Since starring in High School Musical eleven years ago, Monique Coleman has been a fierce advocate for young activists around the world. After attending the Women’s March on Washington, Monique caught up with us to share why she marched, her experience working with young activists, and how she’s going to continue to take action moving forward.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience at the women’s march and what inspired you to come out to DC to participate?
Monique: My experience was electrifying. I have never felt that kind of energy or activism in my entire life. It’s extremely gratifying to participate in something that feels bigger than yourself and that’s exactly what the march was for me! When I was younger, I think I was secretly jealous of other generations and their movements. It seemed like people not only stood for something, but they took action. My generation was introduced to reality TV, social media, and the overall rise of the internet. As a result, there’s been this kind of internet activism that takes place. Movements happen, but they’re often viral or digital. That’s what made the Women’s March so special. People from all over the world got off their phones & took to the streets. Men, women, and children representing many diverse groups came together to stand up; not just for the rights of women, but for human rights. It was a proud moment for all of us.
The reason why I came to the March in DC instead of LA is honestly because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)! Years from now, when I look back and see photos of this historical moment, I wanted to be able to point and say “I was in there, I was a part of THAT.” As an actress as well as an activist, it’s really important to me to lend my voice as a citizen and as a part of civil society; not only the entertainment community. I was also grateful to participate in the action and advocacy training day that happened the day after the March. Mobilizing isn’t enough. We need to know where to channel our energy to have lasting impact.
You have done so much for young people, especially young women, from being named the first ever UN Youth Champion for the International Year of Youth, to your involvement with It’s On Us, which really speaks to the importance of investing in young people. What has been your most rewarding experience working with young activists so far?
Monique: Wow, that’s a very difficult question. I don’t think I can answer it specifically because I have so many. But I think that IS the answer, right? I have had an immeasurable amount of encounters with young people mobilizing on different issues and making actionable change. I think the It’s On Us campaign is a prime example of that. In only two years, the number of students that they have activated and the number of campuses that they’ve reached is incredible. I’m an Executive Producer of a short film called Distortion, which addresses body image and a sexual assault in a compelling way. We feel so fortunate for our partnership with It’s On Us, because we know that getting the film into the hands of young people will inspire them to make a real impact. And it has. We did a screening at NYU in September of last year and it was wonderful to see the intersection of my work as an actress meeting my work as an activist. The kids that grew up watching High School Musical are in college now. To have been “part of their childhood”, as they often say, and now getting to facilitate dialogue about an issue that affects far too many on college campuses means a lot.
I also think the idea of campus chapters is part of what’s so impressive about young people and advocacy. There’s a built-in network for students and tons of opportunity for leadership. Whether it be It’s On Us, Girl Up, She’s the First, or I Am That Girl – these are organizations that are mobilizing young people for good. It’s exciting to plug into these organizations and to see the impact that they’re making for themselves and also for generations to come.
Aaron Sherinian at UN Foundation coined a term “philanthro-teen,” and I think that’s a perfect description. From my experience in my short time on this planet, I think that this generation is awake and really understands that the choices that we make have lasting consequences. They prioritize sustainability and transparency over blind financial gain and seem genuinely concerned with the long term effects of our decisions. Previously, when the US was just growing exponentially, we may have failed to realize the impact that certain choices were going to have on the environment or future generations. Young people now are very exposed to the realities, and technology has made it impossible to remain in the dark.
How do you plan to continue your activism moving forward, and what advice would you give to those who are new to the movement?
Monique: For me, activism is everyday. I wake up and I think about what I can do? Who can I serve? On a personal level, I know I can be mindful of the roles that I take in films and on television to ensure that I’m advocating for diverse female representation within entertainment industry. I also can mobilize my friends to not just demonstrate but also advocate. It’s awesome to make a statement but as influencers, people look to us. So, I plan to consistently educate myself and share that information. Acting is my passion, but advocacy is my purpose. I’ve made a commitment to use my platform to amplify the voices of other people and to stand for the causes that are relevant to our times. For me, this isn’t a moment, this is my life. The work that I did as UN a Youth Champion was just the beginning.
As for what you can do…..
Start where you are. Look around for what’s available to you and identify where your passion truly lies. Contact organizations like The United Stated of Women, It’s On Us, She’s the First, or any organization that represents what you’re interested in. Connect with them, become informed, get involved, and then look for ways to integrate activism into your day to day life. I made the mistake of thinking that I had to abandon my passion in order to pursue advocacy and that I had to make a sacrifice. That isn’t true. This is a long journey and you will inevitably experience setbacks. By making advocacy a part of your daily experience, you lessen the risk of you burning out. It’s very easy to get discouraged or to feel like your efforts are not making an impact or that your voice doesn’t matter. It does. Your voice matters!! In time, our collective efforts will move the needle. But, the sustainable impact we seek won’t happen in the time it takes to make a social media post. So, be patient. Persistent. But, patient. Make a commitment to the cause, roll up your sleeves, lace up your boots, (or if you’re like me, put on your heels) lead with your heart, trust your gut, and never ever give up.