You would be forgiven for thinking we live inside a huge, literal steaming pile of garbage.The American political landscape continues to grow increasingly frightening each day, as the world is forced to respond to an ever-increasing series of threats. From raging wildfires on the California coast to flooding in Sudan, environmental crises continue to thrive around the globe. With police brutality and systemic racism added as VIPs to this chaotic climate, times are extremely tough. So it would be easy to resign to these discouraging realities, especially if you’re young. Afterall, young people are made fun of for every aspect of how we live. How could anyone really take us seriously if we tried to stand up for what we believe in?
But today's young people are no longer taking the guff from anyone—let alone the dinosaurs responsible for how they are living. While those dumpster fires rage on, the indomitable spirit of Gen-Z and younger millennials have made everyone take these matters seriously. Complex is excited to highlight these young voices who are advocating, fighting, and actively taking on the powers that be to stand up for what we all should believe in.
All it takes is one idea and the right mix of determination and willpower to effect change at the local level. Start with one thing you’re passionate about then find small, local ways to organize and find solutions to the problem. That’s what the 32 people on this list did—some starting at 6 years old. They’re here to prove that no matter the obstacle, and no matter your age, you can work hard to leave behind a world that is just a little better than when you found it.
In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement sprouted in response to the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A couple years later, in 2015, Thandiwe Abdullah helped launch the next generation of Black rights activists—the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard. Now, Abdullah is sixteen and she’s hailed for playing a tremendous role in getting the BLM message into U.S. schools. Not only has she furthered the conversation regarding Black lives, she’s worked to offer resources to other young Black organizers who are seeking to challenge conventional ideas on racism and blackness. At such a young age, Abdullah is truly leading the charge.
Teens 4 Equality
Zee Thomas, Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Kennedy Green, Mikayla Smith, and Emma Rose Smith do not limit themselves to the Nashville community they are a part of. As members of Teens 4 Equality, this collective of change agents organized one of the largest peaceful protests in response to the death of George Floyd this spring. After this year’s election, praise from the likes of former President Barack Obama and other top political leaders only highlights the need to bring more awareness to systemic racism. In speaking out about this subject and other topics, this group of critical thinkers is giving some adults some much-needed food for thought.
In the wake of the murders of Black Americans such as Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson, John Crawford III, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others stands Nupol Kiazolu. The president of Black Lives Matter Greater NY uses the freedom of speech as a harness to boost the power of oppressed voices around the country. Focusing on civil rights, domestic and sexual violence, and homelessness, Kiazolu is putting her Brooklyn organizing roots to work as a political science major at Hampton University. With her dedication being recognized outside her HBCU community, this do-something activist is paving the way for others to also change the world.
First things first, her name is Kenidra Roshay Woods, and already her will and ingenuity has changed the world. Her short story A Heart of Hope and CHEETAH, an organization she also founded, would bookend the narrative of mental health anguish she faced at a young age. With confidence fueling her movement to end bullying, gun violence, and stigmas surrounding mental health, Woods continues to better herself through activism and passion, using film and writing. Hers is a voice for hope and healing.
This 17-year-old has been in the business of trying to save the world since age six. His powerful speech at the United Nations in 2015—when he was just fifteen years old—cut straight to heart of the biggest threat of the world’s inability to take meaningful action on climate change: “What's at stake right now is the existence of my generation," he said. Two years prior, in 2013, he received the United States Community Service Award and served on President Obama’s Youth Council. He also works as the youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organization (that he founded!) that brings together activists and artists with an environmental streak. He’s also taking his activism to court: he’s one of the 21 people who have sued the federal government and Donald Trump for failing to act on climate change.
At the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony, Common and Andra Day performed their Oscar-Nominated song “Stand Up For Something” with a group of activists behind them. The youngest was 8-year-old Bana Alabed, a Syrian refugee who took to Twitter to broadcast the nightmarish experience of living in Aleppo during the siege, airstrikes, and hunger. Her family was eventually able to escape to Turkey, but her experiences stuck with her and led her to write a book, Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace, which was released in October of last year. Bana’s childlike honesty and innocence adds a layer of urgency to the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis that is hard to ignore; as she grows up, she will be someone to watch.
Many new voices rose to the surface, during the national outcry over George Floyd’s murder. Among those voices, 19-year-old Oluwatoyin Salau’s seemed to permeate through Tallahassee, Florida and social media. Her message was strong and clear: “...there is no negotiating with racism. No Justice no justice no peace.” She advocated for all Black lives, and rallied for justice in the case of 38-year-old Tony Mcdade, a Black transgender man who was killed by Tallahassee officers. Unfortunately, Salau was aware that as a Black woman her fight was more multifaceted. After divulging information about her recent rape she went missing and was later found dead. Though her life was tragically cut short, her impact, influence, and story will be felt for years to come.
Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Alex Wind, Jaclyn Corin, Cameron Kasky, and survivors of the Marjory Stoneman shooting
Something different happened after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14. Instead of the usual cynical narrative of thoughts and prayers and a total lack of political action, the students spoke out. Senior Emma Gonzalez had a particularly powerful speech, in which she “called BS” on all the typical narratives that are so closely associated with gun control in this country. She then brought that same intensity to a CNN Town Hall, in which she knew exactly how to question the NRA’s Dana Loetsch about her contradictory and outdated beliefs about guns. Another student, David Hogg, who has been equally outspoken in his fight for gun control, became the target of a disgusting and surprisingly prevalent conspiracy theory that he was a “crisis actor.” He squashed those theories live on CNN with the grace and steadfastness of a true hero.
As a group, the students who survived the shooting have made many promises: theirs will be the last school shooting. In an effort to keep people’s attention, they have organized the March For Our Lives, a nationwide demonstration on March 24 that will demand change from Washington D.C. All of the students from Parkland who are involved in the gun control movement are taking a distinctly 2018 approach to their activism: they’re active on Twitter, where they roast the ignorant politicians and conservatives who dare defy them into oblivion. More importantly, they know that their true power lies in voting, and they are actively working to encourage everyone to vote out politicians who think it’s more important for people to have military-style weapons than for high school students to survive a day at school. It’s one of the most inspiring stories to come out of 2018, and thankfully, it’s just getting started.
Vanessa Nakate has made her advocacy for climate change known in her native homeland. For several months, she was the single, solitary protester outside of the gates of the Parliament of Uganda. Those actions galvanized other youth to respond and help draw attention to the plight of the Congolian rainforest. This grew into Nakate founding the Youth for Future Africa and the Africa-based Rise Up Movement, which led to her joining other climate activists in Spain to speak at the COP25. Since then she spoke at Davos at the World Economic Forum in January, urging world leaders to “wake up,” and at the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in October.
“Climate change is a nightmare that affects every sector of our lives,” she stated. “How can we achieve zero hunger if climate change is leaving millions of people with nothing to eat? We are going to see disaster after disaster, challenge after challenge, suffering after suffering (...) if nothing is done about this.” Nakate notes that this is a “matter of life and death” and started the Green Schools Project, a renewable energy initiative, which aims to transition schools in Uganda to solar energy and install eco-friendly stoves in these schools. As of this year, Vanessa Nakate’s project has carried out installations in six schools and aims to double that for 2021.