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Denzel Thompson

  • Category: Green Innovation
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: Philadelphia

Denzel Thompson’s work as co-founder of Philadelphia Urban Creators, a youth-driven organization that uses urban-agriculture projects as hubs for community change, has earned him plenty of attention. He was honored with a Teen Nick HALO Award and paired with Queen Latifah as a celebrity mentor. But before that, he says, “We were just a bunch of random students that came together with the idea of changing the area.”

The possibility of transforming abandoned North Philadelphia lots into farm occurred to the high school senior while he was in New Orleans doing community-service work and was introduced to urban agriculture. Three years later, PUC is well-known for its efforts to educate the city’s young people about how to develop urban environments, to use community-based gardens and farms to build food security in the inner city and to create jobs through the distribution of locally grown organic produce and the creation of small local businesses. “I’m definitely proud of everybody coming together and participating, and also of the changes we’ve seen in the neighborhood,” Denzel says. “It’s less violent now, and kids know there’s a safe place for them.”

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Da’Quan Marcell Love

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 21
  • Hometown: Henrico, Va.

When Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign attempted to invalidate approximately 16,000 voter-registration applications in Virginia, Da’Quan Marcell Love, Virginia’s top NAACP youth officer, went into full gear to counter that effort. Da’Quan Marcell organized 125 NAACP members and packed the room at the Virginia general assembly. Da’Quan Marcell describes how he was the last person to speak, and told the state board election that they “had the power to turn back the clock” and allow the applications to go through, to enfranchise thousands of voters. Because of that grassroots effort, which included several dozen calls to the state legislature, the applications were cleared.

A fourth-generation NAACP member, Da’Quan Marcell sits on the organization’s national board of directors and represents youth. He will teach social studies to high school students with Teach for America after graduating Hampton University in May.

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Michaela Ritz

  • Category: Green Innovation
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

Nineteen-year-old Michaela Ritz is a founding member of Green Bronx Machine, a not-for-profit corporation in New York City’s South Bronx that’s harvested more than 30,000 pounds of vegetables, while providing kids with the opportunity to grow healthy food and get a real-life education. What started out as a small project spearheaded by her father, longtime educator Stephen Ritz, now operates 15 indoor and outdoor gardening sites. It’s earned praise for the benefits it offers to students involved (they get to hone their math, science and technology skills, as well as enjoy the fruits of their labor) and to their entire community, where the produce makes its way to soup kitchens and farmers markets.

“To see the transformation that these students undergo after working with us and the change in their attitude toward what they can achieve is amazing,” Michaela says. She’s now maintaining a 3.75 GPA at Skidmore College, where she’s studying environmental science and geology, but still has an active role in GBM. She recently taught students how to use a new technology to grow food with only water as a nutrition source. The science-savvy high achiever has her eye on a career that will let her combine her passions for social justice and the environment. 

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Jelani Young

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 16
  • Hometown: Toledo, Ohio

A junior at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio, 16-year-old Jelani Young started his work in community service early. And it was all thanks to the influence of his father, David, director of the office of Excellence and Multicultural Student Success at the University of Toledo. David Young enlisted Jelani in his community-service work when he was very little, later introducing him to Toledo Excel, a group for students. The group focuses on civil rights, human rights and leadership.

“I learned a lot of things a kid my age probably wouldn’t have,” Jelani said. “I traveled with my dad, and because of my dad’s program, went to South Africa at [age] 10 and learned about the anti-apartheid movement and the stuff that went down in Sharpeville and the great Nelson Mandela.”

But this wasn’t simply a matter of a father wanting his son to be socially aware. Jelani said he was born with an urge to help others.

“Ever since I was little, I felt like it was my calling in life to make people happy because I have enjoyment in seeing other people happy,” Jelani said. “Ever since I was little, my mom would say, you were so nice, you’d always go up to the kid who didn’t have much friends and go, ‘I’ll be your friend.’ I still find myself doing stuff like that now. Making someone smile. Stuff like that.”

Along with his work with Toledo Excel, Jelani also works as a mentor to younger students at his school as part of a “Big Brothers” program, and works at a food bank assembling boxes of food for the homeless and needy. Jelani is also part of the all-boys school’s track and field program.

Now looking into colleges, Jelani hopes not stray too far away from home, at a school like Michigan State or University of Kentucky. He’s still deciding what he wants to do, considering both careers in sports management as an agent and psychology.

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Jasmine Bowers

  • Category: Enterprise and Corporate Innovation
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Charlotte, N.C.

Everyone knows the story of college students, student loans and credit card companies. You start school, you take out that huge loan and you open that first credit account, and before you know it, you’re head over heels in debt. North Carolina A&T State University graduate student Jasmine Bowers is trying to change that narrative by helping struggling college students learn the lessons of financial literacy, which is a “passion” of hers. She learned the value of a dollar as a young girl from her mother, who is a former business owner. But the math and computer science double major still found herself wondering why she was always running low on cash when she was a freshman at Fort Valley State University in Georgia.

After figuring out her own finances, Jasmine began to share her knowledge, helping friends who had taken out student loans and weren’t sure how to pay them back. This led to Jasmine becoming a regular speaker at her undergraduate school’s annual iLead Collegiate Leadership Conference in Fort Valley, Ga.

“My university was an HCBU in an underrepresented area. Costs can be really expensive for school. You have better opportunities to stay in school and go to school by having money and being able to manage that money. It’s one less thing they’d be worried about,” Jasmine said.

Up next for Jasmine? She’d like to someday develop a nonprofit that provides financial literacy education for high school and college students in underrepresented areas.

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Leslie Turner

  • Category: Science and Technology
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

Ohio native Leslie Turner always knew she wanted to work in medicine. “Since I knew what a job was, I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. The first-year pre-med student at Duke University devotes her time to her recently decided cultural anthropology major and her work as a tutor for an ESL program.

Leslie has a passion for service that began in high school. She ran two charitable organizations that provided clothing for homeless teens in Ohio and children in the Dominican Republic. She has been motivated by her own childhood, in which her mother had difficulties supporting four children.

A brilliant student, Leslie has a love of science that took her to a research position on a project to find a vaccine for Alzheimer’s. When you hear her plans for the future, it’s clear she will find a way to combine her commitments to service and science. This summer, she is headed to Legon, Ghana, to do field research and learn more about Ghanian culture. Eventually she plans to become a cardiologist and work with the organization Doctors Without Borders, telling us, “I’m big on using health care to bridge cultural gaps.”

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Shiranthi Goonathilaka

  • Category: Green Innovation
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.

Like many preteens, Shiranthi Goonathilaka says she didn’t like science and thought it was boring, but admits that her local science museum created an opportunity to make learning applicable and hands-on. After volunteering at age 12, Shiranthi was hired for a summer job during high school, during which she became educated on environmentalism and became an activist.

Shiranthi took her passion for environmental justice to Spelman College, where she’s now a sophomore. After working with the Environmental Task Force, an organization that raises awareness about environmental issues among college students in the Atlanta area, she began working with young people. “When people see how their actions benefit the community, it becomes more fulfilling,” says the 19-year-old green activist. After tutoring youth in the Atlanta area, Shiranthi got the idea to start her own mentoring organization, B.I.A.S. (Because I Am, I Shall). The organization focuses on political awareness, social activism, educational standards and physical and mental health. “We develop curriculum around topics and break down stereotypes.”

This biology major plans to attend medical school and to return to her mother’s homeland of Sri Lanka to create a health center, incorporating her mentoring program so many more young people will have greater opportunities. 

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Austen Brantley

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 18
  • Hometown: Detroit

What began as an elective commonly referred to by upperclassmen as “an easy A” flowered into a life calling. “I fell in love with the material, what I could do with it. And I just took off from there,” says Detroit native-turned-sculptor Austen Brantley. “I started to have summer shows. Cleared out my basement and created a studio.”

As any young artist knows, there are setbacks, and the most successful are those who recover from them. After getting accepted to art school in California, Austen packed and was ready to go, only to discover that his loans weren’t approved and he had to defer moving. But surrendering to momentary defeat isn’t Austen’s style. He reached out to area sculptors in his hometown, found a mentor and is creating a name for himself. He already has three pieces in a local gallery.

“Our generation isn’t into fine arts as much as they should be. As a culture, there should be more people into it. In high school, they just teach you the basics, but not the meaning. I want to influence and inspire [young people to create].”

After finishing up art school, the young futurist plans to show his art to the world. 

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Marcus Benning

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Atlanta

When Marcus Benning won a $500 grant from a Duke University think tank as a freshman, he used that money to create and fund the Duke Connects Challenge, an initiative that solicited proposals from students on how they would improve relations between Duke students and the people living and working in the surrounding town of Durham, N.C.

Merging those two worlds became a primary issue that Marcus would address time and time again in his varying positions in student government and other civic organizations. “I always enter an environment with an eye towards making it a more equitable and just environment for everyone,” Marcus explains. That was in year one. As a sophomore, he got Duke administrators to greenlight the Black Cultural Living Group—a designated residential space for students to engage in issues and conversations that affect African Americans.

Marcus credits his knack for community building to his upbringing. “My mother made sure that there were always mentors in my life that would mentor me in ways that she could not.” After graduating from Duke in May, Marcus will enroll in law school. He’s already gotten offers from the University of Pennsylvania, Duke and Vanderbilt, just to name a few.

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Elizabeth Lamar-Pinchback

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 16
  • Hometown: Atlanta

One thing Elizabeth Anne Lamar-Pinchback wants the world to understand is that music and words have power. She uses both words and music to help in her recovery from a childhood trauma.

Elizabeth is an 11th-grade honors student at the Atlanta area’s Riverwood International Charter School, where she is studying French and music. She is the 2013-2014 concertmaster of the Riverwood School Orchestra and a violinist with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta. Elizabeth has also performed with the Nebraska Choral Arts Society and the Atlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde vocal ensemble, where she developed a love for world languages.

Elizabeth relies on music, writing and various forms of storytelling as part of her ongoing recovery from an assault at the hands of a caretaker when she was 8 years old. In 2013, with support and training from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and Darkness to Light, she made a six-minute film on abuse prevention called I Am Abigail/I Am Every Girl

“I wanted to definitely portray the power of words and the power of speaking up for yourself and being your own person,” she said. “It also really helped me because I tend to be a shy person, but after I made the video, I gained a lot of confidence, and I find myself doing many things I wouldn’t have done before I made the video.” Elizabeth wants to spread her message that words are power by learning and preserving different languages and traveling the world. Elizabeth plans to study linguistic anthropology and music composition in college.

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Frida Perez

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 18
  • Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

Filmmaker Frida Perez grew up loving TV and movies, thanks mainly to her immigrant parents, who came from the Dominican Republic.

“They always took us to the movies because it was a chance for them to listen to English and start learning it more easily,” she said. “When I got older I realized I could actually make these [movies]. It’s not that crazy.”

When she was 14, she attended a filmmaking program at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. After a screening of her first project—a documentary-style film in which she asked strangers in Union Square if they had one wish, what would it be?—Perez was hooked. “Seeing everybody react to my movie was the best feeling in the world, so after that I’ve always been trying to chase that feeling and keep making movies.”

Since then she’s made a variety of films, ranging from dramas to comedies to documentaries. At 16, she directed a film on human exploitation that was shown to the United Nations General Assembly.

The Brown University freshman loves the works of director Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, but she’s truly inspired by Girls producer Judd Apatow (Freaks & Geeks, Knocked Up). “His movies are about underdogs and taking all of your flaws and running with it and dealing with it,” she said. “He makes me think, oh, yeah, I can be a little off and not feel super comfortable with myself, but that can make a good movie sometimes if you do it well enough.”

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Jasmine Lawrence

  • Category: Enterprise and Corporate Innovation
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Williamstown, N.J.

The story of how Jasmine Lawrence stumbled into her interest in healthy products to maintain her kinky, curly hair was nothing out of the ordinary. She put a chemical relaxer in her hair at age 11, and lost the majority of her mane soon afterward. It’s what Jasmine did next that set her apart from the rest.

Jasmine went to a summer business camp in 2004 in New York City’s wholesale district, and there she learned how to buy products in large quantities. Then, she read about the natural ingredients that her body—and thereby her hair—needed to flourish. She mixed up a concoction of oils and butters that worked wonders for her curls. She bottled up her new discovery, and EDEN Bodyworks was born. Jasmine was 13 years old.

It was an entrepreneurial journey of “trial and error,” Jasmine says, registering her business, “having the right UPC code, tax ID, business ID.” Now 22, she recalls how she loved to mingle with other teen-preneurs, and is grateful to have started a business as an adolescent because she didn’t feel as if she had anything to lose. When the natural hair-care revolution hit in 2008 with the advent of YouTube, Jasmine was excited to welcome more people to the community.  

“Maybe I had something to do with stirring the pot,” she says. With her business managed by others, Jasmine graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science, and has moved on to a new passion: video games and robotics.

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James Martin

  • Category: Science and Technology
  • Age: 18
  • Hometown: Miramar, Fla.

When discussing his many accomplishments, James Martin uses a surprising word to describe himself: lazy. “I was lazy young man,” he said. Martin isn’t humblebragging—he just has a different definition of lazy. Here’s how “lazy” he’s been throughout his young life: After being homeschooled, he started college at age 14. At 17, he graduated last August with 3.9 grade point average and a degree in molecular biology. He’s currently working as a research technician alongside a Nobel laureate at Princeton University and is interviewing for graduate school, where he hopes to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Not bad for a “lazy young man.”

James’ accomplishments were so impressive that he attracted the attention of Beyoncé, who invited him and his family to a concert and a chance to meet backstage.

James attributes his success to God and the strong support of his parents; his dad is a chaplain for the Miami-Dade prison system and his mom is an attorney. James also said his mother’s Caribbean roots played a role in his success. “My mother is Jamaican, and island parents don’t play.”

James says that he and his three younger siblings were encouraged to be the best at whatever they do, and it’s a philosophy that’s working. One of his sisters, who is 16, is an English major at Florida Atlantic University, and James says of his 12-year-old brother, “He’s an even greater genius than I could ever imagine to be.” Perhaps another Young Futurist in the making.

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Brianna Patterson

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 20
  • Hometown: Raleigh, N.C.

Brianna Patterson believes in service. It’s in her Twitter handle, “SavedToServe_,” and it’s in the work she does for the National Action Network.

“We are the examples of those kids who come from single-parent homes, who come from schools that were in terrible areas, but they’ve managed to come through and overcome those situations and circumstance to become leaders and future elected officials,” said Brianna. “Empower the community, empower the youth.”

Currently the Northeast Regional Director of NAN YouthMove, Brianna is focused on helping homeless youth, particularly those who have aged out of the foster-care system. “YouthMove offers training, how to budget money … our group is the gap between the young people and the resources. Without the help of these resources the young people can’t survive.”

Brianna is studying liberal arts at the University of the District of Columbia and wants to continue her work in community service, eventually branching out into the worlds of journalism and politics. She is currently working on two books, one about young community activists and another semi-autobiographical work about her own struggle.

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Thomas Hill

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 16
  • Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Thomas Hill’s style of searing social commentary was criticized as “too artsy” when he submitted it to his English teachers in essay form. But when he dubbed it “poetry” and began performing it at competitions from Washington, D.C., to South Africa as a member of D.C. Youth Slam Team, it struck an award-winning balance.

Thomas, who describes his preferred subject matter as “queer black boys’ politics,” placed first in the 2012 Corporation for National and Community Services Poetry Slam and was on the five-person team that took second at 2013’s Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam. In addition to weekly team meeting, workshops and competitions around the D.C. metropolitan area, the high school junior spends at least two hours every day on his poetry.

“I’ll hear something and it will just click, and from there, I just sort of write. I just bombard the paper,” he says. A current favorite piece grapples with his sense that white women on D.C.’s subway are uncomfortable around black boys. “Never has one willingly sat next to me,” he explains, adding, “I focus on issues people don’t talk about like gay misogyny—gay men who are misogynistic in their own right.”

Thomas plans to apply to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and if accepted major in psychology and minor in creative writing. Until then, he’ll undoubtedly add to his fast-growing portfolio of more than 300 poems. After all, he has what he calls “the simplest process” of anyone on the Slam Team: “I get a lot of ideas from just walking around and observing.”

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Anthony Halmon

  • Category: Science and Technology
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: Chicago

Native Chicagoan Anthony Halmon is only a freshman at Cornell University, but he’s already made a name for himself. In 2013, the young father came up with the idea to create a pacifier that doubles as a thermometer. It’s called the Thermofier. The idea came from his concern for his young daughter and not always being able to easily tell when the baby wasn’t well. His invention earned Halmon a visit to the White House and a meeting with President Obama.

Halmon, who is interested in studying sociology and government, is from Chicago’s Inglewood area. He described it as a “tough, rough” place with “a lot of violence and gangs.” Growing up, he said, he was accosted regularly by various gang members due to the reputation of one of his relatives. The year that his father died (his sophomore year in high school) was also the year he learned he was to be a father. The teen made it his goal to better his life for the sake of his daughter, who is now 3 years old.

“Even if I want to give up and not live for myself, I have someone to live for,” Halmon said, adding that his daughter is “pushing me to do better.”

Now that she’s pushed him all the way to the Ivy League, Halmon would like to eventually work in public policy to help positively influence African-American communities, such as the one in which he grew up. He’d also like to be a motivational speaker.

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James Jeter

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Some folks view the world as a debate over style versus substance, but for James Jeter, style is substance. The sartorially savvy Morehouse grad hopes to turn his love for fashion into a career in which he can to teach other young men the elements of style.

“I would love to have a men’s shop that really represents what it means to be a gentlemen in modern society,” he said. “First impressions come before you open your mouth. When someone lays eyes on you, they sort of size you up to see what sort of character you have.”

He began his career in fashion at 16, when he was recruited to work at a Ralph Lauren store near his hometown after his keen sense of style caught the eye of employees. While at Morehouse—where he launched a style newspaper column—he became an intern in the concept-design department at the Ralph Lauren corporate office. He took first place in a design competition against 51 fellow design interns and earned the opportunity to meet with designer Ralph Lauren. Since graduating, he has been working seven days a week in New York City at Lauren’s flagship store and the corporate office, where he gets the opportunity to contribute to collection designs while also learning what customers are responding to and improving their experience.

As for his style role models, in addition to Lauren, Jeter cites his father, who taught him how to dress well. “He comes from a generation of guys who wore suits and he gave me a foundation of the rules of dressing,” he said. “By knowing the rules, that allowed me to know how to break them and still maintain style.”

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James Ward

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 19
  • Hometown: Los Angeles

“It makes me feel very happy, because I know that although the world may seem like a harsh and cold place, there are some people out there that care and want to give to those in need,” James Ward said after the 2013 #HomelesstoHoward crowdfunding campaign launched by his longtime mentor, Jessica Sutherland, raised money to cover the formerly homeless teen’s first-year expenses at Howard University.

James, along with his mother and two younger siblings, had spent years living in cars, relatives’ homes and shelters. Now, with his education fully funded through a combination of grants, loans and donations, the 19-year-old has rapidly transitioned from being a beneficiary of the kindness of strangers to being a philanthropist in his own right.

As the co-founder of the Homeless to Howard Foundation, which is slated to become a fully operational nonprofit by the spring of 2014, he’ll work with Sutherland to provide resources and assistance to underserved kids so they, too, can see their college dreams attained. The foundation will harness crowdfunding efforts for college hopefuls, offer mentorship and provide guidance to students on how to close gaps in their educational funding. 

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Jeramey Anderson 

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Moss Point, Miss.

At 22, Jeramey Anderson is the youngest person elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. And get this: After a full day of committee meetings, legislative sessions and lunch receptions, it’s back to his academics when he gets home. Yep, Jeramey is also a college student set to graduate later this year.

His predecessor, Billy Broomfield, was vacating his seat with plans to run for mayor, and Jeramey initially was going to help out with Broomfield’s mayoral campaign. But with Broomfield’s encouragement, Jeramey soon found himself launching a campaign to fill the vacated seat. As a Democratic state representative, he’s most passionate about education, and wants to find ways to bring together policy makers, teachers and students to inspire students about learning. Jeramey is not crazy about “the political game” and loves it best when politicians vote the way their constituents would want them to vote, and not how their party affiliates would prefer.  

This 22-year-old has a constituency of approximately 20,000—and a term paper likely due at the end of the month. 

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Dedrain Davis

  • Category: Green Innovation
  • Age: 20
  • Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.

This young futurist’s path to environmental justice began with a summer job at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The STEM-focused summer program targeted teenagers of color to teach them about the sciences. “Our group learned about the effects of climate change,” Dedrain says. “This is when I learned that our environment affects people of color differently—the high rates of asthma, for an example, is directly related to where we live; if we live near a highway or work in a factory, we’re exposed to pollutants.”

After receiving a crash course on what climate change is and how it affects millions, particularly those living in urban settings, Dedrain organized her fellow peers. “We attended city hall meetings, forums, workshops, and learned to network—until it snowballed. Often we were the only black faces at those meetings.”

The college junior, a public relations major and political science minor, attends Hampton University, where she’s on the dean’s list. Her organizing efforts and political interests have landed her a number of coveted internships. Dedrain plans to create a partnership between the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Hampton chapter of the NAACP, which would focus on primarily environmental justice issues. The St. Paul native plans to work for an nonprofit focused on environmental advocacy.

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Loren Cahill

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 21
  • Hometown: St. Louis

Loren Cahill believes that young people have the power to make a difference. That’s why she has dedicated her collegiate years to improving the lives of Boston-area children. A senior at Wellesley College, Loren is the founding member, president and development director of Stronger Communities, Stronger Schools, where she has developed school-community-university partnerships between Wellesley and two inner-city Boston communities, the South End and Chinatown.

“Coming to a predominantly white school, it was a bit of culture shock,” she said, but “The schools I work in remind me of the St. Louis community I’m from.” Loren’s immediate plan after graduation this year is to enter either a master of education or social work program so that she can continue to work in the communities she loves. After the master’s degree, Loren plans to get a Ph.D. and concentrate on her research on how racism reinforces educational and social inequities that are particularly harmful to lower-income youth and communities.

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Stephen A. Green

  • Category: Social Activism and Justice
  • Age: 21
  • Hometown: Little Rock, Ark.

As president of the Morehouse College NAACP chapter, Stephen A. Green has worked tirelessly to bring attention to a number of national and local issues that have impacted black communities in the past few years, from voting rights to “Stand your ground.” An Orlando native and college student in Atlanta, Stephen missed several classes in 2012 to ride down to Sanford, Fla., to organize a rally to protest the investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting. He organized students and led a march on the State Capitol.

When Republican legislators in Georgia proposed a bill that would allow people to carry guns on college campuses, in churches and in other public facilities, Stephen and Morehouse’s NAACP chapter led a campaign against that effort by speaking with community leaders and local policymakers. The Georgia Supreme Court eventually ruled the bill unconstitutional.

One of the issues about which Stephen is most passionate is protecting students while they are at school. He recalls how Georgia high-school student Kendrick Johnson was missing for a significant amount of time before someone finally realized that he had never returned to class, after asking for a hall pass. “Every school should know where their children are,” Stephen said. Majoring in political science and religion, Stephen plans to get his master’s degree in divinity studies after graduating from Morehouse.

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Frida Perez

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 18
  • Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

Filmmaker Frida Perez grew up loving TV and movies, thanks mainly to her immigrant parents, who came from the Dominican Republic.

“They always took us to the movies because it was a chance for them to listen to English and start learning it more easily,” she said. “When I got older I realized I could actually make these [movies]. It’s not that crazy.”

When she was 14, she attended a filmmaking program at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. After a screening of her first project—a documentary-style film in which she asked strangers in Union Square if they had one wish, what would it be?—Perez was hooked. “Seeing everybody react to my movie was the best feeling in the world, so after that I’ve always been trying to chase that feeling and keep making movies.”

Since then she’s made a variety of films, ranging from dramas to comedies to documentaries. At 16, she directed a film on human exploitation that was shown to the United Nations General Assembly.

The Brown University freshman loves the works of director Woody Allen and Wes Anders but she’s truly inspired by Girls producer Judd Apatow (Freaks & Geeks, Knocked Up). “His movies are about underdogs and taking all of your flaws and running with it and dealing with it,” she said. “He makes me think, oh, yeah, I can be a little off and not feel super comfortable with myself, but that can make a good movie sometimes if you do it well enough.”

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Nailah Penic

  • Category: Arts and Culture
  • Age: 17
  • Hometown: Alexandria, Va.

Literacy as a tool for empowerment has special meaning to 17-year-old Nailah Penic. She is a member of the Computer Clubhouse and co-creator of their award-winning teen book club, On the R.I.Z.E. (Reading Is Zealous Entertainment), which creates a space for teenagers to see how ideas found in books are relevant to society. Nailah selects and reviews the books for club members, and has arranged Skype interviews with a number of authors including Kim Purcell (Trafficked), Ebony Joy Wilkins (Sell Out), W.L. James (Children of the Realm) and best-selling Essence magazine author Stacy Hawkins Adams (Lead Me Home).

The award-winning club “provides teens with several insightful ways of combining the joys of reading with the advancement, expertise and excitement of technology.”

The Young Futurist says, “Book selections are extremely important and relevant to issues involving social justice, education, and personal growth. After learning [that] third-grade reading scores [are used when deciding] to construct U.S. prisons and the fact that several states forecast needed prison growth based on third grade reading scores, I hope to continue working with literacy empowerment after I finish college.”

When she attends college next year, the homeschooled literary activist plans to double major in biology and visual art with a major in English literature.

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Tafari John-King

  • Category: Green Innovation
  • Age: 18
  • Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y., 18-year-old Tafari John-King could see how an unhealthy environment fostered unhealthy living. Fast-food joints were more plentiful than gleaming groceries with fresh fruits and vegetables, and litter turned streets into trash bins. So Tafari sought to change that.

With Project GreenUp, a school group he founded when he was student president at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, the teen recruited volunteers to help clean up Crown Heights. The first cleanup happened in October of 2012, and there have been six more since. But the group doesn’t stop with picking up litter. Tafari had greater ambitions for bringing information about healthy, green, sustainable environments to his neighborhood.

With funding from JP Morgan Chase, Project GreenUp put together a green festival. Bringing in speakers, they’ve assisted in soup kitchens and helped with Hurricane Sandy relief. The group also has plans for building a greenhouse on their school roof. Now in his freshman year at Harvard University, Tafari is an adviser to the group he founded as it continues to grow under the student leadership of his high school alma mater. 

lamarrogers

Lamar Rogers

  • Category: Enterprise and Corporate Innovation
  • Age: 22
  • Hometown: Upper Marlboro, Md.

Born in Washington, D.C., but raised in Upper Marlboro, Md., 22-year-old Lamar Rogers is already heavily involved in the world of politics. As the then-political director of the College Democrats at the University of Maryland-College Park, Lamar got involved with Maryland’s marriage-equality referendum and recruited students to work the phone bank, drumming up support.

While working on the referendum he noticed the huge gap in resources between the local initiatives and the Obama 2012 reelection campaign in Maryland. While he couldn’t match the funding of the presidential election machine, Lamar—a politics major with a minor in leadership studies—did think he could do something about developing better resources. So he founded PoliRoots, a social media data-analysis program that seeks to help campaigns and initiatives figure out how to better target voters based on their voting history and their activity on social networking sites.

“It’s a Web service. We analyze social media and each person’s sentiment, their feelings and opinions,” Lamar said, elaborating that if a Congress member wants to know the views of his or her constituents on gun-control measures, for example, the politician could “look at his constituent base on PoliRoots to see percentage who’s for it and against it.”

Lamar is still steady at work developing the Web startup, with big plans for working the 2014 fall elections. Right now he has a team of six developing the site, including a business-development side and an engineering side for programming.

Lamar hopes to continue to develop PoliRoots and see where the startup takes him after he graduates from the University of Maryland this spring. But if all else fails, he hopes to move to New York City to work in the tech industry.