Paris, France

Medium: Is there one particular political issue that you’re passionate about?

Sofia Sears: Democracy is not a spectator sport, but much of the current Republican Party’s agenda seems intended to exclude the majority from playing. Accessibility to voting is perhaps the most essential bedrock of a functioning democracy — like President Obama said in his farewell address, we must be “jealous, anxious guardians” of our democracy, but we can only do that when everyone is able to participate. Voter suppression ensures that we the people are not fully represented in the government and is intended to disenfranchise minorities in particular.

What do adults get wrong about your generation?

There’s this idea that my generation is needlessly creating labels we don’t need — in terms of sexuality, gender identity, layers of privilege and oppression. I’ve noticed many older adults shaking their heads at our need to “complicate” our own identities. We don’t “create” these labels or concepts to deliberately confuse the older generation, though. I believe we’ve just found words to articulate identities that have always existed but were never recognized or legitimized before. We’re making feelings that humans have always felt tangible, nameable, so that we stop excluding so many individuals from our vocabulary. My pansexuality, for example, isn’t just a word I identify with because I want to provoke anyone. I use the term because I genuinely, deeply identify with it, as I do with “queer.”

What keeps you up at night?

To be alive in America right now is to be angry, or at least it feels this way for me. But how we collectively channel that anger is really important. We need to mobilize behind it. Quite an extent of America finds a black man starring in a Nike ad literally advertising what should be the American dream — ambition uncompromised by one’s identity — more upsetting than the fact that thousands of children are being detained in literal cages, stripped of their human rights, and abducted from their parents. In our country. In the “city up on a hill,” which, as history shows, has never actually been a city everyone can reach. The idea of patriotism as an unquestioning, uncritical loyalty to one’s country, no matter the violence or cruelty it espouses, needs to go.

What does the future hold for you? And for the United States?

I’m currently on a gap year before heading to college in 2019, and I’m learning how to take care of myself for, really, the first time. My passions are so spread out, but I’m trying to assemble them, somehow, into a working patchwork and allow myself to change constantly. I’m reading a book a day, writing all the time, phone-banking from over here, trying to work on the midterms from another continent. I want to keep figuring myself out. Now I have the time to unravel everything I want to be and do. I’m giving myself time, and I’m still working on politics, but to be an effective activist, I think you first need to be a functioning, self-aware person. You have to take care of yourself, somehow, before you can necessarily take care of every problem America has — which is what I tried to do for a long time.

What does the word “safety” mean to you in today’s world?

Safety is trusting your government to respect your existence. To believe that, even if you disagree with how to go about it, your country is fundamentally working to improve human lives. To not be stripped of your dignity and humanity; to believe that injustice, at the very least, will be refuted by those in power. To believe in a grain of goodness, of decency, in those in power. To know you will wake up in a deeply imperfect country, but not an unlivable one. To feel able to walk down the street without being shot and killed. To not feel unsurprised when another man walks into a classroom and shoots 20 kids; to not feel desensitized. To walk into school and believe that your right to learn is more important than anyone’s right to violence. To struggle, as the human condition requires, but not to struggle because of people elected to keep us safe.

Are you interested in having a family at some point?

What composes a “family” isn’t black and white anymore. The whole concept of family has transcended the nuclear unit, and my generation is treading in a far more flexible, colorful direction, I believe, that allows for much deeper complexity. I’m 18, but I don’t think I want children, and marriage doesn’t really appeal to me. But that’s not to degrade those experiences; the shape of meaning, to me, just looks different than other people’s.

Also, overpopulation contributes to the destruction of the environment, and so to adopt children who already need homes, to work on improving the lives already here rather than focus on making new ones, is what’s important to me. I know that this option, though, is a privilege.

This interview is part of The Edge of Adulthood: Forty-Six American Teens Discuss Their Lives, Their Struggles, and What’s Next.