RoleModel is an interview series highlighting badass individuals.
While most high school students are busy trying to pass their classes and have fun, Deja Foxx was taking on Republican senators.
The activist and organizer was only 16 years old when Trump signed legislation to cut funding to Planned Parenthood and similar health service providers in 2017. Foxx, a longtime proponent of women’s reproductive rights, made headlines when she confronted her state senator at a town hall meeting.
“I’m a young woman; you’re a middle-aged man. I’m a person of color, and you’re white. I come from a background of poverty,” she began, addressing Arizona senator Jeff Flake, “I’m wondering, as a Planned Parenthood patient and someone who relies on Title X, who you are clearly not, why is it your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood and to choose no co-pay birth control, to access that?”
It was badass.
Today, the 18-year-old student is more determined than ever. Currently studying at Columbia University in New York City, Foxx utilizes every spare moment organizing for a variety of social causes. I had the opportunity to talk with her about sexual health, politics, and her bright, bright future.
The following is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and where you’re from?
Foxx: I was raised by a single mother in Tucson, Arizona. Me and my mom, all throughout my life, really struggled to make ends meet. By the time I was eleven, domestic abuse entered our household. Things had gotten so bad that I moved out — I bounced around, stayed with friends, and ultimately ended up sort of landing with my boyfriend at the time and his family. And they are a really amazing family. Monolingual Spanish speakers and Mexican immigrants, and that experience — moving out of my house, across town, living with a family that’s completely different than the one that I kind of grew up with — really helped me see the world in a different way and understand community.
So I ended up living with them, for about three years, and then my senior year I applied to college, got into Columbia University, and I’m now the first person in my family to attend college.
That’s phenomenal. Congratulations, really.
How old were you when you said you moved in with your boyfriend’s family?
I was about 15.
So this was all going down in like middle — or I guess early high school?
Sophomore year [of high school], yeah.
Obviously you did amazing in school, you’re going to one of the best universities in the country. But did you ever feel like your home life was affecting your ability to perform in school?
Oh, absolutely. Now that I’m at Columbia, I have a dorm and a meal plan, and the past semester I got two A minuses and three As, which ended up at a 3.8 [GPA] — those are the best grades I’ve ever gotten. I mean, usually when people get to college in their first semester, they kinda get shocked with like a Oh, I used to be perfect in high school and now what’s happening? But for me, it was the other way around.
Now that I have this stability that I’ve never been afforded, my grades were better than ever. And I can say that in sophomore year [of high school] my grades were the worst that they ever were. But more than that, I think that where I really began to struggle in sophomore year was socially.
I was struggling so much at home, and because the type of school I went tended to be wealthier, middle class white students: two parents at home kinda thing, and I felt like no one knew what I was going through. And none of my teachers were people of color — not a single one throughout high school. So I looked around and felt like no one knew what I was going through and no one understood. And that just reflected poorly onto my social life, and that was really tough.
I was in student council my freshman year, and my sophomore year I didn’t get re-elected. It was because I was tired of pretending like I was white, like I was rich. I’d just moved out of my moms house and it was just getting to be too much. So because I couldn’t pretend and couldn’t fit in anymore, I didn’t win that election. I felt so unappreciated, but after kinda not making it back into student council, I was forced to reevaluate what leadership could mean to me, and that’s when I got involved with Planned Parenthood and sex ed. So it ended up working out just fine.
What was your inspiration for getting involved with sex ed?
For me, it was really that moment where I was sitting in a health class, and my white male professor was breezing through this PowerPoint on contraception, because “You guys go to [name of school], so you already know this stuff.” And what he meant was that, because our school was selective and [made up of] primarily wealthier, white students with parents at home, that everyone in this class should already know these things. Their parents should have already taken the time to teach it to them, and if they haven’t — they will.
I sat there thinking like, That’s not me and no one knows it, no one’s gonna go out of their way to help me. I realized in that moment that, because sex education in Arizona lacked regulation — it varied literally from district to district, school to school, classroom to classroom — that students like me were the ones falling through the cracks. It was students that didn’t have parents at home, students who were first generation Americans whose parents didn’t have the knowledge, who were too busy working to teach them.
I took that moment and instead of just getting angry about it, I got active. I started organizing my peers. We went to school board meetings every Tuesday, and we’d get up during community call and tell our stories, about how sex ed was disadvantaging us in our school district. And after six months, we won that campaign. So for the next two years, I sat on a board, helping write new curriculum for my school district that was not as awful as the one we had before. Yeah, so that was kind of where I got my start.
I think that’s really brave of you. It’s so obvious that our healthcare system, especially sexual health care, is broken and disproportionately puts low income, people of color at a disadvantage. What are some steps you think our country needs to make change the system?
For me the future of sex education is peer education. Back home [during] my senior year, I helped start a group called the El Rio Reproductive Health Access Project (RHAP). What is amazing about this group is that it hires young people ages 14-20 that represent the people we serve. So these are teen moms, these are people of color, first generation Americans, homeless people like me, and we train them to be peer sex educators, and we train them to be community organizers. And every week in my hometown, they still host free teen clinics at our community health centers.
At these free teen clinics, young people come in — we even send them Ubers and Lyfts to make sure they can get there — we feed them and once they are there, they can access any method of birth control and STI testing [at no cost to them].
So this past year, the El Rio Reproductive health access project helped around 1600 young people in my community, who otherwise wouldn’t have relieved reproductive health care. I think it’s over 250 of those young people received long acting reversible methods, so will be good for the next few years. And on top of that we’ve trained, I think it’s around 15 young people, we’ve provided these leadership opportunities to young people who are traditionally excluded from leadership, who are excluded from these positions where there entrusted with the responsibility of being a leader, because people think that they can’t be. So we’ve been able to train, hire and pay, create these leadership avenues for 15 young people who otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to that.
I think that’s amazing. That’s the way you fix the system, start with the foundation!
And what I think is really interesting is there’s no one size fits all solution, because I think that, with sex education, it really matters the community you’re in. Like community driven solutions, I think are the most effective. I feel like if we could just involve community members in finding solutions [to issues regarding sexual health care], everyone would be doing a whole lot better.
I agree with that. Because, for example, if you’re in a specific religious community, that’s going to come with very specific barriers for talking about sex ed or getting the right information.
Yeah, my community is a heavily, heavily immigrant community, and so it’s really important for us to respect and make culturally relevant curriculum. Also when we’re looking at barriers to access; understanding that some of those barriers do come from family, and addressing that in a way that’s authentic.
I remember the first time when we met, you told me that you were attending Columbia, and then we started talking about higher education and [how it can be] very elitist and inaccessible. What do you think are some steps we can take to combat that and to make it a more even playing field?
When I look back at the work I’ve done around reproductive justice, so much of it is actually tied to my own journey, trying to make it to higher education. Whether it be sex education — same with disadvantaging me and someone who doesn’t have parents at home — or whether it be birth control access [as] someone that had to live with her boyfriend at the time, all of that tied into my larger goal of wanting to attend a university.
So I think in terms of reproductive justice, it’s inextricably tied to social mobility and educational opportunity. Whether through sex education or birth control access, both of those are components to how we make sure that [someone with] the most diverse set of experiences has the opportunity to realize their potential. So much potential is lost through poverty and it’s so incredibly unfair. I’ve realized through coming to the Ivy league’s, that rich people are not just inherently smarter or more creative or more talented, it’s just that they’ve had the tools to realize that.
What’s your dream job?
My dream job is president. It’s taken a lot for me to be able to say that, to get to place where I’m not nervous. So yeah, long term I want to be President of the United States, I want to be someone who shakes things up, who is representative of an experience that’s never held office. I want to bring communities and pieces of experiences along with me that have just never had space there.
I mean, you have my vote. I always think about, when I’m thinking about politics [and] today’s lack of privacy with the internet — just everything you put out there is accessible.
Oh girl, I think about that every day.
I’m wondering if you have any tips for younger people who haven’t even thought about [privacy online]?
Yeah. I think about this literally everyday. And it’s actually really scary because… so after graduation, I plan to go back home and run for office, back to the community that invested in me. But, because I plan to run so young — and on top of that, our generation is the first generation to have their entire life documented —I’ll be one of the very first people to have to deal with the repercussions of [social media] in a political sense. And ya know, [people] watch the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez video where she was dancing — it was very benign — and people wanted to attack her for it. That’s just one example of the beginnings of this phenomena that we’re going to experience in the next ten to twenty years. Where our politicians will be held to a different standard of accountability because they will be accountable for the things they have done their entire lives.
So I got really lucky. When I was 15 and I was fighting for comprehensive sex education, someone wrote a really nasty article about me, and it was titled “Deja Foxx is a Planned Parenthood Nazi.” I was really young, and I read the article and linked were photos from my Twitter. These were older photos, photos of me and a friend out at a party, you know, red solo cup in hand — nothing crazy. But the article was like, What do you think Deja Foxx is doing here? She thinks she’s a community leader, but look what she does on the weekends.
And in that moment I realized I was held to a different standard of accountability as someone who wanted to be a leader in my community. So I went through and fixed everything, which was then beautiful because when I went viral, I already had this clean slate, acting online accordingly.
Do you feel like you have to be very careful about what you’re putting out on your Instagram?
Yeah, I walk a thin line, between trying not to cave into respectability politics and being like, Fuck that. I can actually be a well-rounded college student and also be a gorgeous young woman, all while still being smart, all while still being representative of my community and a leader and someone who is passionate about issues and involved.
But also [with that], trying to remember that because I am a woman of color, I can’t get away with the things that white men get away with. It just is not the reality right now. Logistically, if I want to be in office in 5 years or 6 years from now, I do have to behave in a certain way. But it’s a fine line to walk ’cause like fuck your respectability politics, but also like… I really do want to get elected one day.
You recently started working at a nearby homeless shelter, while you’re a full time student. How do you find the time with studying and do you have any advice for other students looking to get involved in their communities while they’re in school?
Getting involved in your community while you’re in school is really kind of hard, because as someone who was really invested in their community back home, having to leave that community really hurt. It forced me to redefine what community meant to me, and I think that a lot of college students have to do that. They’re moving into a space that’s usually going to be different from the demographic or socioeconomic makeup of the place where they’re from.
My best advice is to think about community in a broader sense — who are your people? Who has the same experience as you?
For me, my people are first Gen., low income students. So I started organizing around that on campus. We have one of these things called special interest communities at Columbia — a LGBTQIA+ special interest community or Latinx special interest community — and they have a physical space on campus, in addition to funding, and the recognition of being a special interest community. First generation low income students have never had that recognition on Columbia’s campus. So me and my friends first semester organized around it, got the recognition and the physical space for next year. That’s just one example of what redefining what community means to you. It’s the same with the work I do at the homeless shelter, where I had to redefine who shared my experience, and when I thought about my own experiences with homelessness and wanting to give back to that experience, stay tied to it, and stay grounded in it — it just seemed like a natural next step. My school has something called the Housing Equity Project, so they were able to link me [with] this homeless shelter. And now I’m able to spend Thursday nights there. I go there at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays and I spend the night. Then I get up at 5 a.m., head out by 6 and then I get back to school for my 8:40 a.m. on Fridays.
What’s your role at the homeless shelter?
According to New York Law, to keep the shelter open, they have to have someone there at all times who is not receiving services. So I’m that person.
I spend the night and a men’s shelter, so it’s just me and the guys. They are so self-sufficient. It’s in a synagogue, so these Jewish women cook awesome dinners for all of us and then they leave and I stay. And the guys do the dishes, they clean up, they do everything because they’re self-sufficient and they’re regular people and they’re responsible for that living space because it’s theirs. I just kind of sit there and talk to them, hang out with them. It’s really pretty easy. New York law requires someone to be there, and I have the time because I’m a college student, so why not give them the opportunity to just have that space be their own?
I think that’s amazing — [you’re following] your mission in every aspect of your life.
Absolutely. I believe activism isn’t something you do 9-5, it just who you are. And you have to make it a part of your character. My activism is a piece of who I am. My organizing is my mindset.
Is there a certain piece of advice you’ve been given that’s really stuck with you?
You’re not defined by your productivity, and just because you’re not turning out tons of interviews or maybe you didn’t get that paper done on time — if you are a person, you’re still valuable.
We like to round KAAST interviews out some more personal, like dating-ish questions. Any advice for dating with a busy schedule?
Oh girl, I’m the worst about this. Me and my boyfriend lived together for like 3 years, so I was practically married. I came to college and we ended up breaking up, but I came here and was like, oh my god, how do I act? Like I literally don’t know how to act around men. I have begun to explore that phase of my life, and I’ve actually found that so many men disrespect my fucking time, and I don’t play that. And I let them know.
So dating with a busy schedule, I would say requires really good communication on both ends. Be honest and upfront with yourself, be honest and upfront with other people, especially around how much time you can give and how much energy you can give.
Do you have any advice for someone going through a breakup?
Uh, yeah. My breakup was tough. I’ve actually been through a lot of breakups in my life, a lot of long term relationship breakups. I’m a big believer that everything in this world is happening the way it is supposed to. Breaking up with someone, even though it feels like it, is actually not the end of the world. And everything that seems like a challenge can be turned into an opportunity for growth. It’s just about the way you look at it.
and breakups are a beautiful opportunity to [ask yourself] what did I learn in that relationship, how is it shaping me as an individual and how can I be my best individual self now? Breakups will teach you that the only person that’s gonna be around forever — or has to be around forever — is you. So your relationship with someone else can never be more important than your relationship with yourself.