Humanistic. Empathic. Persistent. These are just some of the ways to describe Empathy Alliance founder Sameer Jha, whose holistic approach to activism has proven both unique and effective within the field of social justice.
“I was bullied for being feminine” Jha said of their elementary and middle school years. Being both Asian American and queer made them a point of both homophobic and racial slurs growing up. It wasn’t until Jha switched high schools and joined the Gender & Sexuality Alliance that they found community and discovered their own form of queer pride. They started taking community action soon after.
Even in the progressive state of California, Jha tried to have an LGBTQIA-inclusive focus included in their elementary school’s curriculum, a request that was summarily denied by county officials. Undeterred, Jha switched gears and pushed their county officials further, meeting with them in person to propose the first-ever Pride event in their hometown of Fremont, CA. “It’s very hard for people to come at you with all these different tactics when you’re face to face with someone who maybe understands you in some way—except for this one part. Then it just becomes about, ‘Is this one part really that important to you? Does it really matter that much when you’re face to face with another human being?’” Jha told Cole Haan for their Innovator Series. Meeting with the same officials that denied their initial inclusive sex education proposal, Jha was able to put a face to the issues and injustices that queer youth experience everyday. Jha’s ambitions were finally realized when they won approval in 2018 and hosted the first Pride event in Fremont at the age of 16.
Since then, Jha hasn’t stopped making change. They’ve acted as the head of The Empathy Alliance, a non-profit that they founded at the age of 14. The organization aims to eradicate the bullying of LGBTQIA+ students by providing school administrators and teachers with the tools and resources they need to inform and enlighten students about gender identity and sexual orientation. Jha’s first major assignment with the Alliance was to provide these necessary tools to their former middle school in Fremont, where queer youth were still being intimidated by peers and unsupported by educators.
Jha’s efforts started small, with conversations about their own experience of bullying and the intolerance they met with in middle school. From those conversations, a Gay-Straight Alliance was formed at their old school. Jha expanded their efforts and worked with educators to provide queer literature in the school library, recreating classrooms as safe spaces and suggesting gender-inclusive training initiatives for educators. These efforts gained momentum, and by 2018, The Empathy Alliance found itself providing this curriculum to all 42 schools and 35,000 students within Jha’s hometown school district.
“For me, the biggest thing is that schools should be a place where every child feels safe,” Jha told Seventeen. Their advocacy has earned them a 2019 spot as a Youth Ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign and a 2018 Congressional Silver Medal.
Through The Empathy Alliance and with support from HRC, GLSEN and the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Jha published the 2018 guide “Read This, Save Lives,” a book that helps assist educators who want to start incorporating inclusivity work within their own education spaces. “I wanted this teachers’ guide to be accessible, but also really targeted to helping students, not coddling teachers,” Jha explained. “I wanted it to say, ‘This is what we need from you. This is what will save students’ lives.’” Through personal narratives and examples of safe spaces from established institutions, “Read This, Save Lives” guides readers toward creating necessary spaces for queer youth to be themselves and find community. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Jha published the book at the age of 16.
Currently, Jha is taking their advocacy work to Stanford University. “I don’t really have the voice of a student in school who can really understand what’s going on,” Jha says, “so I’ve been trying to figure out where to go from here.”
We can probably guess: big, big places. By using personal narratives to illustrate the power of empathy and inclusion, Jha exemplifies what it means to lead with your heart. ♦
INTO’s 20 Under 20 series celebrates Gen Z changemakers who are standing up and fighting for a better world. Read the full series here.