When Greta Thunberg stood before the United Nations recently, stared diplomats in the face with determination, and said emphatically, “How Dare You!” the world watched, gasping, and feeling that things might just be on the brink of changing for the better.
When Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt because she challenged her country and the world to educate girls around the globe, people saw a glimmer of hope for half the world’s population.
When students like Emma Gonzales and David Hogg from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida spoke eloquently about the urgency of gun control, the world dared to hope that America would end its killing fields.
Greta Thunberg started a school strike for climate change outside the Swedish parliament in 2018. She hasn’t stopped advocating to save the planet since. Today over 100,000 school children are part of her movement, Fridays for Future. Her plenary speeches before the United Nations went viral and a performance this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and again when she faced the UN in New York daring them to take action for the sake of the world’s youth were extraordinary.
Malala, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history, was eleven years old when she blogged on the BBC abut her life under the Taliban in Pakistan and starred in a New York Times documentary about life in the middle of military occupation. Always an activist, she established the Malala Education Foundation to help poor girls go to school. Her near death when she was shot on a school bus sparked an international movement that flourishes today as she studies at Oxford University in England.
The “Parkland kids,” led by Emma Gonzales, David Hogg and others, rocked the world when they stood up to the National Rifle Association, and a government in thrall to the gun lobby. Refusing “thoughts and prayers” and calling for political action they woke up the country in a way that even the Newtown Massacre hadn’t. When Gonzales “call[ed] BS” on the hollow words of politicians, and when Hogg and others took to social media, the country saw what real activism looks like. Today the energy of the Parkland students, many of whom have graduated and can now vote, is focused on registering youth to vote, and ensuring that they do.
Youth activism isn’t confined to a few well-known faces. The world is full of young activists and social changemakers offering genuine hope for a future world that can clean up its moral, economic and environmental act on a fragile but sustainable planet.
Payla Jangid is one of them. After escaping child slavery in India, she became a children’s rights advocate and is currently the leader of her village’s Child Parliament, which meets to discuss “various issues like lack of separate toilets for girls in schools and the need to stop child marriage,” she says. Like Malala, she advocates for girls’ education going door to door to explain to parents that children need support to grow.
Kelvin was just six years old when the violent civil war in Sierra Leone ended. Despite his youth and lack of education he quickly became one of the country’s leading technological inventors. At 11, he made electronics from trash. At 13, he made batteries with found materials and build a generator to power a community radio station. In 2012 he went to MIT to present his inventions to students there. Today he is an Honorary Board member of EMERGENCY USA, working to provide medical and surgical care to victims of war and poverty.
Sisters Melati and Isabel who live in Bali started their own company there when they were 10 and 12 years old. Bye Bye Plastic Bags was inspired by Rwanda, which had banned polyethylene bags in 2008. Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana, and Mahatma Gandhi also inspired the sisters to “be the change [they] wanted to see.” Following beach cleanups, petitions and government help, their organization now employs 25 people and has teams in 15 countries. Bali has been declared plastic bag free, and the Indonesian government is banning all plastic bags by 2021.
Closer to home, when the water crisis in Flint, Michigan became acute, eight-year old Mari Copeny wrote to President Obama in 2016. He called her to say he was coming to Flint and wanted to meet her. Her actions have spearheaded a charity movement that donates school backpacks to area students.
Recently in North Carolina, high school senior David Ledbetter, founder of a local organization, Imagine This, handed out sample ballots and voter registration forms to people standing in line outside a Charlotte Popeye, making national news.
Whether advocates, activists, entrepreneurs, scientists or community organizers, these children and young adults are seizing the moment, acting to save their communities, their countries and the planet. Their energy, intelligence, and compassion give us hope for the future. We need to acknowledge them as emerging adults who will lead us before long, to thank them, and to keep on an eye on them, and what they can teach us.
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