‘My Experience Is My Expertise’: Deja Foxx on Being a Presidential Campaign Staffer at 19, Influencers, and Sexuality in Politics
“Why would you deny me the American dream?”
Deja Foxx’s biting question to former Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona at a town hall meeting in 2017, coupled with her impassioned defense of reproductive rights, launched Foxx as a leading political voice of her generation when she was only 16 years old. (It’s not the only time a viral confrontation with Flake put a left-leaning activist in the national spotlight.)
Four years later, Foxx has built her own personal brand as a young, fearless advocate, while also working as a model, going to school at Columbia University, working full time, and just unequivocally being, in her words, an “authentic version of myself.”
Something about that energy caught the eye of Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, and Foxx joined the team as a full-time staffer, working on digital organizing and messaging. “The internet has evolved so much since even 2016, and so I got to do groundbreaking, innovative, exciting, imaginative work online with people who are both community builders and content creators,” says Foxx.
And with Harris soon to be sworn in as vice president, Foxx is feeling like the issues that she’s lived — growing up with a single mom, at times in public housing, at times homeless — will get the attention they deserve.
“In so many ways, I see myself represented in her and her story and her experience,” says Foxx. “It takes a lot to invest in a 19-year-old and put them in your headquarters and say they’re going to do a great job and they’re going to do innovative and different work and I trust them to do that. And taking a chance on me, I think speaks volumes.”
Rolling Stone spoke with Foxx just before Christmas (as she was wrapping up her final exams) about the election, what it means to be an “influencer,” and sexuality in politics. This interview is part of Rolling Stone’s “Next Wave” series on leaders who are shaping the future.
I want to talk about when you became Vice President-elect Harris’s youngest staffer as she ran for the Democratic nomination. What did she have you doing and what kind of key things did you learn?
I took my sophomore year off of college and withdrew from school, moved to Baltimore, a city I’d never even been to, and started working out of the headquarters for Kamala Harris. I worked as the influencer and surrogate strategist on her digital team, full-time, out of the headquarters. I was the youngest on her campaign, across any of the campaigns at my level of leadership, and one of the youngest in modern history. And what I got to do every day was explore how we mobilize organic digital communities. So the folks who have one follower to a million followers, how do we empower them with the messages they need to be successful surrogates for us and our message and our campaign and our candidate?
With the evolution of the internet, we’ve had a new term come about: “influencer.” And a lot of people misunderstand that or too easily dismiss it. Both with the Harris campaign and in your own political and personal life, how would you describe the role of an influencer?
I feel like I get asked this question all the time and I try to remind folks that it’s not really decided by how many followers you have, right? Each and every one of us has the potential to influence the people around us. And each and every one of us, when we sign up to make an Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, has really opted into curating information for the community that follows us, whether that’s, like I said, one person or one million people, we have a responsibility to that community to share good, true, accurate and positive, uplifting information. And so I think each and every one of us kind of needs to take on this responsibility of an influencer, especially in the digital disinformation age that we’re living in, and understand that we have both the responsibility and the power to influence the people in our personal networks that we’re engaging with online.
Now, you’re not yet 21, if I’m correct? So you have all these origin stories that so many people much older than you would not have, all these different ways it seems like you could have gotten into politics. Your childhood in Tucson, that first visit to Planned Parenthood, your questioning of Republican Jeff Flake, who was your senator at the time. When did you first get involved in politics or interested in politics and why?
For me, my life has always been political. I grew up with a single mom who didn’t go to college, who bounced between jobs. I grew up in Section 8 housing and on food stamps. And my life has always been dictated by decisions made often outside of my reach. And so I didn’t opt in to a political life, a political life chose me. And honestly, when I started really getting active, fighting for sex education in my school district at 15, it was because it was affecting me personally, because I didn’t have parents at home to fill in the gaps in the sex education system that was last updated in the 80s and didn’t even mention consent. This was about me and my life. And every day when I fight, it still is. You know, people always talk about like “you made it” when you get into a school like Columbia or get a great job. But in truth, I’m still very much dealing with the consequences of that upbringing. And the everyday impacts on my life, the life of my family and my community members. And so this fight and what is political has always been very personal for me.
The leaders, the press, all the voters out here, people are trying to find real solutions. How should those involved in politics better understand poverty?
I mean, I think the best education in poverty is to have lived it. And that being said, I think we need to empower diverse voices. Folks who have come through diverse experiences and bring a level of perspective that really is expertise. That’s what I like to think of, that my experience is my expertise. And though I don’t have a degree, I don’t have a doctorate, I know I am an expert in my experience and I walk into every room owning that. But to make way for diverse leaders, we have to be intentional about our inclusivity, right. Maybe that means paying our youth leaders and our interns. Maybe that means putting together a better benefits package. Or maybe that means recruiting at schools that aren’t just Ivy League. There are so many ways that we could all be doing better at creating the kind of environments that really welcome and can help diverse leaders from interesting perspectives thrive.
Now, you weren’t old enough to drive to Planned Parenthood at 15 when you did, but you did what you needed to do. What did Planned Parenthood help you with, and what did that experience teach you?
Planned Parenthood has done so many things for me. I am both a patient and an advocate, and they have supported me in both ways. So when I was 15, I was experiencing what one in 30 teens in the U.S. experience, and that’s hidden homelessness. It can look like bouncing around, sometimes living with extended family or not having a stable home of your own. I was living with my boyfriend at the time and his family and I, like you said, drove our little shared car 45 minutes to the nearest Planned Parenthood where I was able to access birth control pills at absolutely no cost to me. And it changed everything. It gave me power over my body and therefore my future. It really opened the doors for me to be able to think about something like college. To be able to think about being the first in my family to go to college and maybe not just to go to college, but go to a school like Columbia, go on a full ride, move across the country, to dream bigger for myself.
But also they have a wonderful advocacy team who does an amazing job of organizing. And so when I was 15, an organizer from Planned Parenthood stepped up. This was when I didn’t win my student council re-election, I didn’t make it on the volleyball team because I had, quote, a bad attitude, and I was feeling very adrift. I didn’t feel like a leader. And this person saw me, saw my potential and pushed me to see it, too. And got me active telling my story at school board meetings, bringing my friends along to do the same, and seeing how my story could create real change around sex education and birth control access.
And in the process of doing that, you started to work with El Rio Reproductive Health Access Project. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
El Rio RHAP is one of the things I am most proud of. I’m most proud of it because it really was the solution that I needed. And I got to build it. We brought together a team of young people who were the most impacted: teen moms, folks who were formerly incarcerated, homeless youth like me. And we came together and asked, what does our community need? And we found that we really needed these teen clinics where teens were at the forefront, were the ones teaching the sex education, bringing their friends in. And we train these youth leaders to become sex educators, to work in the clinics and get paid to do it. And so in that way, we were both building the leadership opportunity that I needed when I was 15 or 16 and building the service that I needed when I was that same age. It really is the thing I’m most proud of to have built. And also to understand the timeline, I was like 17 when I was building this program alongside these other leaders, and I knew I wanted to leave and go off to college. And so this was the mark I got to leave on my hometown. And we’ve since served thousands of young people, which in a small town like mine, is the kind of thing that changes a community for generations.
It’s, of course, not the only thing you’ve founded or helped to co-found, there’s the GenZ Girl Gang, there’s a bunch of other things. Can you tell us a little bit about how you get these things started and and how you get help that you need to maintain them?
Founding El Rio RHAP was a very different experience than founding GenZ Girl Gang. When we founded El Rio RHAP, we really had adults to help support us. There was funding already in place and we got to just dream big and then work to make it happen. With something like GenZ Girl Gang on the other hand, we really had this vision first, this community first and now are ever-evolving, trying to figure out how do we build this to keep matching the needs of a generation that’s getting older, that’s entering the workforce, on social media platforms that literally change every day.
And I think the thing that as a founder I’ve learned is that you have to build a team that plays into your weaknesses. Folks that can have strength where you maybe don’t. And really for me, the metrics and the goals at the end of the year aren’t what I’m striving for. I really strive for a sense of doing things differently, of the building new kinds of work, cultures, communities, strategies, the kinds of things that really sustain a movement and sustain an organization.
I know obviously there’s got to be a lot of young people who are following you, who are inspired by what you’re doing. What kind of tips or pitfalls do you tell them to watch out for as they learn how to become more effective organizers?
When I’m talking to young people about where to get started, which is the most common question I get, I really encourage people to start personal. I’ve been doing this work for over five years now. Which at the age of 20 is sort of surprising. But I started out as a volunteer. I started out doing tabling events and door-knocking and canvasing. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because it has given me the framework that I need to be successful as I’ve taken on these other leadership roles. And so I would tell young people to start personal, to think about their personal story. What does your day to day life look like and how can that impact other people? What are you seeing in the news that’s impacting you, your community, your neighborhood, your life? And then really think about your personal network. Who could you bring along? Your mom, your dad, significant other, your friends. How do you bring them into this work? Because if they care about you, they’re going to care about what you care about. And it really is as simple as that. That is where to start. Don’t feel like you have to start an organization or found something or be at the very forefront or in the headlines to be doing good work. It really doesn’t start that way often. It usually starts a lot smaller. And that’s OK.
So I want to go back to a moment you had during high school, when you questioned Jeff Flake. What did you ask Sen. Flake when you were 16? And why do you think that resonated with so many people? And what do you think it accomplished ultimately?
When I was 16, I went to a town hall for my then-senator Jeff Flake, who was a Republican, who had just voted against Title 10, which was the avenue through which I received birth control at no cost to me. And what I asked him was why he, as a white man, is making decisions about me and my body and, ultimately, why he would deny me the American dream? To have control over my body, my future, to go on to higher education? And I subsequently asked him to support Planned Parenthood, where I had received services. And I think that this moment resonated with people, not only because the fight over our bodies and our future is one that we’ve been fighting for generations and decades, but because it touched into a larger issue of representation. That the people making decisions about us don’t live lives like us, don’t look like us. And so as I stepped into this political work, the candidates who I choose to support, put myself and my skills behind, are the people who listen to people. Are the people who come from diverse perspectives and experiences. Because the American electorate is changing. It’s changing fast and our representatives are not keeping up.
You mentioned the power of representation. We’re about to have Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States. What is the power of the representation that she offers, and other women of color in positions of power offer?
Yeah, Kamala Harris is a first-generation American. She’s a woman of color. She was raised by a single mom. And so in so many ways, I see myself represented in her and her story and her experience. And she is someone who deeply invests in the women around her, and particularly women of color. And I think as we look to these women who are taking up space and becoming the first and walking into these rooms in which folks like us have never been allowed, it’s really exciting because I know that they will bring others up and along with them.
We’re coming out of the Trump presidency, thank goodness. What do you think the long term effects of that will be on your generation of Americans?
What does this do to us? I’ve been asking this question for the past, who knows how long? What is Trump’s election going to do to us? What is the constant fear of climate change going to do to us? What is this pandemic going to do to Gen Z? I don’t know. Being the first generation to grow up with social media at the touch of our fingertips, what does that do to people? And I don’t know. And if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t make so many predictions.
One thing I hope to see is that our generation has had this political awakening. And people like me have been fighting since before Trump got in office and we’ll be fighting long after. And so I think in this moment, the real toll of the Trump presidency on our generation will be if we choose to recommit, we choose to recommit ourselves to the issues that matter and realize that this fight wasn’t won in one election. That there’s still so much work to be done and that we need to be at the forefront of it. We need to be making the digital strategies and changing the playbooks and really owning policies that are going to impact us the most, because we are going to inherit this earth. We’re going to inherit the future. And so I think hopefully Trump will have the impact of having galvanized a generation. But on a side note, I also hope that Trump, having run and won, will empower young folks, particularly black and indigenous, people of color, women, to look at their representatives and say, “why not me?” You know, if this guy can run and win, why not me? And I know that’s what I’m taking away from this presidency. When I saw him win at 16, I was like, why not me then?
You led the Ignite the Vote campaign after Vice President-elect Harris ended her campaign for president. What was that? And tell me a little bit about how young voters in particular got animated by it.
So, post-campaign, I was lost. Everything was awful. Anyone who’s worked on a campaign knows that that’s how you feel when it ends. But I decided, looking at this pandemic and seeing the way it was impacting non-profits, that I really wanted to take these digital skills that I had and put them to use there. And so Ignite had this whole entire plan around doing this cross-country bus tour to ignite the vote, which obviously wasn’t going to happen this year. And so I stepped in and I was like, “Hey, what if I helped you build an influencer plan, a strategy, a campaign that could work in place of this?” And they were like, “Go ahead, here’s a budget.” And they trusted me, again, as a young person to run it. And I looked at what I already saw in the field. And so much of the get-out-the-vote campaigns are so centered around celebrity. It’s all about who’s the biggest name we can get to talk about voting and make voting cool. And I was like, that’s not how we talk to young people. Young people want to hear from the influencer they’ve been following since they were 12. They want to hear from that YouTuber who gives them skin care, but also talks about mental health. And they want to hear from the organizer they follow on Instagram and they pull up to every protest they share. Those are the people. Those are the content creators and the community builders and the digital relational organizers that they need to be hearing from, because those are the people they’re really invested in, the people they trust. And I think it made a real difference, not only in the numbers of young folks who were activated, but in proving that it is effective to mobilize these micro influencers, nano influencers, and these people who have deep relationships with the people who follow them.
You’re also a model and you’ve done paid ads, as you’ve mentioned, recent postpaid ads for vibrators on your Instagram feed. As you’ve gained a more prominent voice, how have you seen perceptions about sexuality and politics evolve or not? And how have you seen these ancient gendered misconceptions about female leadership and where it can emerge from evolve?
Fuck yeah. I make it a part of my activism to post up in my bikini on Instagram and with a vibrator, because why not? Because I want to show up as the most whole and authentic version of myself, because at the end of the day, I am going to be president and I expect to be a representative of people. And I think any perfect politician is just a very good liar. And I am not. I am a very full, wholly me, authentic person. And I think that that’s what people resonate with now. As we look at social media — as a young person, our entire lives have been filmed. So don’t try to fake it. Don’t try to front, because everyone has had a phone since they were 11 years old. I’ve had my Facebook since I was 11 and everyone has a camera at all times. So a new generation of politicians has to be a generation that is authentic and truthful and vulnerable and knows how to apologize and say I’m going to do better, because our entire lives have been documented.
And quite honestly, if we don’t accept that this is true, that young women will have made decisions about how they wanted to be perceived and what they posted and make space for them to be whole people, we will lose a generation of women as representatives. If we punish women for being their whole selves online when they were 15, 16, 17, we are going to lose out on the people that we need at the forefront. And I’m not willing to do that. So I’m setting an example today to say that you can be a whole person, you can be an influencer, you can be a model. You can post up with vibrators and you can work on a presidential campaign and you can be the whole and authentic version of yourself.
What’s the first thing that you would do if Covid-19 were eradicated tomorrow?
Oh, God, I hate to say this, I’d run away to the beach. I would. I would run away. I simply need a break. I need a fucking break. This year has been so hard. It’s so hard and I have to own that, but I’ve been feeling like, “Oh, it’s not that bad for me because I’m blessed to be working in digital. I’m blessed to be able to work for school remote.” But honestly, hard is hard. And this pandemic has been hard and this election was hard. And going to school and working full time is hard. And I’ll be the first one to tell you that this is neither a marathon nor a sprint, it is a relay race. And I got people that I can hand the baton off to because I built powerful leaders around me that I trust. So if Covid was gone tomorrow, I would simply run away. You would not hear from me for a few weeks.
Twenty years from now, what do you think your generation will be living like in America? What kind of world will you be occupying and what kind of world are you now trying to position yourself to lead?
Twenty years sounds pretty far to me, because that’s my entire life. That’s, like, double what I’ve already done. But in real life, 20 years is not so far down the line. And so I think we have to be realistic about the kind of world we can create in 20 years. But I’m going to tell you what my vision is, because that is what I work towards. And the world that I envision, that I want to live in, that I work toward is a world that is defined and characterized by choice. And I don’t just mean the choice if and when to have children, but the choice to raise those children in communities that are free of gun violence, that are free of police brutality or family separation. The choice to be able to access healthy foods. The choice to be able to choose if you go to college or not. One where people are empowered to make choices about their lives, and not false choices, like the choice between having a home or not. I want people to feel empowered and communities to have all of the resources that they need to reach their full potential. And I think that that starts with choice.
With President Joe Biden coming into office, what would be some of the advice that you’d give him?
I feel a little presumptuous giving advice to Joe Biden, but I guess the thing that I would share to any elected official is that people’s stories, people’s perspectives matter. No one person can be a representative of all people. The American experience is so diverse. And I think the more that our elected officials sit down with people who are living everyday lives, whose truths are different than theirs, and really strive to listen and understand, we’ll live in a better world. And so I think to surround himself with diverse perspectives, both at the very top of his leadership level, to the very bottom, to make space and time for constituents and their stories. And I’ll throw this one in there: to include more young people. To bring young people in and trust them to be leaders and trust them in their expertise.