Young Change Makers: Why and How Rosie Couture and Belan Yeshigeta Are Helping To Change Our World
No one will remember your ‘failures’: Honestly, and I know that many people will just brush this off, but it’s surprisingly true. Taking on a project that is personal to you and very close to your heart puts you in a vulnerable position. Especially when you’re just starting out and the people you share it with at first are people who you are familiar with or in your community and not just a random stranger on the internet who wouldn’t be able to pick you out in a crowd. We’ve had our fair share of failures or learning experiences, and each time we came out stronger and very quickly we realized that we’re really the only people that remember them. Better yet, what really sticks with people is your successes. So, the more tries, the better!
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rosie Couture and Belan Yeshigeta.
Rosie Couture and Belan Yeshigeta are two teenage activists who are fighting for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 2019 they banded together to found the advocacy group, Generation Ratify (GR) to further their mission and they have since grown it to 55+ registered chapters in 23 states. Today, Rosie and Belan serve as the Executive Directors of GR and fight tirelessly for a world of intersectional gender equality.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Belan: Of course! I grew up in Arlington, Virginia. Although I was raised by a single mother, I have a huge Ethiopian family that has been involved in every aspect of my life. Arlington is very multicultural so it’s been great to be able to be a part of a microcosm of the global community. Being around so many different cultures and ideas absolutely influenced who I am and my passion for social activism. I’m still in high school though and, in a sense, I am still growing up. I cannot wait to see where this global community takes me.
Rosie: I moved around a bit growing up. I was born in Orlando, then moved to Atlanta, and I now live right outside of Washington DC in Arlington, Virginia. All three places have very different communities, access to resources, and diversity on all identity fronts. I was keenly aware of these differences. They have had a great impact on how I view community organizing and equity issues. Above all, my dad had the biggest impact on shaping how I grew up to be an organizer. As a public defender, my dad brought conversations surrounding the criminal legal system to the dinner table, on car rides, and in the family text chats. I was fortunate to have my dad as a resource to understanding systemic injustice in our country from a young age.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Belan: During my last year of middle school, the country was shaken by a school shooter incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Just like every student across the nation was, I was afraid for my safety of myself and that of my school community. Being as young as I was, it didn’t feel like there was anything I could do to change that. Soon after, March for Our Lives came about. Student-led and run, it was an inspiration and its cause spread across the world. Attending the DC March for Our Lives, only cemented my newfound fascination and passion for youth activism. I went on to organize three school walkouts in my middle school for gun violence prevention that year, and when my freshman year came around I had found my own cause to organize around: the Equal Rights Amendment.
Rosie: The first protest I went to was the Women’s March. I drove in an overnight bus on my 13th birthday from Georgia to DC. I felt empowered. I now have perspective and distance from the event that has made me understand its problematic nature, but at the time, it catapulted me into organizing. Six months later, I was in DC once again. I was attending more protests, I was connecting with Women’s rights centered groups that formed as a result of the Women’s March, and I was building relationships with other young feminists. I agree with Belan that March for Our Lives also changed the game. They made youth organizing accessible. They made putting youth voices to the front possible. I organized my school’s walkout and became the Virginia State Director for March for Our Lives at 15. The things I learned in this position equipped me with the tools to build Generation Ratify.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Rosie: “Making a difference” is a daunting term. In reality, organizers make a difference every day. We make a difference when we contact our legislators. We make a difference when we donate to mutual aid funds. We make a difference when we refer a friend to an organization. Making a difference means taking action towards liberation and this manifests itself in so many ways.
Belan: Going off of that, I think it is important to recognize that those small, everyday differences are just as important as any ‘big’ or particularly flashy difference. This ties back neatly to the idea of grassroots organizing. Simply working within your community, educating your peers and those around you, making just one more phone bank call — all of these things are critical to creating a vital and impactful movement.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Belan: Generation Ratify is the youth-led movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. Today, the United States is one of the few developed nations that has failed to enshrine gender equality into its founding document or even mention any gender beyond cisgender men. Generation Ratify seeks to not only ratify the ERA, but bring about a new generation of ERA activists that are diverse, intentional about their intersectionality, and young. For so long, the movement has been predominated by the same activists that were at the forefront back in the ’70s and ’80s when the ERA was at its peak. Nearly 50 years later, it’s time for a new generation of activists to take the mantle and move the movement forward.
Rosie: Generation Ratify has four pillars of action: education, advocacy, elections, and empowerment. Before people can advocate for an issue, they have to understand it. Furthermore, they have to understand how to take an intersectional approach to the issue, in our case the ERA and gender inequality in the United States, to fight for solutions that include all communities. This looks like creating issue one-pagers (page-long documents succinctly outlining an issue), hosting workshops and trainings, and collaborating with other organizations to bring the ERA into all movement spaces. This leads to advocacy. Generation Ratify works with young people across the country to empower them to pressure their lawmakers into supporting the ERA, and other intersectional gender equality policies. This can look like anything from hosting protests and rallies, to organizing meetings between young people and their elected officials. In addition, Generation Ratify works with an excellent team of pro-bono lawyers and adult allies to make young people’s voices heard on issues of gender equality in the courts and in the White House through writing letters to prominent figures and filing amicus briefs, documents about our beliefs on issues debated in court cases. We also work to empower youth to vote for candidates that will fight for their full equality. In 2020, we partnered with over a dozen Congressional campaigns to create ERA and gender equality-specific messaging to get people to the polls in the most consequential election of our lifetimes. We made over 1.07 million voter contacts through phone calls, texts, postcards, canvasses, town-halls, and voter registration. Lastly, we want to create an environment of empowerment. We want to empower young women, transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary folks. This looks like creating a Slack community space to allow young people to connect, and connecting young people to opportunities.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Rosie: I found out about the Equal Rights Amendment in January of 2019. I was looking through proposed legislation in the Virginia General Assembly when I came across the resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia. I had no idea what this was, but I saw the word equal and was down for it. I then looked into what it was. My first thought was, “how this is not a thing already, and why is no one talking about it?” My entitled 14-year-old self emailed former Delegate Foy, the chief patron on this bill, and asked how I could get involved, with a dream of building a youth coalition to push for the resolution’s passage in Virginia. The ERA is a tangible goal for the gender justice movement. It is something we can do that will have real, material effects on the lives of marginalized genders. It is broad-reaching and builds a platform for us to achieve liberation. I was ready to mobilize young people to fight for it. Unfortunately, within days, the ERA’s hopes died for that session at the hands of Republican leadership. In the following months, I became increasingly involved with efforts to ratify the ERA in Virginia; however, I quickly grew frustrated. I was frustrated that I was the only one below the age of 40 ever in a meeting about the ERA. I was frustrated that no one was talking about how this amendment was rooted in queer liberation and racial justice. It was all about women and equal pay. That’s when I knew we had to find a way to get young people involved in this movement to not only bring in the newest generation of change-makers but to push the conversation to be more intersectional. The ERA can fight for all communities, but we have to push the conversation there.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Belan: Generation Ratify, in its early stages, actually went through a lot of transformations. My most vivid memory of an “Aha Moment” would definitely be launching our website. Prior to even conceptualizing Generation Ratify, Rosie and I actually started a local Women’s March Youth Empower chapter in our county. Soon after, we realized that the members of our chapter were just as eager as us to take action around the Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, organizing around and spreading awareness about the ERA had become the number priority of our chapter. After realizing that there were other young people that were ready to dive headfirst into ERA advocacy, Generation Ratify was born. Still, it was easier said than done. We spent about a week just talking it out, reaching out to people we thought would have the skills to make our organization a success (quickly assembling our Founding Mothers, as we like to call ourselves), and identifying our core goals. We frequented a local library near our high school, where a lot of Generation Ratify’s milestone moments happened and made an initial website. Although we didn’t launch that same day, seeing the pieces of Generation Ratify begin to meld together was surreal and empowering. Less than a week later, on July 22nd, we officially launched and we were in business!
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Belan: Truly, we didn’t really know how to get started either. I believe the biggest thing is just to take the leap of faith. We initially started Generation Ratify with the intention of it becoming, at maximum, a state-wide organization. And so, we began by using word of mouth, personal relationships, and social media to spread the word about the organization. In fact, we mark Generation Ratify’s “birthday” as the day we launched our website. From there, we began an extensive outreach program where we targeted high school clubs and community organizations that aligned with our goals and asked them to partner with us to host electoral advocacy opportunities in their local communities.
Rosie: Building off of Belan, we quickly turned all of our focus on outreach. We first identified a focus: electing pro-ERA candidates in Virginia to have a pro-ERA majority in our state legislature. Following that, we emailed pro-ERA campaigns in the 20 most competitive districts in Virginia. We ended up directly working with 13 of them to engage young people in their efforts to
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Belan: Generation Ratify has brought so many incredible and amazing opportunities that I am deeply grateful for and often surprised by. But, being invited to the Governor’s Mansion to celebrate the passage of the ERA in the Virginia state legislature takes the cake. I remember seeing the email invitation, and genuinely not believing it was real. I think I refreshed my inbox nearly twenty times before it really sank in. On the day of the event, clearing security, walking up the steps of the Mansion, and stepping in was an entirely out-of-body experience. It was incredible for us to be in a room of ERA advocates from across the state, prominent state officials, and of course one another.
Rosie: One of the coolest things that have happened to us to this day is that a mocktail was named after Generation Ratify at a local bar in Richmond, Virginia. I don’t remember the name, but it felt like a cultural reset. I felt so cool. I also take a step back any time we get to collaborate or get mentioned by someone who is famous. I tend to avoid idolizing politicians or celebrities, but when someone who has such a large platform takes the time to amplify us and our message, it is beyond inspiring. Some of my favorites include Anna Sophia Robb and Carolyn Maloney.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Rosie: Looking back, the silliest thing I did was allow myself to be pushed around by unsolicited advice from adults. We have had phenomenal adult allies and mentors that have helped us along the way. We have also had some adults that we did not have relationships with that would assert themselves into strategic decisions we were making as a movement. Adults would approach us as though we had no choice but to follow their advice, which, as the radical young people we are, we often did not agree with. And I allowed people to belittle Generation Ratify and push us around. Looking back, I can laugh at some of the things I would let go then, that I would never tolerate today. I learned how to be assertive and not compromise to appeal to people who were not as progressive as us. Every person and organization has a critical role to play in ratifying the ERA. For some, that means appealing to Republicans and moderate Democrats. That is not who Generation Ratify is.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Rosie: If we had to pick one person, it would hands-down be Kate Kelly. She is our ERA mom. From the start, she was our biggest hype woman. She helped us build connections with key players in the movement, understand everything that the ERA was, and hone in on the Queer roots of the ERA. She even helped us author an amicus brief to amplify the voices of young people in the courts. Above all, she has been such a rock for us. There were countless times where she has come on Instagram Live’s with us, presented webinars to our community, responded to our emotional text rants, and helped us bounce around ideas. She made us feel like we belonged in the ERA movement when no one else did. She also made queer youth, including myself, feel like they belong in this movement.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Belan: One of the best things about having such a tight-knit community is that we get to interact directly with hundreds of our organizers. We have a pretty active Slack Workspace with all of our leadership on the local, state, and national level and over 600 individual organizers. That being said, people often share their stories about the impact Generation Ratify has had on them. One story that particularly resonated with me was that of a high school student from New Jersey. She’s one of our earlier out-of-state members and has been a warm and welcoming presence on our platforms for new individuals that are just joining. Through her work and leadership in Generation Ratify, she was able to find her voice and grow comfortable with being a leader and someone people can rely on. As someone who was also relatively introverted and not very outspoken prior to Generation Ratify, it was incredible to see that this organization was helping others in the same way that it helped me.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Rosie: Ultimately, we are trying to dismantle patriarchy. We are trying to achieve gender justice. We are trying to achieve a future where all communities are liberated. We understand that the patriarchy is inextricably tied with white supremacy and capitalism, and until we dismantle those systems, we won’t dismantle patriarchy. All this to say, the root of the problem is big, but there are things we can all do to begin to address it. We know the ERA does not equal liberation, but it is a tangible thing we can achieve that will have material impacts on the lives of marginalized genders– particularly the lives of queer people and women of color. Politicians have their work cut out for them: be co-sponsors and vocal advocates of S.J. Res 1, the resolution to remove the deadline on the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. As for the people who are reading this, here are three things you can do to advance the ERA. 1) Talk to your friends, family, and community about the ERA. Lots of people don’t know it is even a thing. The more people that have a general awareness about it, the more people power potential we are bringing to our movement. 2) Put pressure on your Senators to support S.J. Res 1. This can be emailing them, calling them, protesting outside their house, tweeting at them, anything. Any bit of noise helps. 3) Take care of your community. When government systems fail us, we have to care for our communities. Care for your community members. Tap into mutual aid efforts near you, or if there are none, organize it.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
1. Hold your ground: Like Rosie said earlier, people did not always take two teenage change-makers seriously. Generation Ratify as a whole is an organization that supports a broad interpretation of the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition, we are also dedicated to identifying and advocating for issues that are intersectional with gender equality (which is nearly everything). All in all, in a movement dominated by an older generation that is more moderate-leaning, we had a lot of people trying to tell us what to do and not do in order to be successful. Although we appreciated the guidance, we made sure to let our partners know what our non-negotiables are. As a result, Generation Ratify is known within the ERA community for pushing boundaries.
2. Just do it: It is intimidating, no matter who you are or what you are doing, to take that leap of faith and start any sort of venture. The late nights, the stress, and the quickly growing responsibilities are overwhelming, there is just no way around it. But, your fears should not hold you back from pursuing your goal. Not only is the satisfaction and the pride that you feel once you get things rolling one of the most fulfilling feelings, but you will find that, once you get past that initial push, you will naturally become more and more in tune with what you need to do and the road ahead will seem much less daunting. Generation Ratify has allowed me to grow so much in its one and a half years of existence. For any young leaders out there, know that you will grow as you go and sometimes you just need to trust in yourself to rise to the occasion. You are often your worst critic and there are always people who will be there for you to lean on.
3. Build community: On that note, you don’t have to do any of it alone. In fact, if you can, you shouldn’t do it alone. Having another person, or people, to bounce ideas off, share responsibility with, and even just a companion to share this new experience with is invaluable. Moreover, as you grow, fostering a sense of community within your organization will make newcomers more eager to get involved and stay engaged and it will genuinely contribute to your growth as more people will talk about you and spread your movement by word of mouth.
4. No one will remember your ‘failures’: Honestly, and I know that many people will just brush this off, but it’s surprisingly true. Taking on a project that is personal to you and very close to your heart puts you in a vulnerable position. Especially when you’re just starting out and the people you share it with at first are people who you are familiar with or in your community and not just a random stranger on the internet who wouldn’t be able to pick you out in a crowd. We’ve had our fair share of failures or learning experiences, and each time we came out stronger and very quickly we realized that we’re really the only people that remember them. Better yet, what really sticks with people is your successes. So, the more tries, the better!
5. Give it time: This piece of advice is something that I’m sure sounds like another cliché, but it’s just as true. Growth takes time, sometimes it slows and other times it quickens. It’s key to make the best of different stages and take note of the things that are contributing to your growth. Time also brings change. Like I said earlier, Generation Ratify at its start hardly resembled what it is today. Your core team, goals, and vision will likely change over time, not necessarily in the most ideal circumstances either, but these changes are only refining your organization further, no matter what it may seem like in the moment.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
B: I would tell young people looking to make a difference that no action is too small. When we started Generation Ratify we had no idea what was in store for us. Even if we had not grown nationally, I know we made a tangible impact on the people we came in contact with within Arlington alone. Initially, many of our canvassers, lobbyists, and more were first-timers or people who had never really felt any efficacy as young people. But after their involvement with Generation Ratify, they feel empowered to take on direct advocacy on their own and really make their voices heard.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
R: Although she is no longer alive, Pauli Murray. She was an unapologetic Black Queer Feminist who had a radical vision for an inclusive ERA that would fight for queer communities and communities of color. She was a brilliant civil rights lawyer that was the architect of RBG’s strategy for making the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause extend to cases of sex-based discrimination. I want to have a private breakfast or lunch with her more than anyone else. Now for someone who is alive, I think I would have to go with Gloria Steinem. I want to hear about the 1970s battle for the ERA from the legend herself.
How can our readers follow you online?
B: You can find out more about us at GenerationRatify.org! You can also check out our Instagram at @GenerationRatify and our Twitter at @GenRatify.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!