Sofia Zanfagna graduated from San Francisco’s International High School this month without the usual pomp and circumstance, though considering the milestone, “We thought it was important to do something,” she said.
Gathering at her family home with the friends she’d been sheltering in place and social distancing with during the pandemic and following a short Zoomcast graduation, “Everyone brought food, there were some toasts made,” she said. And that was that.
Though the last year of high school is traditionally the time when seniors cut loose, the limitations of the pandemic were observed and continue to be absorbed by Zanfagna. For the last two years she had been deepening her understanding of global and environmental issues through her school’s academically challenging International Baccalaureate program.
“We see where the world is headed, it’s not sustainable and we won’t have a place to be if change doesn’t happen now,” she said of the environmental crisis that has brought earth to its crossroads.
“I’d like to think that our generation is special but at the end of the day we’re not,” said Zanfagna, noting young leaders like Greta Thunberg and International High’s own Simone Jacques, organizer of the student-led protest against police violence here on June 3. Not since the ‘60s have teens been so forcefully at the forefront of the movements for societal change.
“We don’t have a choice. That’s why we’re so motivated: It’s not to see a better future but just to be able to see any future for ourselves,” she said.
Zanfagna’s eco-consciousness dates back to becoming a vegetarian at 10; she became a vegan at 14. “For a variety of different reasons,” she said, though her understanding of the environmental impact of eating animals was increased through her IB course in “environmental systems in societies,” taken in her junior and senior years. An environmental science class further opened her eyes to the relationship between food, people and planetary wellness, informing her choice to major in environmental science.
“All of my teachers were pretty incredible, cool people, with interesting back stories of why they became teachers,” she said. San Francisco and its culture also contributed toward shaping her worldview.
“Youth protest was a pretty big part of our high school experience,” said Zanfagna. “The majority of my classmates share the same perspective on world issues and that made it easier to communicate. Being super close to City Hall and at the center of things motivated me.”
Zanfagna’s mother Amy had her own thoughts on how her daughter came to find her life’s direction.
“She’s just an old soul, born that way,” she said. “When she was in preschool, she was making signs, carrying one for MLK. At an age when kids get clingy, she was ready to move into the world. I always joked, just give her a cell phone and a bus pass and she’ll be fine.”
As for the family going green, “It was really Sofia who drove that,” said Amy. “Honest, I’d like to think that I try as much as I can, but I’m not like the woman who can fit all of her garbage for the year in a Mason jar.”
Amy also credits Sofia, whose name means “wisdom” in Greek, for raising her own consciousness about today’s pressing matters of racial and economic justice: Mother and daughter attended the Mission High protest together.
“It was incredibly moving and nurturing, watching the way people treated one another, everyone there with common cause,” said Amy.
At a time when the families with young children they were acquainted with had started to move away from The City, the Zanfagnas made a considered decision to return after living for three years in the Tahoe region.
“Coming back showed me how incredible a place San Francisco is,” said Zanfagna. “I’m so grateful to have like-minded people around. Not everyone gets that opportunity, to be in a super-liberal environment, a bubble. Especially now, it’s cool to be in the center of change and to see change happening,” she said. “That’s the thing I love the most about San Francisco,” she said, thinking about what she’ll miss as she prepares to leave for classes at Fordham University in New York City.
“My half-sister is 21 years older than me and she went to NYU and graduated the year I was born. I knew I wanted to attend college there. Since fourth grade, New York has been in the back of my mind,” she said.
“When she was 12, Sofia showed me how to use the subway system there,” said her mom. “It doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned and that I won’t be monitoring the situation, but the best thing a parent can do is get out of the way.”
On the eve of registering for classes, Zanfagna still wasn’t sure whether she would be meeting her professors and classmates remotely or in person, nor does she know where she’ll live, a dilemma she shares with college freshmen starting new chapters in uncertain times.
“It’s not the exact situation I envisioned but I’ll head out regardless. I have a couple of friends out there and if I can’t stay in the dorms, hopefully I can get a room somewhere with a friend,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.