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Voices in Color – MLK’s Legacy Lives on in Youth Activism of People of Color

Voices in Color – MLK’s Legacy Lives on in Youth Activism of People of Color

POC Youth Activism is stronger now than ever before

Every year, on the third Monday of January, schools across the country close while others hold assemblies honoring the message of a man who meant so much to so many. Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and message fundamentally changed the fabric of American society. Acting as a catalyst for the end of segregation, the civil rights movement, and continued pressure for equal rights across the board.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. can be best encapsulated by the words above.

Martin Luther King Jr., beyond being a leader or an organizer, gave of himself every day to work against the injustices that millions of people of color faced in this country, and around the world, on a daily basis. We know the legacy of a man who, ultimately, lost his life for his cause. But we should remember the man who, while he lived, gave his time, his energy, and his voice to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.

His words don’t just live on in history. They live and breathe in the hearts and minds and voices of color that continue to speak out against the injustices of the world today.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in these young people.

Feliquan Charlemagne

At 17 years old, this Florida resident is the creative and co-executive director of the US Youth Climate Strike. Originally from the US Virgin Islands, Feliquan has seen the effects of climate change first hand as rising tides and increasing hurricanes have fundamentally changed the environment and economy of the islands he is from. Feliquan advocates for kids to be more aware of climate change policies that are in the discussion where they live. Know which politicians support what, and talk to the adults in their lives to make sure they understand how important these issues are to you.

To learn more about the US Youth Climate Strike click the link to find an event near you, or donate to start a chapter in your area.

Marley Dias

This 13-year-old girl is the driving force and power behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, a massive movement to collect and donate books featuring black female lead characters. Tired of not seeing herself represented in the books she was being asked to read at school, Marley Dias began #1000BlackGirlBooks with the intention of collecting, you guessed it, 1000 books by 2016. She was only 9 years old at the time. The story took off, being picked up by everyone from Ellen to Oprah to Michelle Obama. To date, she has collected over 11,000 books and climbing, donating them to local schools or libraries as a part of their collective efforts.

Check out or follow her on social media to learn more about #1000BlackGirlBooks.

Isra Hirsi

As a 16-year-old black Muslim woman, the co-founder and co-executive director of the US Youth Climate Strike, a child of immigrants, and the daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, Isra Hirsi is no stranger to controversy. But it is exactly this identity that drives Isra in her work. She has long since advocated for both environmental and racial justice and wants to encourage the visibility of environmental activism amongst people of color within the US.

In a piece to the International Congress of Youth Voices, she describes how hard it was being the only person of color in the environmental club, even in a predominantly black area. She also talks about the privilege gap or being able to protest – not everyone is able to take off from school or work, travel to a distant capital, or location of significance in order to protest, but that does not make their contributions less valid. She explains how alienating that experience can be, and how it drives her to continue in her work so that the next person of color who chooses to join won’t have to do so alone.

Salomée Levy

Artist, writer, activist – it seems there are few pursuits this 17-year-old French-Belizean can’t accomplish when she puts her mind to it. In 2016, Salomee created ‘Artsy Hands’ to distribute much-needed art supplies to Nevadas struggling school arts programs and bring together discussions on race, art, and community. Her “We the Immigrants” movement uses writing and art to allow individuals to share their individual and collective experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants.

Anya Sastry

“When leaders start acting like children, children have to start acting like leaders,” Anya spoke those words in from of a crowd of climate activists less than a year ago, and they have never been truer. This teenager, in between studying for her ACT’s and creating killer youtube content, is also the National Outreach Director for the Youth Climate Strike and has continued to work with groups involved in gun violence prevention, women’s rights, and environmental activism.

Sixto Cancel

Sixto Cancels efforts have meant the world to the thousands of users on ‘Think of Us’, a communications app and web platform that allows children within the Foster Care system to successfully navigate the steps to independence after aging out of Foster Care. They also do incredible work with other agencies and youth programs to integrate tech-savvy and mobile applications to make existing programs more accessible. Collaborative hackathons are organized where programmers of all ages and backgrounds can work together to create viable solutions to the existing problems of today.

Emma Gonzalez

It has been less than two years since blood marked the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but Florida still remembers. MSD STRONG banners and signs still mark the classrooms and chainlink fences of many south Florida schools, a testament to the violence and reality of what happens when gun control issues become more than just a political-ideological talking point.

Seventeen people died that day and, in the days and weeks following, hundreds of students were launched into the world of activism and gun control reform. It was a turning point in the landscape of modern activism. Children had to stop being children and petition for the privilege of being able to go to school without the fear of bullets haunting their dreams. Since then, millions of young people across the world have stepped forward; for gun control, violence against women, environmental justice, education reform, health care reform, and just about everything in between. Students took to the streets to March For Our Lives, protesting for stronger gun control measures in a movement that would galvanize American youth for years to come. Waiting for the adults to fix things was no longer an option.

Emma Gonzalez, an LGBT Cuban American, was at the forefront of the March For Our Lives Movement and Never Again MSD. A survivor of the event, her speech went viral as she proclaimed “We call B.S.” on the lack of gun control legislation by NRA backed politicians. She has continued to campaign for better gun control legislation and works with other activists to promote the issue at large.

Mari Copeny aka ‘Little Miss Flint’

Mari Copeny was eight years old when she wrote her now-famous letter to then-President Obama asking him to meet with her and a group of activists traveling to DC for hearings on the Flint Water Crisis, but she was already known as ‘Little Miss Flint’ around her hometown of Flint Michigan. When the city switched water suppliers, toxic and lead-filled water poisoned thousands of people, affecting children the most. She’s 11 now, and she hasn’t slowed down even a bit. Campaigning to collect backpacks for underprivileged children in Flint, participating in Climate Change Marches, working with ‘Equality for Her’ and, as always, continuing to work for clean water and stricter regulations to prevent what happened in Flint Michigan from ever happening again.

Xiuhtextcatl Roske Martinez

The Youth Director of Earth Guardians gave his first speech at the age of six and has worked in the world of climate change activism ever since. Serving on then-President Obama’s Youth Council in 2013, one of the 20 kids who took the US government to court in 2015 for failing to adequately protect the environment, and speaking at everything from the UN General Assembly to the Rio+20 UN Summit. Xiuhtextcatl has continued to represent his home and his background as he speaks out against the destruction of Native Lands and the development of critical areas of environmental and cultural importance in favor of profit.

POC Youth Activists

Don’t forget to check out the amazing activists below! You can follow them on social media, or through their collaborative efforts for more info.

  • Ridhima Pandey
  • Xiye Bastida
  • Kevin J. Patel
  • Grace Dolan-Sandrino
  • Leah Namugerwa
  • Malcolm Mitchell
  • Nadia Nazar
  • Madelaine Tew
  • Elsa Mengistu
  • Alfonso Calderon
  • Artemisa Xakriaba
  • Naelyn Pike
  • Zanagee Artis

Autumn Peltier

Autumn Peltier is 16 years old, but that has not stopped the Wikwemikong girl from holding council with some of the world’s most powerful leaders as she continues to fight for water protections in her home country of Canada and across the world. Even fewer get the chance to tell their leaders just exactly how disappointed they are in their decisions. The expansion of pipelines across native peoples’ lands continues to threaten clean water not just in Ontario, but across the world. Autumn once said, “I like to speak for the water because the water doesn’t have a voice.” If we all chose to speak for those who are voiceless, imagine the changes we could make.

Nyeeam Hudson aka King Naah

Rising Instagram star and motivational speaker, King Naah was only 13 when his dad posted a shaky cell phone video of his sons’ response to being bullied for his shoes. “These sneakers aren’t even going to fit 20 years from now – what matters is inside your mind: your wisdom, your knowledge, your power to inspire others.” Unsurprisingly, the now 15-year-old’s message is continuing to inspire others. In an age of cyberbullying and trolling he continues to spread messages of positivity, self-worth, and character. “Never get discouraged. Just keep building yourself every day.”

Helena Gualinga

This 17-year-old is from a small village in the Ecuadorian Amazon and has seen first hand the effects of environmental change and a lack of environmental protections. Rarely are the indigenous populations consulted before development companies begin building, destroying local ecosystems in the process. This is what happened in Helena’s home of Sarayaku. Oil companies supported by the Ecuadorian military claimed Sarayaku land for drilling. Her village is still fighting a legal battle to protect their lands, but Helena fights for many indigenous people whose lands have been taken in favor of development, deforestation, oil, or transportation routes.

Jerome Foster II 

For Jerome Foster, like for many youth activists, it isn’t just one cause that calls him forward. So instead he created One Million Of Us, of which he is the Executive Director. The collaborative youth voting organization combines the efforts of five different movements; climate change, community/school gun violence, immigration reform, gender equality, and racial injustice. One Million of Us allows young activists to pool their resources and collaborate efforts in order to create greater changes in their communities. Jerome is a high school senior who is dual enrolled at MIT and spends what little free time he has as a research reporter for National Geographic.

Yara Shahidi

Actress, model, activist. You may recognize Yara from her roles on Black-ish and Grown-ish, but you may not know that her college letter of recommendation was written by none other than former First Lady Michelle Obama. Now attending Harvard and filming for Grown-ish in between study sessions, Yara continues to campaign for diversity in Hollywood and the importance of girls’ education. Her non-profit, Yara’s club, formed in partnership with The Young Women’s Leadership Club, helps bring together high school-aged girls to discuss social issues and address how to enact change in their local communities.

Tony Weaver

The founder of Weird Enough Productions began volunteering as a mentor at an elementary school when he was still a teen. Tony asked a boy, Nazir, if he would be dressing up as his favorite superhero for Halloween, and Nazir’s answer would serve as Tony’s guiding purpose for years to come. “I can’t, I don’t look like him. I’m going to dress as CJ from Grand Theft Auto.”

Representation matters. When the only version of themselves children see on screens is of carjackers, it makes an impact.  Misrepresentation in media perpetuates stereotypes that are harmful to many groups but people of color in particular. These portrayals are related to higher instances of police brutality, mistreatment, and discrimination from medical personnel, teachers, and law enforcement.

Tony created Wierd Enough Productions to challenge stereotypes, tackle issues such as racism and toxic gender norms, and address subjects like police brutality. Weaver uses media literacy to create systemic change. “The work of Weird Enough Productions is important because we are attempting to not only change the types of media content being seen but also change the minds of media consumers.”

The magnitude and power of these voices resonate with each person they touch, inspiring yet more people to stand up for what they believe in. The chorus of their voices is creating change around the world, shifting our own societal fabric as laws are passed, resolutions issued, and minds changed.

This year, on Martin Luther King Day, take a moment to reflect on what cause or causes you are willing to lend the power and greatness that is your voice to. If you struggle for inspiration, take a note from the voices of the people above. Follow their cause, see what you can do to help, or start one of your own. Don’t be afraid about ‘doing it wrong’ or not knowing where to start. Time spent in the service of others is never wasted.

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Martin Luther King ,Jr.

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