If history has taught us anything, it’s that young people will always lead the way. Whether it’s the young African-American activists marching in the streets to insist that black lives do matter or the students who hit the streets on #NationalWalkoutDay to demand changes to gun laws that will keep their schools safe, it’s clear this generation isn’t waiting around for the so-called grown-ups to do the right thing.
The 25 people who make up this year’s list of Young Futurists also are not content to let adults determine their future. Since 2011, The Root has proudly honored the best and brightest African Americans between the ages of 15 and 22, the brilliant and inspirational leaders who are already charting their own paths in the worlds of business, science and tech, the arts, social justice and the environment. At a time when there is a void in leadership in Washington, D.C., and beyond, these Young Futurists are stepping up to show the world that, regardless of their age, they are ready and willing to lead the way.
Among this year’s honorees: photographers Myles Loftin and Quil Lemons, who are using their creativity to rewrite the prevailing narrative around masculinity and black boys, who are often tossed aside by a society that labels them thugs and criminals.
There is Essynce Moore, who at 15 years old, has already written three books (that are required reading in several school districts), launched a fashion and beauty line, opened a spa and spoken to thousands around the country. It bears repeating that she is only 15.
George Hofstetter is using technology to help black children avoid brutal confrontations with the police, with his app CopStop. The app allows users to record their interactions with police—providing a different perspective than that of police bodycams or a recording when there are no bodycams at all—as well as teaches young people how to interact with police.
At 9 years old, Zandra Cunningham started her own natural skin-care line called Zandra Beauty. The savvy entrepreneur, who is now 17, heads a company that is worth half-a-million dollars, and her products are sold online and in stores across the country, including Paper Source and Whole Foods.
These are just a few of the young trailblazers who are not letting anything—or anyone—stand in their way of achieving their dreams. Congratulations to this year’s class of Young Futurists!
Sasha Ariel Alston | Ose Arheghan | Thessalonika Arzu-Embry | Seun Babalola | Keila Banks | Victoria Barrett | Maame Biney | Zandra Cunningham |
Tamir D. Harper | George Hofstetter | Tamera Jacobs | Chanice Lee |
Quil Lemons | Eva Lewis | Myles Loftin | Juliet Lubwama | Victor Madu |
Ashanti Martinez | Essynce Moore | La’Taijah Powell | Journi Prewitt |
Storm Reid | Taylor Richardson | Matthew Whitaker | Reece Whitley
Even at 6 years old, it was clear that Maame Biney was too fast to be a figure skater. Thankfully, one of her earliest instructors quickly realized that and told her she should try speedskating.
At the time, Maame had just moved to the United States from Accra, Ghana, to live with her dad, Kweku. Then, in January 2017, she won a bronze medal in the 500-meter short-track race at the World Junior Championships in Austria. Fast-forward to just three months ago, and Maame made history by becoming the first black woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team. And she’s only 18 years old.
“Being the first African-American girl on this Olympic team is really awesome because then that means that young African-American girls—or any race for that matter—could go out there, find an ice rink, and just skate and try it out because you never know, you could be the next Olympian, which is an awesome thing to be,” she told CNN.
With a smile that lights up a room and a belly-aching laugh that is filled with joy, Maame quickly became a fan fave to watch at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She competed in the 500-meter and the 1,500-meter races. Maame finished fourth in the quarterfinals for the 500-meter race, and last place in her 1,500-meter heat. But those losses didn’t slow her down at all. She’s already looking forward to Beijing 2022.
Earlier this month, she won gold in the 500-meter event at the World Junior Short Track Championships in Poland, becoming the first American woman to win a junior championship and the first American to win a junior title in short-track speedskating since J.R. Celski in 2009.
Aside from skating, Maame hopes to one day become a chemical engineer, according to Team USA’s website. And no matter what life throws at her, she’s always ready with a smile across her face.
“I love having people smile and laugh because if you’re smiling and laughing, then that means you’re happy, and being happy ... is the best present you can ever give to anyone every single day, so I love doing that,” she told CNN.
Quil Lemons is breaking the so-called “rules” of masculinity. The 20-year-old photographer started a photo series in 2016 called Glitterboy, inspired by Frank Ocean’s music video for “Nikes.”
Shortly after the video’s release, Quil was at a Milk Makeup launch party and wanted to “shine and shine and shine” just like Ocean, a real glitterboy. After posting a selfie to Instagram, with the caption that “real” men wear makeup, he decided to start a portrait/interview series with black men about masculinity. Every boy or man in the project, whether straight or gay, wears makeup in their shot, in front of a pink background.
“I think it’s important to have a broader lens of the definition of masculinity because no two people are the same,” Quil told The Root. “And there is so much beauty in being black; there is so much beauty in being a black man.”
People are already taking notice of his work. He ran into SZA in 2017, and she immediately recognized him as Glitterboy. He documented New York City’s Pride Festival for Vogue and will soon begin work with the Conde Nast publication Them.
Quil has received mixed reactions from people on social media—and offline—but he knows how important it is to change the narrative around black men and masculinity.
“I remember I was wearing the glitter and a group of older black men saw my face,” he told The Root. “At first, these men couldn’t make sense of the glitter but immediately said, ‘Man, I wish I could’ve done something like this when I was your age.’ I think this was the moment I realized that my art has a more substantial voice that is longing to be heard.”
This year has already been busy for Quil. He walked New York Fashion Week for ASOS, which made its debut this season, and he also took Polaroid shots of the showcase. Quil also spoke on a panel with legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan about Afrofuturism and what it means to be a black creative. Quil, who is a student at the New School, is doing more photo shoots in his hometown, Philadelphia.
“I just want to keep grounding myself in my creativity, just keep elevating my art and perfecting my craft.”
It all started with a viral tweet. Myles Loftin was inspired to launch his Hooded photo series after seeing tweets about a simple Google search. Type in “four black teens” and stereotypical—and damaging—images of black teens pop up; mug shots, wanted posters and teens in police custody dominate the results.
Myles was determined to change the narrative.
“For as long as the United States has been a country, black men have been painted as savages, criminals,” Myles told the New School. “These inaccurate depictions trickle down and become ingrained in the minds of the people who see them.”
So, in 2017, he launched Hooded, a photo and video project that shows black men and boys smiling and hugging each other, in front of bright backgrounds and in hoodies.
“The video and photographs show black boys who are happy, emotional and positive rather than the traditional stereotype, which paints black males in hoodies as being hardened, intimidating criminals,” he told Vice. “It’s important that black people, and people of color in general, are accurately represented.”
In the short film included in the project, he cut together audio from Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” speech and the 911 call made by George Zimmerman before he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, highlighting the language people too often use to describe young black people.
The 19-year-old student at Parsons has received widespread acclaim for his work, traveling to the Netherlands to speak about his art and giving a presentation at Yale. Myles has also created several photo projects on his personal website, including Here and Genderqueer, with his frequent collaborator, genderqueer artist Chella Man, and ’80s Prom Portraits, a series of photos of local artists in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
“Me being a successful black photographer is one way of rebellion against the media, which is trying to portray a different image of what black boys are,” he said, the Huffington Post reported.
Category: Arts and Culture
Hometown: Downingtown, Pa.
Education: Downingtown STEM Academy
Social Media: Instagram
Juliet Lubwama started writing poetry in the fourth grade after reading Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” Fast-forward eight years and the 17-year-old poet has already earned national acclaim. In 2017, she was named one of five National Student Poets, as which she will serve as a literary ambassador for the Northeast region.
Juliet’s poetry is centered on her identity as an African and a black American. Her parents are Ugandan immigrants, and she and her siblings were born in the United States. In “Trying to Find Home,” she explores the idea of belonging in these lines: “my kin arrived with textbooks swaying on their heads/ and shackles round their ankles/ still, in a land we have yet to call home.” In “Good Hair,” Juliet eloquently unpacks the politics of hair with this: “auntie tugs hot comb through hair as if tearing out heritage/ rests my head on her knee at a forty five degree angle/ as she turns unmanageable, imperfect, into adequate.”
At Downingtown STEM Academy, she gets to explore her second love, neuroscience, and hopes to one day go to medical school. For now, the high school senior plans to host poetry workshops at local hospitals, she told The Root, helping to “introduce poetry as a form of emotional and mental healing.” More than anything, she hopes she can spread her love for the written word as far as possible, and that other young people are inspired to speak out, too.
“I feel that too often, young people’s voices are diminished and seen as [not valuable],” Juliet told The Root. “However, we form our world’s future, and as a result, our voices and messages carry extraordinary weight, whether they be communicated through poetry, public speaking or any other form of the arts.”
The message that representation matters cannot be overstated. Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated film A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle, is the latest example. The book tells the story of Meg Murry, a teenage girl who travels on an adventure to rescue her father who is stuck in an alternate universe. Of course, the character in the book—and the 2003 TV movie—has always been portrayed as white.
Until now. Storm Reid, who has appeared in 12 Years a Slave and Sleight, is remarkable in the film, which was released in theaters March 9. With Wrinkle, little girls everywhere get to see a black girl fly across galaxies in an adventure that also doubles as a coming-of-age story.
“I feel like we’re making a movement and it’s so powerful,” Storm told Dazed magazine about A Wrinkle in Time. “We’re all inspiring girls of color and African-American people to see that they’re powerful, and to know they can be on-screen—that they are not just a stereotype and they can be so much more powerful than they see and believe.”
Storm is set to have a busy 2018. She stars opposite David Oyelowo in the sci-fi thriller Only You in late 2018. In 2017, she appeared in Jay-Z’s celebrity-filled music video for “Family Feud,” which was also directed by DuVernay. Off-screen, she’s obsessed with fashion—just take a look at her Instagram page—and is also outspoken about today’s most pressing social-justice issues. At just 14 (she’ll be 15 in July), she’s already using her voice to speak up about the #TimesUp movement in Hollywood.
“I just feel like women should be treated equally, not only in this industry but in all industries, because unfortunately we’re not,” she told Teen Vogue. “To be a woman and to be using my voice for Time’s Up and just showing the world and telling the world, ‘We are here and we are valuable. And we can do good things and we can be just as great as men.’”
In working with powerhouse women like DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey—who has hailed Storm as this generation’s Judy Garland—she’s gained a ton of tools and knowledge to make big waves in Hollywood and beyond.
“I’m gonna take this world by storm,” she said. “Pun unintended.”
It’s hard to not compare musical prodigy Matthew Whitaker to legendary musician Stevie Wonder. Matthew, who taught himself to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at just 3 years old and plays the piano effortlessly and with so much soul, is also blind.
“I don’t let my blindness stop me,” he told NorthJersey.com. “I want to be a professional musician. I want to have more albums out.”
In March 2017, Matthew released his first album, Outta the Box, for which he wrote more than half of the songs himself. He has his own publishing company, has traveled to Europe, the Middle East and Asia on tour, and has earned sponsorship deals with Yamaha and Hammond. Matthew also shares his talent with his local community in Hackensack, N.J., by playing the organ at New Hope Baptist Church.
The musical prodigy has also played at the Apollo Theater multiple times—to great success. He won the “Stars of Tomorrow” competition at the Apollo when he was 9 years old, and a year later, he opened for Stevie Wonder, who gave him one of his harmonicas. In December 2016, he won Showtime at the Apollo. Matthew also plays the drums, bass and melodica and is learning to play the guitar.
With so much natural musical talent, Matthew hopes to one day start his own band—one in which he plays all of the instruments himself.
“I’ll call it the Matthew Whitaker One-Man Band,” he told The Star-Ledger of New Jersey. “I like to be the one in charge.”
Reece Whitley is making big waves. The 18-year-old high school senior won three silver medals in swimming at the World Junior Championships—and was named one of five captains on the U.S. World Junior Team.
He has Olympic gold medalists rooting him on and already declaring that he’s a swimmer to keep your eyes on. Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, told the New York Times that he’s going to be the “best breaststroker in the world.”
At the 2017 World Junior Championships, Reece won silver medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke—and in both races he hit a personal-best record. Reece also helped his team rally to win silver in the 400-mixed medley relay. When he was just 13, he was already smashing records in his age group, the Washington Post reports. In 2015, he was named Sports Kid of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
But Reece, who plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall, is also very serious about his education. At the end of his junior year, he was focused on acing Advanced Placement exams and competing at the World Junior Championships.
“Both forced me to stay centered mentally in order to achieve success,” he told The Root. “Staying composed when the pressure is on is typically something that I need work on.”
And eyes are definitely on Reece. His name is bubbling up with Olympian swimmers like Simone Manuel, Cullen Jones and Lia Neal. Earlier in February, he broke two national high school records and lowered the national high school record in the 100-meter breaststroke. He’s one of few black swimmers who have reached championship level in recent years. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of black children have low- to no swimming abilities. Reece recognizes that he can be an inspiration to young people just by excelling in the pool.
“I think as I get older ... I’m going to need to take—play—a key role in kind of integrating swimming into inner-city communities a lot more,” he told SwimSwam.
At 9, Zandra Cunningham was part of a business program for kids, but at first it was only because her mom signed her up. That, combined with her father’s refusal to buy her some lip balm, inspired the start of her natural skin-care company, later named Zandra Beauty, which sells more than 40 products.
She started by selling lip balms and bath bombs at local farmers’ markets. After making $82 on her first day, she declared herself the “richest 9-year-old on the planet” and knew that she had to keep building her business. Now, at 17, her company is worth almost $500,000. The line is sold online and in stores across the country, including Paper Source and Whole Foods.
In early March, she appeared on Good Morning America as part of its “Deals and Steals” segment that featured businesses owned by women. Later this year, she will launch two new lines of products.
“They are both pretty dope and will fill a much-needed void in the plant-based skin-care market,” she told The Root.
All Zandra Beauty products are nontoxic and made with natural ingredients in its Buffalo, N.Y.-based lab. With product names like “Be True 2 You,” “Rize Up” and “Love You I Do,” Zandra Beauty is committed to empowering teenage girls (10 percent of all net proceeds are donated to organizations that support girls’ education).
In 2016, she launched the Zandra TLC Foundation to expose girls to “new possibilities in career choice, health, wellness, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and more.” This year she plans to expand STEM and entrepreneurial education programs, Zandra told The Root.
“I want young people to know that they matter,” she told The Root. “We all do, and if we want something we have to go get it.”
Victor Madu wants to “revolutionize the street fashion industry,” but he knows in today’s age of fast fashion and ever-changing trends, he’s gotta make it affordable.
So, in 2016, he created For the Leaux clothing line to “bridge the gap between high fashion and affordability,” according to Victor’s biography. He currently sells hoodies, track shorts, hats and T-shirts. His interest in fashion all started with his love of sneakers.
“Throughout high school, I noticed my classmates were always talking about shoes,” Victor told The Root. “It eventually led me to learn about fashionable streetwear, which I began to purchase and collect. Streetwear and sneakers went hand in hand in my high school years and nothing has changed since.”
Within a year of the launch of For the Leaux, the site had more than 100,000 visits and thousands of orders. The Houston native also gives back to his community. After Hurricane Harvey, he gave $1,000 in sales to victims of the hurricane—and he told The Root, it’s “only just the beginning of being able to give back on a larger scale.”
Victor, who is a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is hoping to soon give an academic scholarship through the site and is preparing to release his spring collection very soon. Starting and maintaining a business hasn’t been easy, but he knows it’s worth it when he sees the support from clients on social media. And though he is just 21 years old, he already has wise advice for other young people who may want to start their own business.
“It’s easy to be influenced and inspired nowadays just based on social media,” he told The Root. “Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about all of your endeavors because that passion should fuel you through the tough times.”
Essynce Moore is only 15 and has already appeared on a billboard in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The teenage entrepreneur has launched an online boutique, a New Jersey-based spa, has published three books, and has spoken to thousands of people across the country on panels and at conventions.
In May, Essynce released the third installment of her Middle School Chronicle series, 8th Grade Middle School Chronicles: The Year That Changed Everything. She is the only black teen author to have multiple books on the curriculum for several school districts, according to Patch. She even has a day named after her; the mayor of Hillside, N.J., designated May 26, 2016, “Essynce Day.”
“The idea of having my books as part of a mandatory curriculum never crossed my mind,” she told Beaut&Beast. “I love seeing how they inspire other young girls and the successful turnout.”
In 2013, she launched her fashion line, Essynce Couture, “made to inspire, educate and encourage children to be happily unique,” according to its website. Essynce has showcased her clothing line during New York Fashion Week as well as Atlanta Kids Fashion Week. She also launched a natural-body-products line called Wynk, which includes lip glosses, bath and body oils, and soaps. Soon, Essynce Couture will launch a line for boys, too.
In 2017, Circle of Sisters honored her as one of its spotlight entrepreneurs. Although she’s young, she’s not letting her age set any limitations on her success.
“My goal is just to inspire anyone that you can do whatever you want regardless of your age, regardless of your circumstances,” she told the crowd at the Circle of Sisters event. “None of this defines what you are. You do that.”
Journi Prewitt is spreading a little #BlackGirlMagic—one box at a time. In June, she created Black Butterfly Box, a monthly subscription service that encourages reading and learning black history, while also promoting self-confidence in young black girls.
“I feel my box is helping better represent people of color by the products we provide, but I also think it helps young girls to see me as a teenage entrepreneur and African-American woman that isn’t doing something typical,” she told Forbes. “I think it’s important for young girls to see other women of color give back to their community and build other people up.”
The box includes books, toys and other accessories designed to inspire black girls and remind them that they can do and be anything they desire. In August, at the request of her little brother, she created bimonthly Black Dragonfly boxes for boys. Journi told The Root that she’s received several requests for a nonbinary box and plans to begin releasing those boxes—called the Black Firefly Box—later this year. She also plans to launch a subscription box for college students, too.
So far, Black Butterfly Box has more than 250 subscribers. The boxes have a range of themes month to month, from black superheroes and black female activists to “black to school” and “nappy holidays.” Within each box, at least one product is from a black-owned business. Journi’s company—which she started on her 17th birthday—is already having an impact on kids.
“The biggest lessons I have learned from my work with Black Butterfly Beautiful is that something small can make a large impact,” she told The Root. “I’ve had so many girls tell me how my product has changed them in some way.”
Victoria Barrett hopes more young people start speaking up about climate change. The 18-year-old college freshman has taken her passion about the environment to the next level. She is part of a group of 21 young activists—between the ages of 10 and 21—who are suing the federal government to take action on climate change.
“I have the opportunity to see the amount of passion and positivity that exists in young people,” Victoria told The Root. “Challenging the Trump administration over climate change could very easily get exhausting, however, I have a lot of confidence in the upcoming years. “Young people are going to do what needs to be done to shift power out of his hands.”
For years, climate issues have directly affected Victoria’s life. In Juliana v. the United States, Victoria mentions Superstorm Sandy, which forced her school to temporarily shut down after it flooded. New York City and its summer heat waves have made her allergies worsen. Victoria first signed on as a plaintiff in the case after participating in Global Kids, an after-school program that focuses on youth development, while she was in high school in New York City.
Her work with Global Kids led her to the Alliance for Climate Education, where she was an action fellow for two years. Since then, Victoria has participated in climate marches, spoken at conferences on climate change and met with high-level officials to talk about sustainable solutions for the environment.
“Letting other young people all over the country know that you don’t have to be able to vote to make political change,” she told The Root. “There’s a lot of actions that you can take, and there’s a lot of power that you have as a young person, that shouldn’t be wasted.”
Category: Green Innovation
Hometown: New York City
Education: City College of New York
Tamera Jacobs is doing everything she can to green her neighborhood of Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. Tamera is the director of operations and programs at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, a youth-advocacy organization that empowers young people in Far Rockaway.
Tamera, who is studying finance and entrepreneurship at the City College of New York, told The Root that at school and at work, she’s learning how it’s vital to have strategic-planning skills to make change in our communities.
“As important as rallying, protesting, and direct actions are to a movement, it is larger than these demonstrations,” she told The Root. “Organizing is also expressed in multiple forms, such as the arts, music, poetry and painting, along with forms of print and digital media and urban farming. I am an organizer through the means of fundraising.”
The Guyana native had a successful year of fundraising in 2017. She helped the organization raise nearly $40,000 to build out two new community gardens on a New York City Housing Authority campus. Those gardens serve more than 100 people, with 55 family-gardening plots that include rainwater-harvest systems and compost operations.
When Tamera first started at Rockaway Youth Task Force, she helped run its community garden, which is one of the largest youth-run gardens in New York City. It opened after Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the Rockaway peninsula; the urban farm and community garden is on a half-acre lot and also serves as an event space, where local community members can learn about composting, pollination, environmental science and healthy eating, she said.
This year, Tamera is looking forward to becoming an official member of Queens Community Board 14. She hopes to keep fighting for economic justice in underserved communities like Far Rockaway.
“We are not just leaders of the future but we are also leaders of the present,” she told The Root. “We have the power to be changemakers of today and tomorrow.”
Category: Green Innovation
Education: Minneapolis Community and Technology College
Social Media: Facebook
You see a food desert
We see progress
And we strive for more
Putting healthy foods in every corner store
For mines and yours
Those were just a few words from La’Taijah Powell, who was one of 14 Good Food advocates who traveled to the White House to talk with policy advisers about nutrition and food equity in 2015.
For La’Taijah, who is born and raised in North Minneapolis, she got tired of seeing unhealthy food options all around her. She says there were 38 fast-food restaurants within an area of 7 square miles in her neighborhood—yet hardly any fresh options. (North Minneapolis is a federally designated food desert.) For the past several years, she’s been the youth leader and program facilitator for Appetite for Change, a food-justice organization that was co-founded by her mother, La’Tasha. The nonprofit trains community members to learn about fresh foods.
“I want my community to focus their energy into becoming better,” La’Taijah told The Root. “I want us to stop channeling our energy into things that negatively impact us.”
With Appetite for Change, she’s been instrumental in getting young people in her community involved with the organization. The group put together a music video, “Grow Food,” which has more than 400,000 views on YouTube.
“We wanted to make music and use it in a positive way to really get this message out: You could grow your own food,” La’Taijah told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “You don’t have to go to a grocery store. Plant your seed and watch it grow.”
La’Taijah helped kick-start the campaign to open Breaking Bread Cafe & Catering, which is not only a sit-down cafe, but it also helps “train and employ youth from the community,” according to its website. Most recently, the 21-year-old and other young people involved with Appetite for Change attended the Super Bowl, where the Minneapolis host committee and its legacy fund granted the organization $50,000.
La’Taijah has no doubt that the work she’s doing with Appetite for Change is helping to change her neighborhood for the better.
“My community is really important to me, and to see them grow and help them grow is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she told The Star-Tribune.
Call her the “STEM Queen.” Sasha Ariel Alston first became truly interested in technology during an internship at Microsoft during her senior year of high school. She and her intern cohorts created a gaming app, and she finally got the real-life work experience that launched her into the start of her tech career.
Since then, Sasha has had eight internships that blend technology and business. Now, as a student at Pace University studying information systems and marketing, she’s already on a mission to help the next generation of students get excited about science and technology.
“My desire to change the face of STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] keeps me motivated, especially when I see my efforts, as well as others, are making a difference in increasing interest among young people,” Sasha told The Root.
To that end, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish her first book, Sasha Savvy Loves to Code, a children’s book about a 10-year-old girl who wants to code. She met her goal in four days and raised more than $17,000. The book was released in June 2017.
“Sasha and her friends attend coding camp just like I did,” Sasha said on the Kickstarter page. “Sasha gets frustrated when her code doesn’t work just like I did and still do. This book is based on a lot of things I’ve experienced, but through the eyes of a 10-year-old.”
Since the book’s release, she has been invited to participate in Disney’s “Dream Big, Princess” campaign to inspire girls to get involved in STEM fields and helping to raise $1 million for the United Nations’ programs for girls. In December, the governor of Arkansas announced that his office bought nearly 900 of her books as part of its computer science initiative.
In 2018, Sasha plans to launch the second book in the Sasha Savvy series and will continue on her journey to spread the message that girls—especially girls of color—can tackle any dream.
Thessalonika Arzu-Embry isn’t taking her time. At 14, she already had her bachelor’s degree, and two years later, she had her master’s. Now, she’s 19 and earned her doctoral degree from Regent University in the fall of 2017.
Thessalonika has published five books, all of which have been translated into Spanish, Polish and Mandarin. She’s an expert on education and investments and pioneered the Jump movement to help students get on the fast track to college. Her IQ? 199.
“If I see opportunity to go forward, I would say, ‘Why slow it down?’” Thessalonika told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s best to go through it and take advantage of the opportunity, because it will help other people as a whole; it will help businesses and society.”
When she was 5 years old, she sat in a plane and an air-show instructor showed her how it worked. As a kid, Thessalonika spent a lot of time at airports; her father was a manager at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
She accompanied her mother to psychology classes, and ultimately became her mom’s study partner. Those lessons stuck with her, and she decided to pursue a career in aviation psychology. Ultimately, she hopes to help aviation companies find ways to eliminate human error while in the open skies.
“When I began to think about a profession, I chose one where I could make an impact,” she told Black Doctor.org. “I feel honored for the opportunity to help others at an early age.”
Keila Banks makes “nerd cool.” For the past 10 years, she’s been coding and teaching other young people how to do it, too.
When she was 6, she started a blog—with her mother’s help. Then at 9, she learned how to code after her dad gave her a book on coding languages and started taking classes on technology skills website W3Schools. Keila had her first big speaking gig—in front of more than 4,000 people—at the Southern California Linux Expo in 2013. Her speech, titled “Undefinable Me,” has more than 70,000 hits on YouTube.
Keila has taught at schools across the country, and at tech conventions from here to Prague in the Czech Republic. But she doesn’t let that distract her from her schoolwork. Keila makes straight A’s and is on the track team, and balances that with editing videos and learning new coding technology.
“What excites me about the future of tech is that so many kids of this generation have so much advanced background knowledge than ever before,” she told The Root. “I’m really excited for what this generation is going to produce because the future looks so bright.”
In 2016, she was also hired to do some social media work for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. That same year, she attended the Computer Science for All summit at the White House. At just 16 years old, Keila isn’t letting her age stop her from dreaming big, and she encourages other young people to do the same.
“You’re not too young to get a hold of your future,” she told The Root. “You can learn and prosper no matter what age.”
George Hofstetter is using technology to help fix some of today’s most pressing issues. The 17-year-old techie created CopStop, an app that helps kids avoid police brutality, at his second hackathon. For the app, which was inspired by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, George consulted with activists, civil rights attorneys and police chiefs to help build out the app.
“What pushed me even further to create the application was the idea that my little brother at 16 or 15 would feel the same way that I did around police officers,” he told The Root. “I want him to grow up in a world where he doesn’t have to worry about being on the news as an African-American child.”
CopStop allows users to record their interaction with the police, providing an alternative to body cameras, which officers often can control, and also educates teens about dealing with the police. George, who is a senior at Alameda Community Learning Center, with hopes of going to the University of California at Los Angeles, knows that the work he is doing could have a great impact on marginalized communities.
George has been intrigued by technology for several years. At his first hackathon—when he was 13—he created “Connect the Dots,” a platform to help black students at predominantly white private schools navigate racism on their campuses. That experience is what launched him on a quest to learn more about coding and programming languages. For the past two summers, he’s worked as a tech intern in the Oakland Mayor’s Office.
When he was 16, George created his own tech company, George Hofstetter Technologies Inc., with a mission to “change the world’s perspective on race by using technology,” and he is hopeful that he can help change the demographics of Silicon Valley. George’s latest venture is Up to Code, a mobile-learning technology, designed for middle schoolers, to help bridge the digital divide.
“These big tech companies are creating the future and they’re not including everyone,” he told The Root. “How can you create a future for everyone without including everyone? Regardless of your circumstances, find a way to create change.”
Taylor Richardson knows firsthand that the support of a community can propel others to higher heights—quite literally. When she was 9 years old, she started a GoFundMe to raise funds so she could go to space camp in Huntsville, Ala. Now, she’s paying it forward for other kids.
In November, she launched another GoFundMe to send 1,000 girls to see A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of the 1962 fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle. The fundraiser notched $100,000, after Oprah Winfrey matched the $50,000 Taylor had already raised.
“I want all girls—especially black girls—to know we can be anything we set our minds to especially in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields,” Taylor told The Root. “Giving girls of color the opportunity to see films like this just may produce the next Ava or Oprah or Shirley Chisholm.”
This wasn’t the first time that Taylor, who hopes to one day be an astronaut, scientist and engineer, raised money so that young black girls could see themselves represented on-screen. In December 2016, she launched a fundraiser for kids to see Hidden Figures, the film that introduced so many of us to the black women at NASA who helped John Glenn orbit in space.
But Taylor’s head isn’t only in the stars. She has spearheaded book drives in her community called Taylor’s Take Flight With a Book, where she has collected more than 3,000 books for kids in her hometown, Jacksonville, Fla. She’s also grounded in the fact that young people take action to fight for the future of our country.
“It’s important we as the next generation learn how our government works, but also know that we have power as well to make change,” she told The Root. “We are not voiceless.”
This year will be a busy year for Taylor. She’s attending the commemoration events for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April. In June, Taylor will travel to Dublin, Ireland, with toy company Lottie Dolls. (She was the inspiration behind Lottie’s Astro Adventures suit.)
Ultimately, Taylor hopes to be the first black person to make it to Mars. And with her ambition and drive, she’s bound to make that dream a true reality.
Ose Arheghan will not go unheard. Ose, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they/them instead of he or she, is a 17-year-old with an agenda: They want to center marginalized voices within the LGBTQ community—and ensure that policies protect them, too.
For the past two years, the Cleveland teen has lobbied for comprehensive sexual health education in the state and in Washington, D.C., with the nonprofit organization Advocates for Youth. Ohio doesn’t have strict standards, so each district and its superintendent can decide on its own rules. For Ose, that won’t cut it, especially when it comes to educating LGBTQ youth, who are often left out of the sexual-education conversation. Everyone should have access to proper reproductive-rights education—and Ose is ready to keep pressing elected officials to make it happen.
“When my conservative, anti-LGBT legislators in Ohio think about their constituency, that includes queer black youth like myself,” they told The Root. “I want them to know that young people like me are watching their actions and are more than ready to vote them out of office and replace them in the years to come.”
Ose, who is set to graduate high school this spring, accepted a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State University, where they will study international relations and sexuality studies. Ose was named GLSEN National Student Advocate of the Year for 2017.
“Providing visibility for queer young folk, especially queer young people of color, shows the larger community that we are here to stay,” they said in an acceptance speech. “Giving our voices space to advocate can only make us all stronger.”
Currently, Ose is working on a five-part mini-docuseries highlighting the stories of queer young people across the country. The series will explore gender and sexuality, the failures of sexual-health education policies, and activism in the community. Looking to trailblazing LGBTQ activists, Ose is determined to make sure the spirit of action among LGBTQ youth is alive.
“Young people, especially young people of color—especially queer and trans young people of color—have a rich history of activism that’s been widely erased from American history textbooks,” Ose told The Root. “We stand on the shoulders of amazing people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and Bayard Rustin, and our actions and movements are going to shape the future of this country.”
At just 10 years old, Seun Babalola knew that he could never sit quiet in the face of racism or inequality. He was in elementary school, and the 2008 presidential election was in full swing. He overheard one of his white classmates tell another that the only way then-Sen. Barack Obama would become president was “because all the niggers would vote for him,” Seun told The Root. At the time, he “felt a sense to fiercely challenge that” idea.
Ten years later, Seun is still speaking up and fighting back. In September, after white supremacist posters appeared on his school’s campus at Penn State University, he quickly organized a Change.org petition, asking the university to condemn white supremacy and denounce Identity Evropa, the group responsible for the posters. Within 48 hours, hundreds of students had signed the petition—and soon after, the university’s president responded.
“To be crystal clear—white supremacy, or any other doctrine that elevates one group above another, has no place at Penn State, and we strongly condemn language and actions that promote racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, violence, discrimination and other forms of hate,” President Eric Barron’s statement said.
“It showed the power that students have when we organize and come together,” Seun told The Root.
But that’s not all. In June, he gave a TEDxTalk on how to build better relationships between communities and police departments. And for one of his biggest achievements, in March, he led an initiative to collect bottled water and donations for people in Flint, Mich., ultimately raising around $300 and collecting 3,000 bottles.
“Being able to initiate a water drive for Flint, Mich., in response to their water crisis and go to the city and deliver all the water that was collected was definitely a highlight of my year [in 2017],” he told The Root.
Seun, who is a junior political science major, serves on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Youth Leadership Corps, which is dedicated to helping NYC’s youth get more involved with city initiatives. He hopes to work in Washington, D.C., this summer with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
“The voices of young people are so crucial in our day and age as we’ve seen the rise in young activists,” he told The Root. “I know that it’s only going to continue as more people get inspired to create change in their own ways.”
If it were up to Tamir D. Harper, black students everywhere would have more access to black educators. Tamir, who is a senior at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, didn’t have a black teacher until he was in the ninth grade.
Determined to fix this disparity, when he was 17, Tamir co-founded UrbEd Inc., a nonprofit organization that advocates for equal and quality education in urban schools. The organization has a mission to “disband the school-to-prison pipeline, increase teacher diversity, improve building conditions and advocate for local control of schools,” according to its website.
He participated in The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice—and then decided that he wanted to help change the educational system in Philadelphia from the inside. Philadelphia’s school district is slightly above average when it comes to black male educators—4 percent of its teachers are black men, compared with the national average of 2 percent. But Tamir knows we can do better—and that black children deserve better.
“I know from my own experiences the impact of having a strong black male educator in your life, and I want to be that for someone else,” he told Teach for America’s One Day Magazine.
For years, he’d told his parents that he wanted to be a doctor—but all of that changed because of the Black Male Educators for Social Justice program. He now hopes to one day teach secondary English in the Philadelphia school district.
“I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher until I engaged with these black men in the fellowship who are principals, CEOs—just people who exude black excellence,” he said. “Once I’d seen what was possible, I really wanted it for myself.”
And at just 18 years old, he’s already doing the work to make it happen. He’s been a member of the School District of Philadelphia Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council for the last three years and serves as a national student officer for Educators Rising.
Upon graduating high school this year, he plans to attend American University and major in secondary education. Tamir told The Root that he plans to expand his nonprofit work with UrbEd “to [Washington,] D.C., and other cities where youth are ready to take control of their education.”
Chanice Lee is ready to change the world—especially for black teens. Chanice, an activist, author and speaker, launched the Melanin Diary in 2017 to promote discussions on social justice, history, politics and more topics that affect today’s generation.
The website features profiles of young activists and headline makers, including future astronaut Taylor Richardson, another member of this year’s class of Young Futurists. Earlier this year, Chanice also published a list of summer programs for high school students.
“For a long time, I knew I wanted to create a platform where intellectual and innovative black teens could connect with each other and discuss the issues that mattered to them most, and deciding to launch my blog gave me the opportunity to do so,” she told The Root.
Chanice serves as a teen adviser for the Girl Up campaign, a United Nations Foundation program dedicated to uniting girls through change. She published her first book, Young Revolutionary: The Teen’s Guide to Activism, which gives teens the tools they need to become powerful activists. In the last year, she has spoken at several conferences and marches, including Florida’s March for Black Women, where she was the youngest speaker.
“I am a strong believer in being the change I wish to see in the world,” she said in her profile for Girl Up. “So that is what I aim to do on a daily basis in this lifetime.”
Not many people can say they have interviewed first lady Michelle Obama—especially if they’re 19. But Eva Lewis, who, like Obama, hails from Chicago, did just that earlier this year. For Refinery 29, Eva asked our forever first lady about her academic journey and the impact it had on her life.
Eva is a co-founder of Youth for Black Lives, an activist group fighting for racial change in her hometown. In 2015, she also started the I Project, which began as a blog that featured profiles of artists and activists. The I Project, with the “I” standing for intersectionality, has now evolved.
“The focus has shifted to holding safe spaces, promoting activism through art, and participating in direct community outreach,” she told The Root. “Our main project right now is Education Emancipation, which aims to provide resources to South and West Side elementary schools in Chicago.”
Through Education Emancipation, Eva has been working with fourth- through eighth-grade students, as well as the faculty and administration at Edward A. Bouchet Math & Science Academy, to ensure that the quality of education is “the same caliber as that being provided in the wealthiest parts of the city,” she told The Root.
Eva, who is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, attended her first protest after George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in 2013 in the death of Trayvon Martin. Three years later, she—and three other black teenage girls—led a youth sit-in and march on the streets of Chicago to protest police brutality.
Eva has been focused on social justice for years, and fighting for women and girls of color is at the forefront of her work. (For 10 years, Eva was a member of an all-black Girl Scout troop.) She’s been deeply inspired by the work of critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.
“Intersectionality theory is still at the forefront of our work,” she told The Root, referencing Crenshaw’s seminal work. “We do everything through a lens of intersectionality, making sure that all of our work benefits femmes, women, queer people of color.”
Ashanti Martinez’s last birthday present to himself wasn’t like most 21st birthday gifts. In April 2017, he announced that he was running for Maryland’s House of Delegates.
Ashanti, who is a senior at Howard University, decided to run for office because he hopes to implement “bold progressive policies.” He wants to improve education and transportation, create more jobs, raise the minimum wage and reform the state’s criminal justice system.
“Our country is in need of new energy in the halls of power,” Ashanti told The Root. “Time’s up for legacy leaders and gatekeepers because our country can’t afford to continue business as usual.”
As he wraps his education, it’s clear that he’s devoted to transforming Maryland’s education system.
“We need fresh leadership to confront the challenges of classroom overcrowding, aging facilities, low teacher retention, and lack of transparency in our school board,” he writes on his campaign website. “Having our students career- and college-ready means having a 21st-century school system that focuses on the needs of our students both inside and out of the classroom.”
He’s been praised by his local community, and earned a spot on 93.9 WKYS-FM’s “Top 30 Under 30” list, and Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund’s “Forty Under 40” list.
Ashanti has been committed to fighting for marginalized communities since he was 16. As a senior at Parkdale High School in Maryland, he created the LGBTQ Student Liaison position for the Prince George’s County Regional Association of Student Governments.
In a national moment when young people are standing up and speaking out, Ashanti encourages other people in his generation to be the change they want to see.
“My message is clear: Run for something,” he told The Root. “Your voice is needed.”