By Deja Foxx
Deja Fox talks about housing insecurity, activism, and the importance of community.
In 2017, Deja Foxx stood up at a town hall debate and asked then-Senator Jeff Flake a simple question about his support to take away funding from Planned Parenthood: “Why would you deny me the American dream?”
“Why would you deny me the American dream?”
Deja’s bold testimony in favor of Title X funding went viral, quickly earning her an exclusive CNN interview, a prominent place in the reproductive justice movement, and headlines calling her "the new face of Planned Parenthood ". The 18-year-old activist, organizer, and first-year student at Columbia University has gone on to be featured as one of Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21.
Whether lobbying on Capitol Hill, leading hundreds at a rally, or declaring herself the future President on social media, so much of Deja’s power comes from her visibility. So you might be surprised that she spent so many years hiding parts of her reality and experience.
“I had gotten really good at sort of learning how to behave and twist my circumstances to look normal to everyone else,” Deja says. “I didn't seem like a person people would assume is facing that struggle.”
Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Deja and her mother always struggled to make ends meet. By age 15, financial concerns and her mother’s battle with addiction forced Deja to leave her home. She searched for a more stable living environment, bouncing between friends’ houses and eventually moving in with her boyfriend at the time and his family.
“I wasn't the typical definition of homelessness, when most people think of being on the street,” Deja says. “Instead, I just was housing insecure -- I was without a home of my own.”
This kind of “hidden homelessness” impacts about 1 in 30 students between the ages of 13 and 17 in the United States, about 700,000 teenagers nationwide. Thanks to an organization called Youth On Their Own (YOTO), Deja was able to stay afloat, graduate high school, and look towards college -- Ivy League colleges, even, which mostly seemed out of reach for students in her situation.
“When I was in high school, I was looking for people who were in my situation [of housing insecurity] who had made it to the schools that I was interested in, and I couldn't find any stories,” Deja says. “I was very interested in if anyone had done this before and if it was possible.” For Deja, at least, it was. She got into Columbia and discovered that many students, in fact, shared her experience.
“Since coming to Columbia, I've met so many students who have experienced homelessness,” Deja says. “I've met so many people who have shared stories, but just don't have the same platform to amplify them.” When Deja speaks, she doesn’t speak just for herself, but for students she’s met and for those she never will. “You never know who else will be there to listen to you,” she told Teen Vogue.
“Since coming to Columbia, I've met so many students who have experienced homelessness,”
By all accounts, Deja has “made it”: she’s overcome incredible adversity. She attends her dream school. She worked at a gas station for two years to buy her mom a car and a laptop, which she says is her biggest accomplishment. Deja is far from her community but often feels close to her former life. When the dining halls close for breaks, for example, Deja often doesn’t know where she’ll find her next meal. A 2018 study shows that 36% of college students say they’re food insecure, while another 36% report being housing insecure.
While Deja has had to become accustomed to looking out for herself, she’s always managed to support others too. “I can't sit idly by while women like me are countlessly and constantly being ignored on Capitol Hill,” she told CNN.
In high school, Deja led a campaign for comprehensive sex education in her school, using her experience with housing insecurity as an example of how abstinence-only curriculum puts low-income students and students of color at a disadvantage. As a senior, she became a founding member of the El Rio Community Health Center’s Reproductive Health Access Project, ensuring that young people in Tucson have equal and affordable access to reproductive healthcare throughout their lives.
Today, 2,000 miles from home, Deja has found new ways to impact a new community through Columbia’s Housing Equity Project, a student organization that staffs local homeless shelters throughout the week. She also helped organize her peers to gain recognition for and build a community of First Generation Low-Income (FGLI) students on Columbia’s campus. Beginning this fall, Deja will serve as community coordinator for UpLift, a brand new special interest community within Columbia student housing where FGLI students can host events and provide support for one another as they navigate their new college environment.
Becoming an active member of Columbia's student body allowed Deja to share her own experiences, use her leadership and organizing skills, and to stay grounded within the broader community of FGLI students. It’s an opportunity to continue learning about the movement so that someday, she can bring those tools back to Tucson and give back to the community that gave so much to her.
“My success is my community’s success”
“My success is my community’s success,” Deja says. “I recognize that I am in this place of privilege now not solely because of my own hard work, but because people invested in me.”
BIOGRAPHY: Activist. Organizer. Badass. Future POTUS. From homelessness in high school to the forefront of the reproductive justice movement and Dean’s List at Columbia University, Deja is changing the world at 19 years old and just launched her new project @GenZGirlGang. In the past year, she was named a Teen Vogue 21 under 21, joined the Dazed 100, received Planned Parenthood NY’s Catalyst for Change Award, became MAC Costmetic’s youngest ever ambassador, and joined Nike at the Women's World Cup as a Dream Leader.