Director of the Youth Engagement Fund, Democracy Alliance
When he was teaching high school students in Senegal after graduating from Howard University, Austin Belali noticed a striking similarity between his students and the young people he knew in the U.S. Both were anxious about their futures, struggling to understand their “purpose and significance in the world.” The Atlanta, Ga. native returned to the States determined to work on eliminating barriers for marginalized young people. As director of the Youth Engagement Fund at Democracy Alliance, Belali, 29, puts his passion to work by building a donor community committed to engaging young people in civic and political life, with the goal of securing a permanent progressive majority.
Did your commitment to fighting injustice start at an early age or did it begin when you went to Senegal?
I faced a lot of discrimination growing up because the governor of Georgia took the Confederate [symbol] off the state flag, and a lot of my white friends at the time stopped being my friends. I faced racial backlash because they thought the flag was a symbol of their heritage and pride but underneath all of that there is a story about slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and blacks just knowing their role. When you experience discrimination in your formative years, it makes you sensitive to the suffering of others. I felt called to do something about it and dedicated all of my life to the cause of progressive social change and breaking down barriers that keep people from being their God-given greatest selves.
What do you think some of these barriers are?
Ultimately the biggest barrier is how oppression is internalized by communities of color, immigrants and women. When discriminatory things happen to you at an early age, and continue to happen, you sometimes internalize the self-hate, and that’s the hardest to change because policy can’t touch it. It’s a problem of the heart and the mind. A lot of why we invest in community organizing at the Youth Engagement Fund is because we think that empowerment is a way to break down the internal oppression that has been built up in marginalized communities for so long.
What do you think of Black Lives Matter?
I’m a supporter. It’s really important. This is not a new struggle. It goes back to the Civil War or before the struggle for black folks to have dignity and respect and freedom in our society. BLM’s strength is that they are [telling] the country how all lives matter and are valuable and that all people are created equal. It’s not just black activists who are part of that movement, it’s people of all races. Young people across the country are seeing the fight against systemic racism as part of a larger struggle to restore pathways to the American Dream.
What is your advice for young people wanting to get involved?
Young people with inherited wealth shouldn’t sit on the sidelines. They have a responsibility and an opportunity to craft a legacy that’s about advancing people’s rights and they shouldn’t be shy about stepping into that legacy. This country has a long history of people extracting wealth from others, but what does it look like to use your wealth to empower others?
This interview is featured in the September 2016 issue of Washington Life.