — Isabella Brown

Isabella Brown poses for a picture at home. (Provided by Isabella)

“One thing that surprised me about life under quarantine is how easy it is to cling to materialistic goods that provide temporary comfort. I didn’t realize how much I cherished physical interaction with friends and family I usually don’t get to see. I was also surprised by how lethargic I become when my time isn’t preoccupied with in-person courses and activities.” — Evelynn Coffie

More from Chris Taylor

“The biggest surprise about this pandemic was kinda like — people were still out doing things, instead of just staying inside. That was kind of a surprise to me. It was never like a complete shutdown.” — Chris Taylor

What’s been the hardest thing about the pandemic?

More from Chris Taylor

“The hardest thing about the pandemic was just trying to manage having fun and doing this work. Since we’re stuck in this house it’s kind of hard to just sit in front of a computer and do work all day. Going outside and being able to play with my brother and go outside with my family, and just enjoy, you know, the sun … that definitely helps a lot.” — Chris Taylor

(Editor’s note: No other students answered this question.)

What’s been the highlight of your quarantine?

“The highlight of being at home is that I finally have time to relax. Usually my school schedule is very busy and now I finally have time to watch all of my favorite shows.” — Lana Lawson

“I’ve loved getting to spend time with my family, which isn’t something I was able to do as much before the quarantine because of my busy schedule. It’s been nice being able to spend more time with them. Another was that I have had more time to do other hobbies and activities that I wouldn’t otherwise have time for, such as baking, photography and video editing. I’ve loved getting to explore more of these hobbies that I love and become better at them.” — Hannah Darcey

“A major highlight from this quarantine is the time I get to spend with my family. Before the lockdown, I struggled to fully engage with everyone in my family and keep in touch with out-of-state relatives because of school, work and extracurriculars. Now that everything’s on fault, it’s nice to fully interact with them without interruptions. Sometimes it can be chaotic and stuffy with us all in the house, but these are times I want to cherish as I’ll be heading off the college soon — if campuses open up in the fall.” — Evelynn Coffie

Evelynn Coffie takes a selfie at her home. (Provided by Evelynn)

“The highlight of my quarantine is spending time with my 1-year-old brother. I may not have gotten to spend time with him if we were still in school. Also, I am able to work on my business and continue to grow my skills.” — Chris Taylor

What are you looking forward to doing most once the coronavirus restrictions go away?

“When this pandemic is over, I’m looking forward to throwing a party to see my family and friends. Hopefully I can have my Sweet 16 (in July) but it’s not looking too good at the moment.” — Lana Lawson

“Once the restrictions go away I am looking forward to spending time with my friends and being able to go back to a somewhat normal lifestyle. I’m looking forward to summer and being able to hopefully spend my summer working summer camps, learning new hobbies, and maybe take a road trip somewhere.” — Hannah Darcey

“I can’t wait to just do another photoshoot. I’m a photographer and a lot of people have been trying to book. I’m ready to just get out and start working again. … Also, I can’t wait to go out with friends and have fun.” — Chris Taylor

For several consecutive days at the beginning of June, thousands of people took to the streets of New Orleans calling for an end to police brutality, defunding police departments, the removal of symbols of white supremacy, and many other causes. We reached out to the students once more to hear how they’ve been reacting.

Have you been taking action in recent weeks, in response to current events?

“I went to the protest at City Park, but I wish I could do more. I want to participate in more protests, but my grandma is getting surgery and my family is trying not to expose ourselves too much so that we can visit her without there being any risk to her health.” — Isabella Brown

“A week or so before the events in Minneapolis and nationwide, Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching spread across social media like a wildfire. Then the same week Breonna Taylor’s murder was brought back to life through social media. When I heard about what occurred in Minneapolis near the end of May, it was pretty triggering to engage with that content at first because there’s only so much Black trauma I can consume as a Black person before it becomes overwhelming. So I try to use social media to boost local organizations, bail funds, resources for research and literary digestion, ways to stay active, upcoming events, etc. I’m not usually one to shy away from social issues, especially when these issues involve Black lives, so I’ve been trying to inform those in my community about what’s going on and penning my own thoughts through posts. I recently took a break to re-energize and refocus, but I plan to head back out to a few upcoming events led by Black coalitions.” — Evelynn Coffie

More from Taylor Pittman

“I haven’t been to any protests myself, personally, because my opinion on protesting is different than many others. I don’t believe protesting is my way of making a change. I believe in signing petitions and going through your government and scheduling meetings with people. … I just think the people who are protesting, they’re letting their emotions show. They’re action people. They speak with their hands and their feet and their mouths, screaming ‘no justice, no peace.’ They speak like that, and that’s how they’re making their change. Protesting is an excellent way of making change. Personally, just not my way of making change.” — Taylor Pittman

Taylor Pittman at her home in New Orleans East. May 19, 2020. (Ben Depp/National Geographic Society)

“I have been taking action in current events by participating in Zoom seminars about racial injustice, spreading the word and talking with friends , and signing petitions. Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to actually go out to a protest.” — Lana Lawson

More from Chris Taylor

“I haven’t got to go to a protest yet, but I’m looking forward to going to one and capture some powerful pictures, and hopefully get something for my followers … and just stand next to my brothers and sisters and actually you know, stand in the protest and fight for what we believe in.” — Chris Taylor

Between the ongoing pandemic and the movement for racial justice and police reform, what do you think your next school year will look like?

“I’m starting my first year of college at American University and they recently released their fall plan. The main points they emphasized are that they’re having a combination of in-person and online classes and we’re staying in single dorms. They’re taking a lot of precautions and I trust that they’ll make my college experience safe, but I also feel like I’m going to miss out on a lot of the quintessential experiences most college freshmen go through.” — Isabella Brown

“I think that next school year will pretty much be the same as far as racial justice goes, since I go to the International High School of N.O. My school is very big on promoting diversity and I, as a Black girl, have never really seen any prejudice acts going on at my school. Also, a big portion of the students are Black/African American. Now as far as the pandemic, I do think that wearing masks all day in the classroom will spark some issues and the school will have to really work hard to sanitize everything, but I do think it could work. It might not be the most comfortable setting, but it’ll work out.” — Lana Lawson

“Honestly, it’s challenging to think about what next school year would look like. I plan to attend a school out of state, and they released information about bringing students back to campus in increments — incoming freshmen being the first to attend. As it relates to racial justice and police “reform,” I’m not sure what my school plans to bring to the table that most corporations and institutions haven’t been regurgitating for the past few weeks. At most, their condolences and call to action statements highlight their awareness of social and racial inequity plaguing this country. At the very least, their recycled statements reflect their allegiance to capitalist structures benefitting their institutions. So, I don’t know what the fall may look like. I hope I can diversify my circles and connect with those who share my perspective. However, I think next school year will be socially stagnant as schools try to foster a comfortable space without risking the health of their students and staff. Whatever occurs in the next couple months, I just hope there’s justice.” — Evelynn Coffie

More from Taylor Pittman

“With everything going on, my senior year will be everything I want it to be. I’m gonna manifest and pray and hope that I have an exciting path ahead of me. Even if I don’t go back to school — even if school is virtual — I have huge plans that I don’t know if anyone is ready for. I don’t think I’m ready for it. My whole goal is to get into college. Full-ride, four years. … I want my mom and dad to be proud and realize that, you know, I worked hard. And it’s not for anyone else but me and them. … Honestly, I just want to be someone that makes change. No matter how I’m making change, I want to make change.” — Taylor Pittman