Alexandra Lehman Is Probably Your Future President

Alexandra Lehman signs on to our video call bright-eyed and cheery. Her energy is impressive, especially considering how jam-packed her schedule is. The 17-year-old New York City native seems to take after the pace of her city in that way. She’s the co-founder of the youth activism network Coalition Z. She’s a classically trained dancer who, for the past five years, has been regularly visiting underserved preschools to teach them the power of movement. She’s the catcher on her school’s varsity softball team. She’s also a member of her school’s model congress and parliamentary debate team. When Lehman sleeps remains a mystery.

At the forefront of Lehman’s work is Coalition Z, a progressive network that made a statement by launching on President Trump’s inauguration day with its own “day of action.” The organization now has more than 20 chapters across the country and is actively encouraging teens to become civically engaged — even if they can’t vote yet.

Lehman speaks with the intelligence and wit of a seasoned public servant. It’s immediately obvious that she has the charisma to lead a future generation. It’s less obvious that she’s actually still a senior in high school. Here, we talk with Lehman about Coalition Z, the biggest challenge of working with teens, and what it was like to walk in the March for Our Lives alongside the cast of Hamilton.

B+C: When did you realize Coalition Z was something young people needed?

Lehman: During the week of the [2016] election, I’d be walking down the hallways at my high school and overhear these heated and informed political debates. There was a very tangible sense of emotion. High schoolers had all of this interest and passionate energy, but they were so disenchanted with the political process because they felt as though they had no space carved out for them to participate.

There was a time when I was talking with my peers about certain policy decisions and one of them said, “Why are you guys even wasting your time on this? No one’s listening.” In that moment, I realized there needed to be some concrete platform for high school students to be able to participate in our democracy and have their voices heard and amplified.

B+C: How has living in New York City fueled your passion for activism?

Lehman: I live in Union Square in Manhattan, which is fantastic because it’s this big hot spot for activism where all these interesting groups of people come together. In the wake of the election, I remember sitting and doing my homework and I’d hear chanting, so I’d run out and join a protest. Every day on my way home, I get to stop and talk to people who are canvassing or working for really great organizations.

B+C: When you launched Coalition Z on Inauguration Day, you and your co-founders held a “Day of Action.” What did that entail?

Lehman: We had about 50 high school students come together and participate in a variety of different action stations. A lot of the work I’ve done through Coalition Z has been on issues of gender, particularly reproductive rights, so I organized a postcard avalanche. We had students go out into the streets in New York City with these postcards I designed supporting Planned Parenthood and addressed to Paul Ryan, essentially demanding that he not defund Planned Parenthood. We had more than 500 signatures and we sent those to his office. We also had some activities that addressed issues like climate change and civil rights.

B+C: How did it feel to see all your hard work in action that day?

Lehman: That was the first time when it all clicked. We had this idea and we’d been thinking a lot about ways in which we could actually make it happen. Standing in that room, looking around and seeing the faces of kids my own age looking back at me, it felt like we were onto something.

B+C: What role did Coalition Z play in the wave of student-led activism that occurred after the Parkland tragedy?

Lehman: We actually organized more than 65 schools to participate in the walkout. Then we followed that up with an evening of action. We had about 300 people come together — students, teachers, various activists — and we created an action packet that had call scripts for federal and state elected officials, as well as a list of private-sector companies that are involved in the accessibility of firearms. We even had some students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Facetime in, as well as one of the organizers of the New York March for our Lives.

B+C: What’s the proudest moment you’ve had since the launch of Coalition Z?

Lehman: Before the March for our Lives, one of [New York] Governor Cuomo’s staffers reached out to us and said, “The governor is looking to include some young people to lead the march, and we’d love to have you.” We marched right at the front, alongside the cast of Hamilton, with our big Coalition Z banner. In that moment, I was thinking back to when I designed the banner in my bedroom, hoping that maybe this would go somewhere and someone would see it. It felt like we had actually started to make a dent.

B+C: What’s been the biggest challenge of working with teens?

Lehman: There’s this really pervasive sense of apathy that infiltrates high schoolers’ social spaces, academic spaces, and political spaces. It’s considered uncool to really care because in doing so you expose yourself in a very vulnerable way that a lot of teenagers are not comfortable with. We’ve been really working to break down these walls and to make sure that students feel comfortable and safe and also empowered, and that they feel free in their ability to really engage wholeheartedly.

B+C: What do you think a more youthful point of view can bring to the political world?

Lehman: Young people aren’t as jaded with the political process. Right now, we’re seeing young people view politics not as something negative, but more as something that can be used as a source of empowerment. We are seeing tools of political and civic engagement being used to push ideas and issues that are not just the partisan back and forth, but something much greater.

There’s also a sense of youthful energy that’s magnified on a much more interconnected scale given the state of our technology right now. A lot of our communication and expansion has been over social media, and we’ve been able to use that to create a strong community.

B+C: In our current political climate, the divide between Democrats and Republicans feels extreme. As a co-founder of a progressive organization, have you had many discussions with other young people who hold views that are different than your own?

Lehman: Yes! Probably my best exposure to those with disparate political views was during the semester I spent at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, DC. The program really does an excellent job of bringing together students from all different backgrounds.

It turns out my closest friend from the program was a Republican. I learned to appreciate these people with complex backgrounds and interests rather than just thinking of them as this political label. I learned about their stories and how they informed their perspectives. That was a really important moment for me, to think about how we can have those connections and how they can be used to promote a dialogue that’s productive and collaborative.

B+C: What do you say to young women who have big ideas like you but aren’t sure how to go about achieving them?

Lehman: I would hope that young girls know that — while it may not seem this way — their future potential is limitless. Right now, we are seeing so many young women recognizing that power that lies in themselves. I guess it sounds sort of cheesy, but I really do think it’s important for girls to continue nurturing those dreams and those ambitions, but to also have the grit and the stamina to recognize that it’s not going to be an easy path.

Written by: Cortney Clift

Design by: Yising Chou

“Future Women of America” is a multimedia project spotlighting 15 young women under 20 who are making bold moves. Click here to see all the trailblazing women and girls featured.