Emma Gonzalez, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and outspoken activist, stood on stage with the U.S. Capitol outlined behind her. Gonzalez, one of the organizers behind the student-led #NeverAgain movement for stricter American gun control, spoke for about two minutes during the nationwide March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., before abruptly interrupting her speech. The pause, an emotional six minutes and 20 seconds of silence, lasted the same duration it took for a gunman to kill 17 of her peers just a month prior, on Feb. 14. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job,” Gonzalez continued, with thousands of students in attendance and hundreds more across the world at their own sibling rallies.
The 18-year-old is part of a young cohort driven to enact social and political change, from gun control legislation to racial justice and more. Naomi Wadler, 11 years old and the youngest speaker at the rally, organized a walkout at her elementary school on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla. shooting. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai won a Nobel Peace Prize at 17 for her education work and, at 18, Indigenous American activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is now on the front lines of the climate change conversation. These young leaders are all part of Generation Z, which The Pew Research Center refers to as “post-millennials” or anyone born from 1997 onward. They outnumber millennials by about 1 million and are the most diverse generation to date. Having grown up with instant communication and on-demand entertainment, their constant connectivity makes for increased engagement with trending current events, like the #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter.
On the local front, Mari Copeny, known as Little Miss Flint, made national headlines in 2016 when she met President Obama after sending him a letter on behalf of the children affected by lead-contaminated water in her hometown. Since then, Copeny, 11, has been drawing attention to the ongoing crisis, and organizing efforts with campaigns like Dear Flint Kids, a letter project created to garner words of encouragement, crowdsourcing initiatives to fund screenings of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time so marginalized children could see a representation of themselves in popular media, and much more. “My generation is very invested in organizing, volunteering, and activism because we don’t really have a choice,” she says. “Some adults have shown that they do not care about our wants, our needs, and our future, and if we want to have a chance at a future, we need to be the ones to speak out for ourselves.”
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Southwest Detroit native Darryl Ervin mentors middle schoolers in his community. He co-founded SLS Detroit — an acronym for scholarship, leadership, and service — and is dedicated to empowering youth. He’s helping students successfully transition to high school because, as he says, “Being young, you can absorb so much information. I just don’t want them to absorb the wrong kind.” This summer, Ervin organized a football camp and a back-to-school drive, all while preparing for his freshman year at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Ervin also participated in Western International High School’s March 14 walkout against gun violence, where approximately 900 students evacuated the Detroit campus in protest. Student organizer Alondra Alvarez, 18, received an NAACP award for her role in the walkout. Ervin and Alvarez are among several other young local change-makers juggling schoolwork and activism, from collecting nonperishables for the less fortunate to knocking door-to-door in support of the political candidates that they believe in.
Max Freer, 15, was on the ground canvassing all summer. As an organizer with the Michigan People’s Campaign, a movement committed to participatory democracy, Freer shares that although he did occasionally encounter rude voters, he had productive converstaions about emotional topics like affording child care and deportation. He started his work at 13 and has since racked up 100 handwritten letters from students and staff at Adlai E. Stevenson High School addressed to Rebecca Adduchi, field director of ICE. The letters urge Adduchi to give Ded Rranxburgaj, an immigrant in sanctuary in Detroit, a stay of removal.
There’s precedence to young people responding to affronts against themselves, their communities, and the world at large. The civil rights and anti-war movements of the ’60s and ’70s were largely led by students as a response to injustices at home and abroad. Freer, along with other local Generation Z organizers, believe that they, like many youths before them, should have a voice in their own future. They’re seeking to understand different perspectives and to ultimately, as Freer says, “achieve a greater vision of acceptance and equality.” Generation Z is adamant that age has no bearing on what they can do; if anything, it fuels their fire.
“Once you make your age a barrier, you’ve lost the battle right there,” Ervin says. “I want kids to know that their age shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to being a leader.”
Last September, after Farmington Hills student Stone Chaney, now 11, was yanked out of his chair and admonished by a teacher for sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance, high schooler Maddi Carpenter-Crawford messaged Stone’s father to organize a student-centered dialogue. Her aim was to speak frankly about students’ rights and how they are treated differently based on factors such as race and gender.
“I think that students are ignored and overlooked so much of the time,” says Carpenter-Crawford, 17, who is now a senior at Harrison High School. She’s actively changing that narrative by standing up for the voices of her peers through clubs like Students Advocating Gender Equality. “It’s the young people — elementary, middle, high schoolers, and even college students — who are going to continue the movements into the next generation.”
Outside of school, Carpenter-Crawford interned with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, a nonprofit civil rights organization, this summer, learning about “systemic oppression, how it manifests, where power comes from, and critically thinking about applicable ways to deconstruct [oppression].”
After high school, she sees herself working on media representation from a global perspective. She’s already gotten a head start. Last year, she collaborated with young women in metro Detroit and East Jerusalem to create short films through the Palestinian Heritage Museum in Jerusalem and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. Their film Asfoura, the Arabic word for bird, explored breaking gender stereotypes.
Carpenter-Crawford doesn’t call herself a student activist, organizer, or ally. “I try to think of the roles as verbs rather than nouns or something that I can call myself,” she says. “I think it’s more about what we do than the labels that we put on [ourselves]. I want everyone to feel respected. I want everyone to have the same opportunity as the next person.”
Sporting a red cape and hero pose, Macomb County resident Ewan Drum, 11, lives by the motto: “We can all be a superhero to someone.” The Algonac Jr./Sr. High School seventh-grader assists the homeless population — his “Super Friends” — by passing out food, clothing, and toiletries.
Giving back is something he’s been passionate about since he was 7, when he encountered a homeless man in Detroit. “I wanted to help him,” says Ewan, who is inspired by Superman and Batman for their drive to give back. He expressed a dream of dressing up as a superhero to lend a helping hand when he became a teenager. “We told him that he didn’t have to wait,” says Ewan’s mom, Angela Drum. Soon after, with the help of his grandmother and parents, he started his nonprofit, Super Ewan Inc.
The organization receives funds through individual donors and community sponsors. Every second and fourth Saturday, volunteers with Super Ewan Inc. visit Roosevelt Park in Detroit to donate clothing items, basic necessities, and nonperishable goods. During the holiday season, they put together an annual party, which includes a visit from Santa, presents, and food for kids. Last Thanksgiving, the Drums and supporters delivered turkeys to local families.
“Nobody should be treated like some homeless people are treated,” Ewan says. “I try my best to help and make them smile.” Super Ewan Inc. promotes the belief that no need is too unimportant, and no voice too quiet to be heard. It’s the result of Ewan’s conviction that “young people can make a difference. If you see a problem, do something. Even if it’s something small.”
At just 18, Imani Nichele is using the power of words to build community. She’s Detroit’s own Youth Poet Laureate, appointed by local nonprofit InsideOut Literary Arts this March. “I’m fairly new at poetry,” Nichele says. She joined InsideOut’s Citywide Poets program, an afterschool literary community for young people, two years ago. “I fell in love with the space and continued to show up.”
Throughout her yearlong tenure, the recent high school graduate and Detroit native aims to promote literacy, artistic engagement, and civic awareness by performing her work across the city, publishing a collection of poetry, and eventually launching a service project. She’s facilitating workshops for high schoolers in the city, where she guides young writers on how to express themselves through the written word. She’s also held a class for adults, some of whom she mentions “hadn’t written [poetry] in 20 years.” The workshops are an opportunity to give back to her community, something she considers integral to the role of an artist, since “most of being an artist is about the community around you.”
Her goal is to encourage youth of color and inner-city people to experiment with poetry. Nichele finds that many people assume poetry is an art form of the past. She’s flipping the script because to her, it’s still very much alive. Eventually, Nichele would like to create a physical community space: a place she and her friends call an “unorthodox library,” where people can be loud. She hopes to hold open mic nights every other Sunday.
Suma Rosen, executive director of InsideOut, describes Nichele’s poetry work as “quiet and gorgeous” on the page, yet intense onstage. Her words are unequivocally her own creations. “My story can be told,” Nichele says. “It doesn’t have to live inside me all the time.”
Rudy Washington’s drive to help others was sparked three years ago when his mom was browsing through Facebook and learned that socks were the most needed yet least donated clothing item. Rudy mulled this information over in his mind and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to give back to the community?” Not long after, his nonprofit, Rudy’s Sock Drive, was born.
The 13-year-old philanthropist and public speaker believes in “doing, not saying.” He’s successfully organized drives in places like schools to collect thousands of socks and other necessities for homeless communities in Detroit and now Georgia, where he’s lived with his family since 2017.
While passing out clothing to the homeless community in 2016, Rudy met a man outside of the Detroit Public Library named Lefty, who was in college studying to be a mathematician when his life spiraled, leaving him sleeping in the bitter cold. “Lefty was telling me his story and about how bad things can happen to good people,” Rudy says. During another wintertime donation run, he met a man on Woodward Avenue in Detroit whose socks were so frayed, and shoes so worn, that he’d gotten frostbite. Rudy’s family stopped on the side of the road and assisted him.
Along with these drives, Rudy is also the spokesperson for his No Bully Zone initiative. In March 2016, he was forced to change schools after being bullied when he defended students that were being teased. Soon after, he was inspired to help other kids, and now travels to elementary and middle schools to educate his peers on the dangers of bullying and the importance of speaking out.
Rudy is young. However, he’s driven to be a humanitarian, quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — and living by it too, whether it’s donating a pair of socks or sharing an encouraging word.