But since receiving that honor in February of 2011, the teen, who goes by "De'Jaun," lost his grandmother, his uncle was executed and his mother died of cancer.
De'Jaun, 17, of Savannah, Ga., was born into the debate about capital punishment. His uncle, Troy Davis, was already on death row for the August 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.
Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, after a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed. He maintained his innocence until the end, in a case that drew widespread media attention.
Less than three months later, Martina Correia, who was the face of the effort to free her brother, died of cancer.
"When she died in the hospital, I wasn't sad at all," De'Jaun told The Root. "She was calm. She didn't have anything else to worry about. She was up there with my uncle and grandmother."
As a kid, De'Jaun watched his mother, a volunteer with Amnesty International, speak about her brother's case around the world. De'Jaun joined her crusade, giving his first speech when he was in the seventh grade.
As the execution neared, he spoke to audiences in cities such as Kansas City, Mo.; New York; Washington, D.C.; and even London about his uncle's case and what he perceives to be an unfair criminal-justice system.
Life became increasingly hectic: He was in and out of federal court, traveling to heighten awareness of his uncle's case and conducting endless media interviews.
When his mother became ill, he knew he had to fill the void. "No matter what our outcome was, we always ended the day thanking God for what he has done," said De'Jaun, who visited his uncle regularly. "Yes, we weren't getting the response we wanted, but we knew we were exposing the court system every time they denied us.
"We were fighting for fairness and respect."
Since the deaths in his family, De'Jaun has begun to build a life for himself. A senior in high school, he is interning at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., which designs and develops business jet aircraft, and living with his aunt, Kimberly Davis. He will graduate in June and hopes to attend Georgia Tech, where he plans to major in industrial engineering with a focus on research and development.
Regardless of his educational future, he has no intention of slowing his activism. If he is accepted into Georgia Tech, he will volunteer with Amnesty International in Atlanta and work with the city's NAACP branch.
But it's education first. That is what his mother wanted.
While his schoolwork takes priority, he has continued writing speeches to deliver one day. Sometimes when he is angry, he writes in his journal. In the meantime, his family and others continue to bring attention to death penalty cases.
Kimberly Davis remains active in the anti-death penalty movement. Seattle-based Jen Marlowe, a filmmaker, writer and human rights advocate, is authoring a book about De'Jaun's mother.
And Cerebral Motion Entertainment has produced a 40-minute documentary, Too Much Doubt, about that fateful night in August 1989, the investigation, the prosecution of Troy Davis and what it calls "the flaws in the criminal-justice system."
De'Jaun also still talks to his uncle's lawyers and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.
People who know De'Jaun say that he has an indomitable spirit he inherited from his mother. (His father is not very involved in his life.) His mother, he said, was able to captivate an audience with her intellect and the way she spoke.
"She was the embodiment of resilience," said Laura Moye, death-penalty abolition campaign director for Amnesty International USA. Moye met De'Jaun and his mother in the late 1990s and was by his mother's side in her final days. Moye said that Martina Correia's spirit was strong and she held on with every breath.
"It was very important to Martina for her son to have as 'normal' a life as possible so he can make his own decisions about what he wants to do with his life," she said. "She really wanted him to experience the joy of family, the joy of getting to know his uncle and not be hit too strongly with the darker stuff she was dealing with."
De'Jaun said his mother had two desires before she died: to see her son graduate from high school and for Georgia's court system to be scrutinized.
"She did get a chance to see the work she has done, and how many people were behind her and fighting for her," De'Jaun said. "She was very pleased by that."
Jealous said De'Jaun speaks from the heart. He has known the young man since he was 3 and has kept in touch with the family intermittently over the years. He calls the family strong and faith-filled.
"De'Jaun has come through these ordeals with a sense of purpose and clarity about his own life and the impact he hopes to have on the world," Jealous said. "It is inspiring as it is rare."
De'Jaun is not one to hold grudges. He tries to use his power to make the situation better. He sees his uncle's death, while sad, as creating opportunities that he may not have had. He believes that destiny has determined his fate and future.
The 2011 Young Futurist has a message for this year's honorees: "If you are passionate about something, make a change, do what you have to do with your power and resources. Educate, get out there and influence others."
Learn more about the 2012 Young Futurists.
Megan K. Scott is a contributor to The Root.