Identity

5 Young Activists of Color Leading the Revolution

Blair Imani's new book, "Modern Herstory," is all about the underrecognized women and nonbinary people shaping our future.
Pictures of Yara Shahidi and Blair Imani.
Yara Shahidi (L), photo by Matt Winkelmeyer via Getty. Blair Imani (R), courtesy. 

As we've learned, history is never objective—it is shaped by those who write it. That's part of why author and activist Blair Imani took it upon herself to make sure that the women and non-binary people inspiring her today had their stories documented. The product is Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, which was released earlier this month. Below, find excerpted passages from five profiles in the book's chapter on young activists along with illustrations by Monique Le.

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Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings was born on October 6, 2000. Since childhood, she has been a revolutionary force for change against conventions of gender expression and identity. At age six, Jazz and her family began to boldly speak out about her transgender identity. In 2007, she appeared on national television with Barbara Walters and became one of the youngest transgender children to appear in media. Later that year, Jazz and her parents, Jeanette and Greg, founded the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation to provide resources to transgender youth and their families. Jazz is no stranger to discrimination. For five years, she wasn’t allowed to use the girls’ restroom in her elementary school. From eight to eleven, Jazz was also banned from competing with her school’s girls’ soccer team by her state. After a long battle, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) ordered her home state to lift the ban. As a result of the discrimination that Jazz was forced to endure, the USSF created a policy to include all transgender athletes who want to play soccer in the United States. Today, Jazz speaks at universities, medical schools, conferences, conventions, and symposiums all over the United States about her lived experiences as a transgender youth, as she has since she was six years old.

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Mari Copeny

Born on July 6, 2007, in Flint, Michigan, Mari Copeny is an activist whose everyday mission is to remind people that access to clean water is a basic human right. In December 2015, well over a year after the residents of Flint, Michigan began to express concern and outrage over their water appearing unsafe to drink, the city finally declared an emergency. Corroding pipes had contaminated the water supply with lethal amounts of lead and other heavy metals. Eight years old at the time, Flint resident Mari Copeny wrote a letter to President Barack Obama challenging him to come to her hometown and bear witness to the crisis she and her community faced.

Her letter quickly gained national attention after it was published in the Los Angeles Times. Mari forced the American public to reckon with the reality faced by a vast yet silenced segment of the country. President Obama responded to Mari and visited Flint on May 4, 2016. Empowered by the fact that one small act resulted in increased awareness and resources for her community, Mari continues to grow her personal platform and use social media as a tool to raise awareness. With the support of her family and a legion of mentors around the United States, Mari also works to provide backpacks and school supplies to underserved children and speaks out against bullying and violence. Her mission emerges from her desire to be a carefree kid, liberated from the fears of water contamination.

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Marley Dias

Named after Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley, Marley Dias was born on January 3, 2005, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She grew up in New Jersey and quickly grew into an intellectually curious young person and avid reader. Unfortunately, as Marley sought new books to read, she struggled to find books with characters she could identify with and who looked like her—a young Black girl. Many of the books she was assigned to read in school were stories about white boys and dogs. Marley talked to her mother about this lack of diversity as it evolved from a concern to a frustration. After an inspiring conversation with her mother, Marley decided to launch a book drive to resolve a problem that she and so many girls across the world were facing. When she was ten years old, Marley launched #1000BlackGirlBooks in the fall of 2015 with the mission of collecting and donating over a thousand books that featured Black girls as protagonists to local libraries and community centers across the country. By 2017, she had surpassed her goal of a thousand books many times over, receiving donations and having content created specifically in response to her program. In 2018, Marley became a published author to show young people how to get involved in positive social change. In her book, Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!, Marley details how she identified a problem facing her and sought to make a solution that benefited the whole community.

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Taylor Richardson

Born on July 15, 2003, Taylor Denise Richardson—also known as Astronaut StarBright—came to the national stage due to her philanthropic efforts to ensure that girls across the United States could see the 2016 movie Hidden Figures free of charge. The film tells the inspiring story of pioneering NASA scientists and mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. From a young age, Taylor had aspirations of one day being a scientist, engineer, and an astronaut. Despite having interest and the opportunity to visit NASA space centers, Taylor feared that she could not be an astronaut because of her race and gender—but Hidden Figures helped her realize what was possible.

In 2017, Taylor raised over $20,000 to sponsor free screenings of the film for over 1,000 kids. The campaign was such a huge success that it inspired national campaigns for screenings in 72 cities, with 28 of the campaigns raising over $120,000. Then in 2018, she doubled down on her effort to help her peers see themselves on the big screen by partnering with Walt Disney Studios and GoFundMe to bring as many young people as possible to see Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Oprah Winfrey matched the donations made to Taylor’s campaign for a total of $100,000 for young people to see the film. Today, Taylor Richardson inspires children and adults alike with her activism, public speaking, and selfless philanthropy.

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Yara Shahidi

Actor and activist Yara Shahidi was born on February 20, 2000. Yara’s family heritage is a blend of African American, Iranian, and Native American Choctaw ancestry. Following her parents’ footsteps in the entertainment industry, Yara started her career as a model during childhood. In 2009, Yara landed a role on the ABC comedy show In the Motherhood, and that same year made her film debut. In 2014, Yara joined the cast of ABC’s Emmy-nominated comedy series black-ish, which tackles difficult subjects like racial discrimination, privilege, class, and police violence. While starring in the show, Yara made a conscious choice to use her growing platform to fight for human rights and advocate for justice. Following her role on black-ish, Freeform greenlit a spin-off series called grown-ish, which continues Yara's character’s storyline with lessons about the complexities of young adulthood and social injustice through the lens of humor and levity.

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In August 2017, Yara gave a powerful speech at TEDxTeen on the harms of negative media representation and the ways in which positive portrayals of Black people in shows like black-ish and grown-ish are combatting those stereotypes. Yara expressed her goal of breaking down the stereotypes of Black people that mainstream media provides. The emerging activist and award-winning actor has already interviewed cultural icons like Congressman John Lewis, Hillary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey. In these dialogues, Yara often focuses on the importance of the power of young people and the need for everyone to be involved in the movement for change.

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