Whoever said youth is wasted on the young, clearly didn’t know the 25 brilliant, creative and passionate young people who make up this year’s Young Futurists list. Since 2011, The Root has celebrated 25 exceptional African Americans who’ve excelled in the fields of arts and culture; enterprise and corporate innovation; green innovation (the environment); science and tech; and social justice and activism. This year, we expanded the age range to honor those ages 10 to 24 (from 15 to 22) because, as this year’s group has shown, excellence isn’t limited by age.
Take 11-year-old Mari Copeny. The young activist has been advocating for clean drinking water for her hometown of Flint, Mich., since earning the title of Little Miss Flint in 2015—when she was eight. She has raised over $350,000 for her cause and has collected thousands of bottles of water. She told The Root that the residents of Flint are not “victims; they are fighters.”
Or 11-year-old Elijah Precciely, who entered college as a sophomore. The Baton Rouge, La., native is studying physics and mechanical engineering, after receiving a full-ride scholarship to Southern University in May 2018.
Kheris Rogers, 12, turned a negative moment in her life into a positive campaign of self-love with Flexin’ in My Complexion, her anti-bullying T-shirt line that celebrates women and girls with dark skin. Celebrities like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Lupita Nyong’o have been spotted where Kheris’ T-shirts.
Both Zanagee Artis, 19, and Aji Piper, 18, are taking on a critical issue that is not only a topic of concern in our current news cycle but will also have a serious impact on their futures: climate change.
“We all realized that we could no longer wait for elected officials to draft legislation to transition to sustainable energy,” Artis told The Root. “So, we decided that we needed to organize ourselves to make change from the grassroots if we were going to be able to stand a chance at preserving our future.”
Like the many Young Futurists before them, these 25 aren’t waiting for the current generation to step aside so they can become leaders. They are charting their own paths and determining their own futures—right now.
Congratulations to this year’s class of Young Futurists!
MEET THE 2019 YOUNG FUTURISTS
Zanagee Artis | Evelyn Atieno | Mari Copeny | Marley Dias | Aalayah Eastmond | Amanda Gorman | Kristine Guillaume | Sidney Keys III | Amara Leggett | Marsai Martin | Tyler Mitchell | Miracle Olantunji | Aaron Philip | Aji Piper | Elijah Precciely | Kheris Rogers | Lauren Simmons | Trinity Simone | Tania Speaks | Keven Stonewall | Zoe Terry | Julien and Justen Turner | Naomi Wadler | Langston Whitlock
Six years ago, Evelyn Atieno was tired of seeing the same types of stories in teen magazines.
“I realized that many teen publications lacked authentic teen voices,” the 21-year-old college senior told The Root. “Although the magazines were geared towards teens, it sounded more like pandering and the magazines were not inclusive either. As a young black woman, I rarely saw girls or stories I could relate to. I saw the void and decided to start Affinity Magazine.”
Affinity Magazine launched in February 2013 as a teen publication about social justice and politics—written by teens. Articles cover everything from climate change and health care to white privilege and race to LGBTQ issues and intersectional feminism. Hundreds of teen contributors write for the site, which is clocking in 500,000 monthly page views.
“I like giving people a platform to celebrate what they have accomplished,” Atieno told The Root. “In life, we do face a lot of obstacles, but we are able to overcome them and come out on top, so I love writing motivational stories about unconventional people.”
Atieno, who moved to the United States from Kenya when she was four, loves to travel; she visited 17 countries in 2018 and tries to visit Kenya at least once a year. She is set to graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and hopes to pursue a career in communications and marketing.
For now, Atieno will keep running Affinity with a team of editors—ensuring that teen voices are always heard when it comes to the most pressing issues of today.
Amanda Gorman is ready to conquer the world with her poetry. In April 2017, she became the first person to be named national youth poet laureate.
“It was really such an incredible honor, one I could’ve never imagined,” Gorman told The Root, of the moment she learned she’d been chosen as the U.S. youth poet laureate. “It was a lot of pressure, but at the same time a huge platform I felt I could use to make change.”
Since she is the first person to hold this title, Gorman has been able to make the role her own. She has spoken at the Library of Congress, United Nations x Mashable Social Good and delivered an original poem at Harvard’s presidential inauguration. Her poems often touch on themes of race, feminism and youth life. Currently, she is studying abroad in Madrid. Gorman, who is majoring in sociology, attended Milan’s Fashion Week. (She rebukes the idea of the shabbily dressed poet, telling Vogue, “There’s this idea of the poor, suffering poet, and I try to exhibit that the poet can be stylish, too.”)
In 2014, she was named the inaugural youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. The Harvard junior founded the nonprofit organization One Pen One Page in 2016 to provide an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” Last year, she was honored by Black Girls Rock, and began working with two nonprofit organizations, 826 National and Amplifier Foundation, to launch a poetry anthology to be published this fall.
“I hope to bring my poetry into institutions, spaces and topics that you would least expect a young black poet to be,” Gorman told The Root. “It’s my way of telling other young poets that they too have a voice and belong at every table imaginable.”
Category: Arts and Culture
Hometown: Forest Hills, N.Y.
Education: Harvard College
Social Media: Twitter
Kristine Guillaume screamed into the phone when she found out that she’d been selected as the president of the Harvard Crimson, the college campus’ student-run newspaper.
She was listening to Rihanna while reading a book on mass incarceration to prepare for class when she heard the news from the paper’s president and other Crimson editors. With her appointment, Guillaume became the first black woman and just the third black person to lead the organization since it was founded in 1873, CNBC reported.
“It’s really humbling to know that people believe in you to take on a role as large and important as this one, and I continue to feel lucky every day I go into the office,” Guillaume told The Root.
Guillaume, who is majoring in literature, history and African-American studies, reported on Harvard’s presidential transition as the college selected its 29th president. The 20-year-old Queens, N.Y., native also served as the chair of The Crimson’s Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She has edited travel guides, covered immigration and worked as a reporter in Lyon, France.
As president, she oversees the newspaper’s operations including recruitment, human resources and digital projects and is the liaison between The Crimson’s editorial and business sides. Guillaume was selected for the role after promising to put the paper on a path to a more “diverse, digital future,” the New York Times reported.
“I’m excited to focus on our digital boards to help push the Crimson forward in an age where the journalism industry is moving in an increasingly digital direction,” she told The Root. “I’m also working on bolstering the diversity of our staff through our recruitment and outreach efforts to the Harvard student body as well as ensuring that we are fostering an inclusive culture in the building.”
Marsai Martin may portray incredibly cute and sassy Diane Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish, but the 14-year-old actress is very serious about her career. Last year it was reported that she fired her agent who told her to just chill and wait for roles to come her way. But Marsai was insistent that she was ready to create the roles herself.
Then she announced that she’d be executive producer on the upcoming comedy Little, a film about tech entrepreneur Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) who—after a dose of a little black girl magic—turns into her 13-year-old self, portrayed by Marsai. With this film, she is set to make history as the youngest executive producer of a major Hollywood film. The film is inspired by her love for the Tom Hanks film, Big.
“It was one of my most favorite films growing up,” Marsai told The Root in January. “After the Season 1 finale of Black-ish, we told Kenya Barris about it, and he called Will [Packer] and said: ‘Yo, you know the girl who plays Diane on Black-ish? She has this dope idea!’”
And at the top of 2019, that dope idea has spawned into a huge opportunity for Marsai. In February, she inked a first-look deal with Universal through her company Genius Productions, making her the youngest person to land a production deal with a studio in recent memory, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The first film she is set to develop is StepMonster, a comedy written by Dayna North (of Insecure fame), where Marsai portrays a teenager who is trying to adjust to her new stepmother.
Marsai is excited about her future in the industry and hopes to inspire other girls to dream out loud.
“I am so excited for the magic I’ll be able to create and produce with Universal,” Marsai said. “My goal is to show young women and girls that our voices and ideas matter and you are never too young to dream BIG!”
Tyler Mitchell is all about bold colors and showing off the beauty of people of color in his photography.
“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” he told the New York Times in 2017. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”
That honest gaze attracted Beyoncé to his work and is one reason he landed one of the biggest shoots of his life in 2018. Mitchell, a 23-year-old photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., shot Vogue’s September 2018 cover issue featuring Beyoncé, becoming the first black photographer to shoot the magazine’s cover in its 126-year history.
Beyoncé isn’t the only big celebrity that Mitchell has gotten in front of his lens. He has also shot for Solange Knowles, and for brands such as Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Converse. Last March, he shot the cover of Teen Vogue, which featured anti-gun violence activists from Parkland, Fla., Newtown, Conn., and Ferguson, Mo.
Mitchell’s new exhibit, “I Can Make You Feel Good,” debuts in Amsterdam in April, and it’s a collection of photos and two short films, showing the carefree side of blackness that so often isn’t portrayed in mainstream media and photography. Mitchell’s work often disrupts the whiteness of the industry and questions societal constructs. He has explored contemporary black masculinity through portraits in his series, “I’m Doing Pretty Hood in My Pink Polo.”
The photographer’s career started off in his hometown of Atlanta, where he shot videos for aspiring rappers and often focused on making skateboarding videos. In 2015, he traveled to Havana, where he turned his filmmaking skills into a passion for photography. With 30 rolls of film, he captured the “complicated” and “beautiful” architecture of Cuba. He turned that photography into a book, El Paquete.
Ultimately, he hopes to inspire other young and aspiring photographers.
“There was a ladder for the people who came before me, and there’s a ladder now—it’s just a new ladder,” Mitchell told Vogue. “I want to open the eyes of the kids younger than me, show them that they can do this too.”
Julien Turner is the mastermind behind the scripts; Justen Turner controls the camera. Together, they are the forces behind Dreadhead Films, a movie studio creating films that tackle social and political issues.
“We ultimately want to create entertaining stories that positively impact our culture, create civil discourse, influence decision makers, and leave a lasting legacy,” Julien told The Root.
Justen created Dreadhead Films when he was just 12 years old. He had made a name for himself in his neighborhood as a young kid who was great with a camera, recording football and basketball games at the local high school.
But the duo hit the national stage in November 2017, when Julien’s extra credit biology video went viral on social media. Titled “XY Cell Life,” the catchy song about cells and DNA is a cover of Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Lif3.” He was able to flex his writing skills with the lyrics. Soon after Sesame Street commissioned the filmmakers to create a short film for the 2018-2019 season. The segment aired on HBO.
Dreadhead’s latest short film, Nia’s Shadow, is a sci-fi story about a black woman named Nia Knight who gains superpowers as a result of pollution within her community. Ultimately, she leads a revolution against social injustices with her superhuman genes.
“We hope that people will want more of Nia Knight and her universe, and we will be able to secure a bigger budget to produce a feature film,” Justen told The Root.
This year, the Turner brothers hope to finish the project and debut it at national film festivals. Inspired by directors Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, J.J. Abrams and several other big-name filmmakers, Julien and Justen recognize that their parents—who gave Justen a flip camera when he was just 9 years old—are integral parts of their early success.
“The biggest lesson we have learned to date is that as young creatives, nothing is more valuable than having the all-in support of your parents and family,” Julien said. “Our mom and dad have been the MVPs of all of our projects to date.”
In high school, Miracle Olatunji got so fed up with the process of searching for summer enrichment opportunities that she decided to find a solution.
“It is disorganized, time-consuming and stressful,” Olatunji told The Root. “My goal is to change this.”
Enter OpportuniMe, a tech start-up that connects high school students to opportunities that help them explore possible careers, build their own professional networks and start cultivating their passions before college. Since the launch, the 19-year-old college freshman has been dedicated to helping other young people start their own businesses.
“Young entrepreneurs are and can be drivers of innovation and economic growth, and make a positive impact in their communities and the world,” Olatunji told The Root. “Entrepreneurship helps young people develop valuable skills such as collaboration, public speaking, critical thinking, and more.”
In 2018, OpportuniMe won the grand prize at the World Series of Entrepreneurship. With that win, Olatunji is hoping to launch a web platform for the startup. She participated in the international pitch competition, Diamond Challenge, and became an ambassador for the program. That program helped spark her interest in entrepreneurship.
This year, she is set to release her first book, Purpose: How to Live and Lead With Impact.
Olatunji is encouraging her peers to tap into their passion and entrepreneurial spirit. So far she has helped more than 300 young people find opportunities—and she’s not planning to stop any time soon.
There aren’t many 12-year-olds who can say that Beyoncé knows who they are by name.
For Black History Month, the iconic singer recognized Kheris Rogers, who founded Flexin’ in My Complexion, an anti-bullying T-shirt line that promotes confidence for women with dark skin. Kheris said being recognized by Beyoncé was an “indescribable feeling” and that it truly reminded her that what she is doing is making a difference.
Flexin’ in My Complexion started a couple of years ago after Kheris was being bullied for the color of her skin. She launched the clothing line with her sister, Taylor, after they received an outpouring of support on social media after Taylor posted an image of her sister on Twitter. Eventually, the bullying turned into motivation for more self-love.
Since then, Kheris’ star has kept on rising. She appeared on America’s Next Top Model. Her line has been worn by Alicia Keys and Lupita Nyong’o. And in 2017, she became the youngest fashion designer to ever showcase a line at New York Fashion Week.
Kheris was one of 16 black women and girls who were included in LeBron James’ #Strongest campaign for the launch of his first signature women’s shoe in September 2018. Earlier this year, she partnered with Walmart for its Reign On campaign, which highlighted young creatives who are inspiring kids to follow their dreams.
“When you love yourself, there is nothing that people can do or say to break you,” Kheris told The Root. “What really helped me was looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself that ‘I am beautiful. I am special. I am enough.’”
Category: Enterprise and Corporate Innovation
Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
Education: Kennesaw State University
Social Media: Instagram
Lauren Simmons made history at 22 years old when she became the youngest and only full-time female trader on the New York Stock Exchange. She was also the second African-American woman to wear the trader’s badge.
In 2016, Simmons, who is now 24, had just graduated from Kennesaw State University and had moved to New York City to pursue her career. She applied to a job on LinkedIn and was hired by Rosenblatt Securities in March 2017 as an equity trader. But first, she had to pass the Series 19 exam to make it to the NYSE floor—and she passed on the first try. Though she majored in genetics in college, she’s always been good with numbers.
“The one thing that I love about numbers and statistics, and kind of one of the reasons I came to the New York Stock Exchange, is because numbers are a universal language,” she told CNBC in June. “When you put them on a board it connects everyone, which is probably one of the reasons why the New York Stock Exchange is so iconic.”
In November, Deadline reported that actress Kiersey Clemons will star in and produce the movie about Simmons’ life.
“I’m thoroughly excited to be on this project and to be one of the executive producers,” Simmons told Forbes. “I’m happy that my story and my message will have a further reach and that people will get to see a different side of me beyond the serious financial side.”
Simmons stopped trading on the NYSE in December, but she hasn’t lost her love for finance. She plans to keep empowering women and minorities to be financially savvy, she told Forbes, and is releasing a book this year, too. She encourages everyone to go after their dreams.
“Be uncomfortable and go after what you want,” she told CNBC. “Apply for the job—you have no idea what lies behind the door. And if you don’t get the job, it’s OK. Apply for the next job and move forward. Don’t let that be a stop in your career, your life or whatever you want to do. I think it’s important to just keep going.”
Trinity Simone is helping black people everywhere wear their pride on their sleeves, literally. In July 2017, the 16-year-old Atlanta native created Black Vibe Tribe, an apparel and accessories company that promotes positive messages for the black community.
“I wanted my creations to be bold, thought-provoking, attention-getting, eyebrow-raising messages that motivated change,” Trinity told The Root. “My mission is to connect, love, uplift and build with people of the African diaspora.”
Black Vibe Tribe offers up T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing inspirational statements—“Defend Black Womanhood” and “Protect Black Youth”—and hats and totes that pay homage to the Black Panther Party and Nina Simone. She has created a line of tees, crop tops, visors and even baby onesies that boast the phrase “Melanin Abundant.” While Trinity makes most of her sales online, Nubian Hueman, a black-owned retail store in Washington, D.C., also keeps her items in stock.
Trinity has also used her platform to talk about mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline and the cash bail system. Within the last year, she created the social justice initiative The Youth Will Be All Write to bring awareness to incarcerated black youth in juvenile detention centers. Trinity donates composition notebooks so that young men and women behind bars can have an outlet to express themselves.
“I want these youth to find their voices, raise their voices, express themselves and create next steps for their future through the power of pen and paper,” Trinity told The Root.
This year, Trinity is planning to publish a children’s book. She hopes to expand her work with incarcerated youth and to make the Black Vibe Tribe bigger and stronger.
“I’m in awe of the support that I have received thus far and I feel confident knowing that they’re going to take this journey with me to continue to cheer me on,” she said. “Their encouraging words and random acts of kindness will forever hold a place in my heart and put a smile on my face.”
Tania Speaks was tired of being teased for having bushy eyebrows when she was a kid. So one day, she came home from school and took matters into her own hands.
“I decided to cut my eyebrows with a razor myself which resulted in a very traumatic visit to the emergency room,” Tania told The Root. “When returning to school, I was bullied for my cut eyebrows and then I realized, it did not matter what my eyebrows looked like, I was going to be bullied so I decided to grow my eyebrows back.”
The 17-year-old Hofstra student said she started to experiment with different formulas to help grow and maintain her eyebrows. She tested the product on her family members and then eventually started selling the eyebrow gel in the bathrooms during her freshman year of high school.
Enter Brow Boost, an organic skin care company that makes products for eyebrows and beards.
“Entrepreneurship found me,” Tania told Forbes. “I love helping other teens who are being bullied and lack confidence to embrace their flaws. My horrible experiences helped show me how to turn tragedy into triumph.”
In 2018, Speaks was named one of Time magazine’s most influential teens. And rightfully so—Speaks turned her bullying experience into a booming business, and is making sure eyebrows and beards across the country are getting a major boost.
Zanagee Artis knows that we’re running out of time to address the climate crisis. And he isn’t standing idly by to just let the environment crumble around him.
So Artis and a group of activists met up in the summer of 2017 to launch Zero Hour, a climate advocacy group led by young people.
“We all realized that we could no longer wait for elected officials to draft legislation to transition to sustainable energy,” Artis told The Root. “So, we decided that we needed to organize ourselves to make change from the grassroots if we were going to be able to stand a chance at preserving our future.”
Then last July, the group organized the Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C., to inspire people across the world to take action on climate justice. Artis, who serves as logistics director for Zero Hour, is responsible for working with vendors, submitting permits and ensuring that the organization’s campaigns run smoothly. This year, Zero Hour will release its national climate justice education campaign to build on its network of climate advocates.
Artis, who is a freshman at Brown University, began his work as an environmentalist back in high school. He started a sustainability committee on his school’s National Honor Society, which raised $700 to install filling stations for water bottles, the New York Times reports.
The fight for action on climate justice is just beginning for Artis and Zero Hour—and he only hopes the movement gets bigger.
“I’m really looking forward to increasing Zero Hour’s grassroots network and making the fight for climate justice a localized issue in every region of the United States,” Artis told The Root. “I’m also looking forward to expanding the range of youth voices that Zero Hour is able to highlight on our social media so that their stories of resistance and resilience in the face of climate disasters are amplified.”
Mari Copeny won’t let any of us forget about Flint. The 11-year-old activist is determined to keep raising her voice about her town’s water problems until all residents have access to clean water.
Flint’s water crisis started in 2014, when the city’s water source changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, a move to save the city money. Lead from the pipes seeped into the water. Immediately, Mari, who had earned the name Little Miss Flint in 2015 after advocating for better relationships between police officers and local kids, wanted to speak out about the issue. In 2016, Mari wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, with hopes of meeting him to talk about the effects of the water crisis.
“I didn’t expect anything when I sent the letter,” Mari told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I didn’t even think he would write back. I thought I was being pranked when I heard he wanted to meet me. But it was the greatest, awesomest, most epic experience of my life.”
Since then, Mari’s star has risen—with clean water for Flint always at the center of her message. She has raised over $350,000 toward the recovery and collected thousands of bottles of water and backpacks, and over 500 bicycles, the AJC reported. Even though she and Flint residents are dealing with a “horrible water crisis,” she told The Root, they are “not victims; they are fighters.”
“Sometimes it feels like we are fighting and not seeing much progress,” she told The Root. “But then I hear of other cities with water issues and know I have to keep fighting for them and for Flint.”
Over the years, Mari has taken several politicians and notable figures to task on Twitter, from President Donald Trump over his broken promise to fix Flint’s lead problem to political commentator Tomi Lahren about the proposed border wall. Mari’s mother says all of the tweets are straight from Mari’s mouth to her fingertips.
In 2018, she launched the “Dear Flint Kids” letter-writing campaign, where people can send positive messages to kids in Flint. It’s one of her proudest moments of the year, she said. “Getting letters and cards always make me smile and feel happy and I want that feeling for all the kids here in Flint,” Mari said. “I didn’t know when I started that I would get so many letters from all over the world, but it’s a great feeling to know that so many people care.”
Category: Green Innovation
Social Media: Instagram
For Aji Piper, it all started with a ukulele. At 12 years old, Piper would write songs with his younger brother and perform at city hall and public hearings. There, he learned about climate change—he also joined youth organization Plant for the Planet—and hasn’t stopped advocating for change since.
Now at 18, climate activism is so urgent that he and 20 other young people have sued the government over climate change. The case, Juliana v. the United States, argues that the U.S. government “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” Our Children’s Trust is representing the young plaintiffs the case, which was filed in 2015.
“There is a certain degree of tentative hope afforded by the prospect of a positive ruling in our case,” Piper told The Root. “However, due to the nature of the legal system—in particular, its slow-moving nature—it’s hard not to feel pressed for time, especially when facing a national security crisis like climate change.”
As if suing the federal government wasn’t enough, the Seattle native and a dozen other teens in Washington state filed suit in Kings County in February for not reducing greenhouse gas emissions and failing to protect residents from the impact of climate change.
“This lawsuit gives the Washington state government a chance to take the lead and commit to the citizens it serves and the lives it must protect,” Piper told Climate Liability News.
In 2018, the Seattle native delivered a powerful speech on the TEDx stage about his legal journey in Washington state and against the federal government. He’s hopeful that he and the other plaintiffs will win their cases— but knows that the fight for the future is just getting started.
“The battle for change is not going to be easy,” he said in the speech. “It’s hard to agree on policy, implementation and regulations, but you can’t turn a blind eye to the future.”
When Amara Leggett decided she was interested in STEM, she didn’t wait to learn the nuts and bolts behind technology. A high school freshman at the time, Leggett immediately taught herself how to code seven different programming languages.
“After learning the craft, I was hooked on the possibilities to change the world with technology,” she told The Root.
She started her blog, A Young Legend, when she was talking about the road to graduation day. Eventually, A Young Legend morphed into a space to talk about how to navigate investing and entrepreneurship.
“When I started my business journey, I scoured the internet looking for people that would write the truth and answer my emails,” Leggett told The Root. “I became that person for teens and adults alike to ask me questions, be their lifelong mentor, and friend as they achieve success.”
Leggett, who attends Ohio Dominican University and is majoring in computer science, graduated from high school and received her associate’s degree when she was 16. She had participated in Ohio’s college credit plus dual enrollment program to graduate early and took classes at Columbus State Community College.
Last year was a busy one for Leggett. The 18-year-old released her book The Strategic Mind of A Young Legend, registered her business name and gave a TEDx talk, where she lays out a three-step plan for making “the impossible possible.” So far this year, she is working on a campaign to empower girls of color to pursue their passions.
Yes, typically 11-year-olds are working their way through long-division math problems and playing at recess with their friends. But Elijah Precciely is way beyond that stage in his life.
Elijah, a native of Baton Rouge, La., is an 11-year-old college sophomore. In January, he entered Southern University in Baton Rouge as a sophomore, and he is studying physics and mechanical engineering, after receiving a full-ride scholarship in May 2018.
“We are pleased to offer Elijah Precciely the J.S. Clark Presidential Scholar award,” Southern University President Ray Belton said last May. “As a J.S. Clark Scholar, he will engage in research and other scholarly activities as part of the honors college.”
In his short life, Elijah has already preached his first sermon, hosted a weekly radio show and written his first book, Mission Christian: God’s Got First. At eight years old, he was already taking physics and biology classes, the Advocate reported. He’s always been fascinated with how things work.
“What fascinates me about physics is that it tells me why and then answers how it happens,” Elijah told The Root. “What fascinates me about mechanical engineering is that we look at the mechanics based on the physics of how and why things work.”
Since starting school, Elijah has been nominated as president of the Society of Physics Students and has been impressing his fellow classmates with his knowledge.
“He’s more than just a student,” Dr. Manicia Gene Finch, the associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, told the Atlanta Black Star. “I think he is a young gentleman and man of the Holy Spirit. He’s going to fit in very well, as he already does here at Southern University.”
Keven Stonewall is determined to find a cure for colon cancer. His love for medicine—and the desire to pursue it professionally—began when he realized it was actually possible to become a doctor because his pediatrician was a black man.
Years later, it was the death of a friend’s uncle from cancer that really inspired him to look into cancer research. He’d learned that black Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer—and had a higher chance of dying from the disease.
“I had a passion for medicine and science since the age of 10, so I felt it my responsibility to step up and go after my passion in order to prevent other individuals and family members from dealing with the hardships of cancer,” Stonewall told The Root.
In high school, he had researched dozens of articles on cancer treatments and learned that colon cancer often affected the elderly more frequently than younger people. During his senior year of high school, Stonewall discovered an age-related disadvantage in an experimental vaccine for colon cancer. Stonewall tested out prescription drugs on young and old mice and noticed different outcomes—the older mice didn’t respond to the vaccine. His findings helped to develop better treatments for the elderly, according to Carl Ruby, a professor in the lab where Stonewall was working.
Since then, Stonewall, who is now a first-year medical student, has been lauded for his cancer research work. In 2018, he was selected as the keynote speaker for Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Call-On Congress event, where survivors, researchers and caregivers promote advocacy on Capitol Hill.
“It’s an honor to be invited to speak on behalf of many people who have been personally affected by colon and rectal cancer because it was a great opportunity to share my journey behind my dedication to eliminating health disparities in cancers common in underserved communities,” Stonewall told The Root.
While he’s pursuing his medical career, Stonewall hopes to encourage other young people to pursue the STEM fields. Diverse communities, he said, are often the forces that help drive innovation.
“I want to make sure that I am paying it forward through education,” Stonewall said. “I also plan on continuing to be a motivational speaker and share my story about how a kid from Chicago turned passion into purpose.”
“Our goal is to provide access to healthcare to all rural and metro areas while decreasing appointment no-shows and cutting travel costs,” Whitlock told The Root.
The SAFETRIP app, which is available for download on iOS and Android, allows users to schedule emergency and non-emergency medical transport. Users can pay with debit or credit cards, and even with insurance plans. So far, the app has been downloaded nearly 42,000 times and is used in 42 professional doctor networks.
Earlier this year, Whitlock was selected as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30, the youngest person chosen for the annual list. Recently, he was selected by Delta Airlines to sit on its youth board of advisers.
SAFETRIP is looking to grow its services in the next few years. Whitlock is currently working on ways to improve the app’s emergency medical services option. In 2020, SAFETRIP hopes to expand into aviation services.
Marley Dias surely knows how to speak things into existence. In 2015, over breakfast at a local diner, she told her mother that she wanted to see more kids reading books with black girls as the main character.
“In order to fully create change, you must use your passions,” Marley told The Root. “Passion is the fuel for creating change in one’s community.”
That year, she created the #1000blackgirlbooks, a social media campaign to get 1,000 books with black girls as protagonists and donate them to libraries. Of course, Marley surpassed that goal and collected more than 11,000 books.
But her journey didn’t end there. In 2018, she made sure that other young black girls had books with characters who looked like her—literally. She released her own book last January titled Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You!). The book imagines “a world where black girls were free to be complicated, honest, human; to have adventures and emotions unique just to them. A world where black girls’ stories mattered.”
“I hope that it is inspiring kids to be student-activists,” Marley told The Root. “I also hope parents, guardians, teachers and caretakers are reading it and learning that they must listen to kids and teens because we have really important ideas.”
In 2018, Marley was named one of 25 most influential teens by Time magazine. This year she helped GrassROOTS Community Foundation, a training organization with a focus on public health, to launch Green Ribbon Week, which promotes positive mental health for youth. The 14-year-old is also the author of a ‘zine that she created for Elle Magazine where she writes about activism and black girls.
Marley plans to be uplifting black girls for the foreseeable future. “I am looking forward to being able to uplift more young girls’ voices through social media and my online platforms.”
Aalayah Eastmond fell behind her classmate and played dead after he was shot and killed on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“I remember telling myself that’s what I would do in that situation because I have to look like I’m dead ... And at that point, I was just talking to God because I knew I was gonna die,” Eastmond told Today a year after the shooting.
Since surviving that mass shooting, which left 17 dead and 17 others injured, Eastmond has been speaking out on gun violence especially in communities of color. She has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings for his Supreme Court justice appointment. She has spoken out at town halls about gun violence across the country and testified at the first gun violence hearing in eight years in front of a U.S. House committee. She even delivered the perfect clapback to comedian Louis C.K. after he delivered a tasteless joke about the Parkland, Fla., shooting survivors:
“Hey Louis CK—since you like making fun of me and other Parkland survivors behind closed doors, I’m right here if you want to talk. Just try to keep it in your pants, ok?”
Clearly, Eastmond isn’t letting anyone, not even predatory comedians, stop her from speaking out against gun violence.
“I work across the country to help amplify the voices of young people and particularly young people in communities of color whose day-to-day experience with gun violence is always ignored, mischaracterized, marginalized, and minimized by the press, the public and the corporate gun lobby,” she said at the Kavanaugh hearings.
Eastmond is set to graduate this spring and hopes to attend Howard University, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. She wants to pursue a career as a criminal defense attorney. She is a member of the executive council for Team Enough, a group of students who have been affected by gun violence and are advocating for change.
“I just wish everybody would accept each other for who they are and embrace somebody when they’re going through something and try to help each other rather than knock each other down,” Eastmond told Today. “I think that would be a perfect world.”
Sidney Keys III is a voracious reader. Some of his favorite books are the Scraps of Time series by Patricia McKissack, Boy21 by Matthew Quick and John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March.
But when he was 11 years old, he realized there weren’t a lot of books for boys like him—and he wanted that to change. So he created a book club, Books n Bros, in his hometown of St. Louis, so that 7- to 13-year-olds could bond over books, but also could improve their levels of literacy.
“I think it’s important for kids like me to get into books because it increases your vocabulary,” Sidney told The Root. “Which increases your chances at better opportunities in life like traveling other places and getting the job you want. Reading also allows you to escape in stories you’ve never imagined.”
Today, Books n Bros reaches over 250 boys internationally and hosts monthly meetups in Ferguson, Mo. The idea for Books n Bros was sparked after a visit to a local black bookstore for children, where he eventually hosted his first meetup. His mother, Winnie, captured him on Facebook Live reading in the store and the video was viewed more than 60,000 times. His story caught the attention of Steve Harvey, who enlisted the help of Oprah Winfrey to celebrate Sidney’s accomplishments.
The 13-year-old entrepreneur also has a passion for fashion. In 2018, Sidney was chosen as the chairman of the kids’ board of directors for KidBox, a New York City-based fashion company, which gave away $10,000 worth of new clothes to families in St. Louis. Last year, he was also selected as a fellow for EdHub, an organization hoping to expand education initiatives among entrepreneurs, where he’ll fight for racial equality in educational spaces.
Going forward, Sidney hopes to expand Books n Bros into other schools and cities. In June, the organization is set to host its first gala to give back to families in need and celebrate literacy among African Americans.
Perhaps Aaron Philip is an oracle of sorts. In November 2017, Philip, a transgender woman with cerebral palsy, sent a tweet that’s been shared nearly 24,000 times.
“honestly when i get scouted/discovered by a modeling agency it’s OVER for y’all!” she stated. “by y’all i mean the WORLD! it’s real inclusivity/diversity hours folks, get into it!”
Indeed, that tweet got the fashion industry to take notice. Less than a year later, Philip made history when Elite Model Management tapped her to join the company as the first black transgender model with disabilities to sign to an agency. In an industry that’s often criticized for its lack of diversity, Philip hopes to be a small part of the change, especially for other people with disabilities.
“There’s still a great lack of visibility and attention towards people with disabilities in fashion,” Philip told CNN. “It shouldn’t be the responsibility of anyone who is marginalized to amplify their voice when there are so many voices that can amplify (it for) them.”
“But it’s just the way of getting to where you need to be. So I’ll do it. And hopefully, I’ll do it so that other girls in my position don’t have to—they can just live and do their jobs.”
In 2018, Philip was supposed to hit the runways of New York Fashion Week, but there was one big problem: the runways weren’t wheelchair accessible. But that setback hasn’t fazed Philip, who hopes to see the fashion industry fully embrace what it means to make the fashion industry accessible and inclusive for everyone.
Before she was on contract with Elite, Philip had modeled for ASOS and H&M. She counts legendary model Naomi Campbell—who is also signed to Elite—as one of her inspirations. Philip loves art and may study fashion photography after she graduates from high school in June. She doesn’t want to be seen as an enigma of the fashion world because of her race, gender identity or disability, but she does hope to one day inspire and help advocate for other marginalized people.
“Maybe in the future, I’ll be a casting agent who specializes in casting people of marginalized identities in high fashion,” she suggested. “I want diversity to be pushed forward, forward, forward, and I think maybe (that’s how) I can do it.”
For Zoe Terry’s sixth birthday, she had just one wish: She wanted to give little brown girls little brown dolls. She had been bullied by her classmates, who teased her for her dark skin and her “puffy hair.” So, Zoe, who is now 12, wanted to make sure that other girls of color like her knew that they were beautiful.
Enter Zoe’s Dolls, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that black, Latino and Caribbean girls had dolls that looked like them. Every year around Christmas, Zoe’s Dolls asks people to donate black dolls that the organization can distribute to girls around the world.
“I think it’s important for young black and brown girls to have a doll that looks like them because they need to know that their image is important,” Zoe told The Root. “My black dolls always made me feel beautiful so I thought dolls in girls’ image would be a great way to let them know they are beautiful.”
So far, Zoe’s Dolls has given out more than 25,000 dolls—and even reached young girls in the Netherlands, Cuba and Jamaica. Terry also launched Love Letters to Black Girls, an initiative to “inspire, encourage and empower black girls through the gift of words from some of the community’s most prominent women and men.”
In 2017, Zoe received the Nickelodeon HALO Award, which honors young people who have improved the lives of others. That same year, she released her first book, Simply Zoe, about how she turned her experience with bullying into a booming business.
This year, she’s hoping to complete her very own doll and release a second book—and of course, she will send out “tons and tons of dolls” to help make sure that girls like her can always see the beauty of their brown skin.
Category: Social Justice and Activism
Hometown: Alexandria, Va.
Naomi Wadler was just 11 years old when she gave a powerful speech to thousands of people at the March for Our Lives last year.
“I’m here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” she said at the rally, which was organized in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The speech quickly went viral, with many applauding Naomi for drawing attention to gun violence and mistreatment of black girls. She called out the names of Courtlin Arrington, Hadiya Pendleton and Taiyania Thompson who were all killed by gunfire.
“I’m happy that it did because I can use my platform to give a voice to other black girls who feel as if they don’t have one,” Naomi told Smithsonian magazine.
Just 10 days before her epic speech, Naomi led a walkout of 60 students at her elementary school to support the movement for gun reform. The walkout, held in solidarity with other schools across the nation, lasted 18 minutes—one minute longer than the other protests, to honor Arrington who had been killed earlier that month.
In the last year, Naomi has appeared on the Ellen Show, spoken at the Women of the World conference and been honored by the Tribeca Film Festival. Naomi unapologetically lifts up black girls in her words and her actions. For Vice, she wrote a poem titled “Black Girl Magic” and one verse in particular perfectly defines Naomi’s skillful work in advocating for other young black girls like her:
“Brilliant and wise, always knowledgeable beyond compare, standing for what is right, ready always for the fight.”