On Tuesday, Sept. 7th, a mass of UT students gathered together, homemade signs in hand, to take part in the grand college tradition of protesting. The target of their demonstration: Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions in Texas beyond the sixth week of pregnancy. Passed on May 19th and put into effect on September 1st, the bill relies on private citizens to enforce the ban by suing those suspected of receiving, performing, or aiding an abortion. The students stood at an offensive position, looking down at the Capitol building with the likeness of George Washington watching their backs, a reminder of our country’s founding fathers and their mission for justice. Although the protestors gathered in the spirit of civil anger, the camaraderie gave way to an energy of excitement.
There is a lot to be proud of when walking by a student protest. The crowd is ready to shout and hopeful of being heard. I originally attended the demonstration intending to document the beliefs and objections that inspired it, but my initial questions for organizers and participants yielded a series of regurgitated responses: “Why do you oppose this bill?” (It’s a violation of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose!) or “What do you hope to accomplish today?” (To apply public pressure and raise awareness!). Instead, I decided to ask a new question: How did you get here? What gave you your voice?
I first spoke with Maya Mackey. She is a Plan II freshman and government major, who recently became president of the Texas chapter of Voters of Tomorrow, an organization focused on encouraging young people to vote. She also assisted the original organizer, Madison Fail, in advertising the protest. Mackey is nothing if not the “take charge” type, as evidenced in everything from her tone of voice to her posture, as she distributed voter registration forms to everyone who would take one. Her voice came from her ambition:
Holliman: So you seem to have a knack for organizing things and being very grassroots. How long have you been doing this for and to what extent?
Mackey: I’ve been doing political organizing probably since my sophomore year of high school. I was the chair of my city’s youth commission, so I did a lot of youth work. I’ve also done events organizing before that’s not necessarily political. So yeah, I’ve been doing grassroots work for a long time, protesting on the Capitol and phone banking, stuff like that. Can’t really remember how I got into it. I just kind of found it and was like, “Pretty cool.”
Holliman: And then getting involved with creating the Texas chapter of Voters of Tomorrow, what was that like?
Mackey: So, it was actually on Twitter. I’ve been working with the organization within a sub-chapter, which we’re no longer operating. … Through that, I found an opportunity to launch the regional district in Texas because they didn’t have one, and Texas is one of the battlegrounds for voter suppression.
I also spoke with Jillian Holt, who eagerly volunteered when I asked for interviewees. She’s a freshman with a passion for the environment and a great amount of hope for the next generation. Her voice came from a sense of compassion for those who were different from her:
Holliman: So as you’ve grown and as you’ve made it to UT, how do you think that your ability to speak on the issues that you really care about has grown with you?
Holt: I’m from a town close to Houston, which is a pretty diverse city, and I think actually getting myself out of my hometown, into the city, and meeting so many people from other communities and other cultures and stuff, it really broadens your knowledge. I think a lot of people that are pro-life don’t do it, they don’t immerse themselves in other cultures like that. I love how everyone here has different views. There are so many places to learn outside of school here. And I love that. And I think that makes it easier to speak up because you see so many people able to speak up about what they believe and it makes you want to do the same.
Thirdly, I spoke with Ian Middaugh, a first-year computer science major, who seemed to really know his facts when it came to Senate Bill 8. He was fast-talking, yet careful with his words. That is, until the questions changed, and I was lucky enough to see the vulnerability behind his intelligence. His voice came from the support of a loved one:
Holliman: As you’ve grown older and as you’ve come up to university-level, how have you found that voice that has brought you to be at this protest today?
Middaugh: Honestly, my grandma. I definitely went through a depressive state in my senior year of high school, and she helped bring it out of me and remind me that I have a voice, and I should share my experiences … and, you know, try to encourage others.
Finally, I spoke to Titan Ferguson. Participating in the protest was common sense to him, even as a man. He wasn’t a showboat with his words and kept himself cool and collected. He didn’t come to the protest with facts, ready for a debate, but with a heart ready to do what he felt to be the right thing. His voice came from his upbringing:
Holliman: So as you’ve grown and as you come to UT, a very cosmopolitan university, how have you built a voice with which you feel like you can be here today?
Ferguson: I don’t know. It’s a very open place and you can kind of just be yourself here. And I think, I don’t know, it’s just the perfect place to kind of voice these kinds of opinions and just stand up for women.
Holliman: And was there anything in your upbringing that might have swayed you one way or another, or that might have affected your worldview?
Ferguson: I grew up with a single mom, so my mom just always instilled compassion and sympathy towards others. Women have it hard, so you just gotta support them when you can.
Every student I interviewed was a freshman who, despite the stress and confusion of a new environment, felt empowered to gather together for what they believe. Their stories were unique, but they all found inspiration to become who they are from someplace outside of themselves. Their compassion and courage were not born out of nothing, but out of their experiences growing up on an ever-evolving planet. Whether it be a family member or an extracurricular activity, the world built these students, and the world continues to be shaped by them. All of the personal circumstances that molded them, though varied, led each of them to that same spot, that same green lawn. Washington loomed overhead, and they marched onward, together.