Teenage activists are often some of the most powerful organizers out there.
Take Sage Grace Dolan-Sandrino, an 18-year-old Afro-Latinx artist, public speaker, and organizer who became an activist when she came out to the world as trans at the age of 13. Sage, who was in middle school at the time her transition began, wasn’t given the support she needed from school administrators. Instead of withdrawing from her school community, Sage decided to bring in an outside LGBTQ nonprofit and transform it, building her own public profile in the process. In the past five years, Sage has racked up an impressive number of achievements.
One of Sage’s greatest skills is that of an advisor. She regularly speaks to adults and professionals in the field on issues of gender identity, race, art, and education. She’s also a writer: By the age of 16, Sage had written multiple stories for Teen Vogue about gender identity and the trans community under the Trump administration. As a high school student, Sage served as an ambassador to the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, which works to improve educational outcomes for African Americans across all ages. She’s been a member of the Kennedy Center Youth Council, and she’s served on the Gender Spectrum National Youth Advisory Council, which helps to create more inclusive environments for teens.
Now a student at Bard College, Sage seeks to take her education, extensive experience on advisory councils, and deep understanding of trans issues into the art world.
Mashable spoke with Sage about the relationship between art and activism and how she plans to use film to bring marginalized communities into the spotlight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mashable: Tell me about your start in activism.
Sage Grace Dolan-Sandrino: Well, I consider myself an activist, but an artist first. One easy term for that is “citizen artist.” [Editor’s note: Citizen artists are people who see their artistic work as performing some kind of public service.]
I have been doing activism work since I came out as trans at 13 years old. When I first decided I needed to transition at school, I didn’t really have the support of my school. My school didn’t know what LGBTQ even meant at that time, and this is in 2013. The argument from the faculty in my middle school in Maryland was, “Just wait. You’re in eighth grade. Wait until this summer when you get to transition to high school. This is going to be too much of a distraction to the student body now.”
That was so frustrating for me. Because I was being asked to do something traumatizing, and nobody knew how heavy an ask that was to put on a trans student.
As time went on, I ended up being publicly outed. There were pictures sent around at school of my transition, which was happening at home. The choice to step into my identity was taken away from me. That gave me this push essentially to say, “Now this info has been out there, I’m no longer going to wallow.” The day after that, and every single day after that, I came to school transitioned.
Unfortunately, I did not get the support I needed from the school. I had to use this bathroom two flights down and across the courtyard. Teachers stopped letting me use the bathroom because I was taking so long.
So I thought, “I don’t want [what’s] happening to me to happen to another trans student.”
I took it upon myself at a very young age to get involved in activism, and I started sharing my story.
Mashable: What did your early involvement in the activist world look like?
SGDS: As a teenager, I got involved in the Human Rights Campaign. [Editor’s note: The Human Rights Campaign is one of the most prominent LGBTQ advocacy groups in the country.] Historically, the organization had been operating through a cis gay male-dominated lens. [Nonetheless] HRC came into my school and talked to some of my admins who hadn’t listened well about my needs and the needs of other LGBTQ students. Even after the HRC spoke to them, my school rejected sensitivity and inclusion training.
But HRC knew it was important to hear [and learn from] a trans student first-hand. So I began consulting and providing advice for them and on the boards of other organizations. I did work at the National Center for Transgender Equality, and became an ambassador for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. [Editor’s note: The National Center for Transgender Equality is a leading social justice advocacy organization for the trans community.]
Mashable: Where has most of your activism happened historically?
SGDS: Most of my advocacy happens inside boardrooms [including at HRC and as a member of various advisory councils], because it’s not always safe to do it on the street.
Mashable: You mentioned earlier that you identify as an artist first, but an artist with an activist lens. How have you grown into that role?
SGD: I advocate on a national level as a journalist. And I’ve really developed an artistic lens. I have an artistic mission to not only normalize trans identity, but to normalize and bring that level of authenticity into mainstream media. Before Pose, our stories were not being told to us, by us. Trans actors were not even cast as trans characters. I want to transform that even more. [Editor’s note: Pose is an FX television currently available on Netflix that features predominantly trans characters played by trans actors. Though Sage wasn’t a part of the show, she was inspired by it].
Now, I’m going to school for theater and storytelling. I see my art as an ally to activism. Because it’s ultimately the same mission: to normalize the trans community and bring authenticity to the stories we tell.
Mashable: What’s your advice to teen activists like yourself?
SGD: Get a seat at the table. Get a seat where there is money. To cis and straight folks, bring so many other trans and queer voices to the table. I’m an Afro-Latino trans youth activist. That doesn’t mean I’m the only voice. It doesn’t mean I have all of the answers.
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