Meet the Next Generation of Teen Activists Ready to Change the World
When you can walk down the streets of Manhattan comfortably wearing short sleeves in December, it’s a pretty good indicator of a larger issue. The world is in a dire place right now, and it isn’t just the environment that’s painin’ more than Oprah’s vajayjay. Every day we are confronted with a barrage of terror and hate that threatens to undermine and overwhelm our sense of humanity. Turn on the news and within an hour you’ll probably feel your empathy slipping away faster than Jack’s grip on Rose after the Titanic sank. But, somewhere in the melting ice water of the world, there are buoys of hope—and it’s coming from the darned youth.
That’s right, grandpa. The generation that has grown up entrenched in a never-ending war, survived an economic collapse–and is in the midst of live-blogging humankind’s response to centuries of neglect toward Earth–hasn’t given up hope. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, young people are more connected and engaged with current events than ever before. We are more racially and ethnically diverse than any other generation and care more about meaningful work than big paychecks. Try to say that about the older generations that are responsible for one of the highest levels of income inequality ever recorded in America. With so much negativity in the world and a library’s worth of words written on how selfish and self-indulgent we are, it’s a small miracle that we even care anymore. It’s also a bit wild that in this day and age, people still think you can only be selfish or caring as a generation.
The real truth is that for most young people, we care just as much about ourselves as we do about making the world a better place. A new generation of teenage activists has emerged to take the reigns and inspire an entirely new set of kids to stand up, speak out, and change the world. In honor of the rise of this new wave, we present our five favorite teen advocates to inspire you—at any age.
Jazz Jennings | 15
How many other teenagers can say that not only did they meet Barbara Walters, but also that they were interviewed by her for 20/20? Oh yeah, this all happened when Jazz was seven-years-old. This transgender trailblazer has most of her life in the spotlight as an advocate for other transgender youth with her ongoing YouTube diary documenting her journey, and shows no signs of slowing down. Already, she has created a nonprofit, starred in an Oprah documentary, co-wrote a children’s book, modeled, become a spokesperson for brands, stars in a TLC reality show, and created a company that raises money for trans kids by selling wearable mermaid tails.
When she isn’t busy with all of that, she’s writing op-eds directed at an anti-LGBT hate group that threatened to sue a school in Mount Horeb, WI, if they went through with a planned reading of Jazz’s book, to support a six-year-old who came out as trans. At a time when trans youth are at higher risks of depression, suicide, and harassment, we need a hero like Jazz to keep inspiring a new generation. This girl is on fire, and she hasn’t even had her Sweet Sixteen yet.
Amandla Stenberg | 17
Nobody could have expected that our tears of grief over Rue’s death in The Hunger Games would soon become tears of joy as we pumped our fist in solidarity with the young actresses fiery video—called “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”—that targeted cultural appropriation, the #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter movement, and all the white celebs who have used cornrows to look edgy. When Kylie Jenner apparently didn’t get the memo, Stenberg followed up with a direct drag of the problematic star. Since then, she went to prom with her friend and fellow activist, Jaden Smith, advocated for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and started a new initiative to encourage young women and girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. She’s become a fixture on Instagram and Tumblr for her support of the badass Art Hoe movement—a counterculture celebration of black beauty—founded by her 15-year-old friend Mars.
Last year, the activist powerhouse asked the world “what would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture” and “do black female lives matter, too?” After starting out the year coming out as bisexual and getting interviewed by the goddess Solange Knowles, we can’t wait to hear what topic she tackles this year—besides college applications.
Willow Smith | 15
We had a feeling we should expect great things from the young songstress when she took control of her beauty and shaved off the head of hair that she so famously whipped back and forth back in 2010. Willow has established herself as more than just a one-trick wonder in the five years since that single dropped, and has used her vocals and status as a Smith kid to become an outspoken activist for feminism, body-positivity, philosophy, black beauty, unfiltered creativity, and more. Willow isn’t just influencing millions of teens around the world, either. She’s been working to end human trafficking with her mom since way back in 2012, when she was only 11 years old.
In the past several months, Willow has been taking her activism to the recording with the release of a steady stream of videos and singles that are steeped in heavy philosophical musings and calls to save the planet. Even though she surprise dropped her debut album Ardipithecus (named after the scientific name of the first hominid bones found on earth) in December, she hasn’t stopped releasing music and sticking up for her BFF/brother’s own activist work—but we’ll get to him later. With a fiery opening line on her debut album proclaiming that classification and organization is ruining the minds of our generation, we can’t wait to see how she fights back against labels and continues to inspire a new generation of kids to be as weird as they want to be.
Rowan Blanchard | 14
More often than not, we don’t really think of Disney teen stars as activist powerhouses, but then Rowan came along last year to become a trailblazer for teen feminists. Born to two yoga instructors in LA and an actor since the age of five, she has become just as famous for her acting as the star of Girl Meets World as she has for her outspoken advocacy for women’s rights. I mean, not many teenagers can say that they gave a speech on gender equality at an annual UN Women U.S. National Committee before they even started high school.
The rise of Rowan to teen activist hero has only just begun but, already, she’s making waves. She called out a reporter for sexist diet questions, took to Tumblr to discuss intersectional feminism, and recently spoke out about depression in a brave Instagram post last week. With the support of best friend and fellow teen activist Amandla Stenberg (as well as Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards), it seems like there’s nothing this girl can’t do.
Jaden Smith | 17
Willow isn’t the only activist powerhouse in the Smith clan. Her older brother Jaden has been making waves over the past few years for just as much for his advocacy as he is for his fashion choices. No longer the adorably cute kid starring alongside his dad in The Pursuit of Happyness, Jaden has come into his own as a symbol of change for a new wave of black masculinity that defies gender norms. He’s just as likely to wear a Batman costume as he is to rock skirts and dresses. From his Prom dress to his starring role in the Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign, the rapper and designer is proving that gender norms are as outdated as the time-space continuum. Not content to just disrupt society’s view of clothing with his own style and the fashion brand he created called MSFTSrep, he is also creating genre-bending music with his sister Willow and giving philosophical lessons on the meaning of individuality. Oh, and he’s created a Twitter that is as amusing as it is profoundly interesting.
If last year is any indicator, becoming the new face of a womenswear campaign is sure to only be the start of a whole new year of activism for this teen trailblazer. He’s become more than just the face of a fashion campaign because, for all the kids out there struggling to identify or break away from the gender spectrum, his courageous breakdown of gender and sexual binaries represents hope.
That Moment When Your Wearing A Dress With No Pants And You Swerve Way To Hard.
— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) April 9, 2015
Original imagery by Kathryn Chadason.