The Homegirl Project' interviewed Nikhita Nookala on her experience rising to the occasion as a student journalist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. For our full essay on Nikhita, click here.
By Malavika Kannan
Can you share your story of stepping up as a journalist in the face of tragedy?
I'm a journalist for the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. By most people's standards, I'm a rookie. I started this year on a whim and loved it more than I thought I would. But after Feb. 14, I truly realized what kind of power the written word has. I was a co-author on the first two stories that were run online by our publication on Feb 18, which covered the shooting and the vigil following. The writing process was one of the hardest I'd ever been through, especially since I had lost a friend. Writing became my therapy and my coping mechanism. And I could see the difference we were making. Student journalists and student activists became the forefront of our school and the faces of movements.
Why do you believe that student journalists are so crucial in the fight against gun violence?
Whether the mainstream likes it or not, student journalists are the future voices of America. They have grown up in a world filled with good journalists and bad, where journalism has started huge movements like #MeToo, where journalism has kept people like Roy Moore out of office with exposes and the truth. I think student journalists [like me] … are in a position to change the world of journalism and bring back authentic, nonbiased, nonpartisan, fact-based journalism in an industry that has been split into distinct red and blue news networks.
Since the tragedy, you've been elevating your voice at a national level. What is your goal in telling your story?
The writing experience has always been a little tough, because the audience of a national piece is so much different from what I'm used to writing. The goal is to keep the legacy of Parkland alive and to do it in a way that respects everyone in the community. The Refinery29 piece is an example, I tried to use the platform to talk about journalistic ethics in the face of this tragedy. It sometimes feels like the request can be tone-deaf, because I have so little experience in the industry, but what I do have experience with is interacting with students. And that's what always comes first to me.
What are your thoughts on the intersection of South Asian and activist identities?
I think my South Asian identity comes into play in a unique way for this particular activist agenda. As a "model minority", South Asians rarely experience the kind of overt racism or discrimination that blacks or Hispanics may face, and as a Parkland resident, I've been surrounded by middle-to-upper class families for half my life. So when I'm speaking out, I try to use my position of relative privilege in a way that benefits those who have less exposure than I do. I try to be less inflammatory than other activists, I think, because my family often discusses what drives the movement in the right direction and what drives it in the wrong direction. I think inflammatory rhetoric, far from being liberal or progressive, is regressive.
Do you believe that students of our generation, particularly students of color, are changing the game when it comes to activism?
I think students of color have taken initiative beyond what has been expected of them. I think they are tired of being held back by traditional ethnic roles or their family values. And I think first-generation immigrant families are supporting this. Speaking to South Asian youth, which I'm obviously more familiar with, there have been so many role models for them to follow, like Lilly Singh, Mindy Kaling, and Kumail Nanjiani, who have made it so far in American pop culture. The next generation of America is so diverse and so willing to accept each other, and I think it's awesome and a great sign of what's to come and who our future leaders will be. I don't think Congress will be 80% white for so much longer.
What is one issue that you want to change about the world?
One issue I want to change about the world is the way people listen to each other. Empathy is something we're lacking so much, especially in the way that we look at international conflicts, or even the way we look at the partisan divide in our own country. If we learn to listen to each other and (God forbid) learn to compromise a little, we might see a lot less gridlock in domestic and international politics, which is never good to any society. Is there any woman in your life who inspires you?
My mother inspires me, because she brought her whole life to America … just so that I would grow up American and have the opportunities she didn't. She learned to drive and took me to dance lessons every week, even planned my whole arangetram down to each dress color and the jewelry that would go with it. She's the one that pushed me to have this drive and ambition to succeed, and she's probably the one behind my innate competitive nature. She made me who I am today, and she's given everything to make it happen for me and my sister. For that, I am forever thankful and always inspired.