Five Times Young People Changed the World

teens protest for gun control
Students join together on the steps of the Broward County federal courthouse on Feb. 17, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale to demand for gun control after a school shooting killed 17 on Feb. 14, 2018. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Some of the most meaningful social changes in history have been sparked by the actions of the young. Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, demanding democratic reforms and greater freedoms. Children coal miners marching from Philadelphia to New York in 1903 to protest child labor.

And in 2018 it's high school students across the United States — Florida in particular — looking for an answer to gun violence in their schools.


After the killing of 17 of their fellow students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018, young activists at the school are raising their voices, and they're being heard all over the world. Already, students have organized two big nationwide protests (the National School Walkout on March 14, 2018 and a like-named National School Walkout on April 20, 2018) and the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. (and, perhaps, other places nationwide) on March 24, 2018. Other events are being planned. Officially, #neveragain has become a movement.

It's not the first time young people have led the way to social change.

"[G]reat forward movement in our society around issues of race, gender and sexuality have been driven by the activism of youth. Think, for example, about the current efforts of trans youth, whose activism is pushing schools to look at their policies surrounding issues related to gender identification and access to bathroom and locker rooms. Similarly, the push for democracy in many countries, as seen in the Arab Spring, came from the young," Nancy Deutsch, a professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the Curry School of Education's Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at UVA, told the school's news service. "Nationally, from the Black Panthers to the Young Americans for Freedom, youth activists have long shaped our national conversations, both ideologically and politically. And today more than ever, with the rise and impact of social media, the power of youth to make their voices heard and shape political debates is great."

Social change usually does not come quickly. Sometimes, failure precedes victory. Case in point: On Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, the Florida legislature declined to take a vote on a proposed ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, dealing an early setback to Parkland's high-school activists. Many students were on busses to the state capitol in Tallahassee as the motion to consider the ban was being voted down.

Still, history shows that, even with setbacks, answers to some of society's biggest problems begin at the grassroots, and often are affected by some of its youngest members.

Here are five examples of how young activists have enacted change throughout the world, fighting for the rights to their future.


5: The Greensboro Four

Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation were still in effect in the American South on Feb. 1, 1960, when four young men walked into a Woolworth's department store in Greensboro, North Carolina and, as they had carefully planned, sat down at a whites-only lunch counter and ordered coffee. They were refused service.

The four black men — three teenagers and one who had just turned 20, all freshmen students at the nearby Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University) — stayed until the store closed. The next day, more students showed up and, again, were not served. By the fourth day, some 300 people crowded the store waiting for a seat at the counter.


So-called "sit-ins" had been staged before. But the Woolworth's sit-in is credited with civil rights protests that spread throughout the South. By the end of March 1960, peaceful protests had been staged in 55 cities in 13 states.

That single act of civil disobedience in Greensboro also prompted the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the earliest and most effective civil rights groups of the decade. The SNCC was instrumental in organizing (among other events) more sit-ins, the famed Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington (in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream ..." speech).


4: The Fight for Women's Education

teens changing the world Malala
Malala Yousafzai was just 17 when she delivered her acceptance speech during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo City Town Hall on Dec. 10, 2014 in Oslo, Norway.
Nigel Waldron/Getty Images

The daughter of a teacher, Malala Yousafzai was just 10 years old in 2007 when the Taliban seized control of her home region in northwest Pakistan. The next year, the group banned all girls from going to school.

According to UN Women, the United Nations watchdog organization that is "dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women," of the world's 796 million illiterate people, two-thirds are women. Worldwide, only 39 percent of girls who live in rural areas attend secondary schools, compared to 45 percent of boys. In urban areas, 59 percent of girls (and 60 percent of boys) go to secondary schools.


Malala began blogging for the BBC about life under the Taliban and her desire to return to school, but she and her family were forced to flee their home as the Pakistani army returned to the area to fight off the Taliban. The national army was successful, but the Taliban still controlled many rural areas. Malala continued her very public fight for education rights and, in 2012, when she was just 15, masked gunmen boarded her school bus and shot her in the head.

Malala survived, but she and her family moved to England, where she returned to school in 2013 and continued her fight for girls' rights to education. In 2014, at the age of 17, Malala became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She's now a student at the University of Oxford and continues to travel globally in support of women's rights.


3: Taking on Climate Change

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is the youth director for the environmental group Earth Guardians. He's 16. He's been fighting for his cause for a decade.

Climate change is still a major threat to the planet, scientists overwhelmingly agree. But Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced "shoe-tez-caht") is meeting it, and its detractors, head on. He's traveled the globe urging young people to get involved, given speeches at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro and to the United Nations in New York, and is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government for its failure to protect the environment for future generations.


The lawsuit calls for the government to "develop a national plan to restore Earth's energy balance, and implement that national plan so as to stabilize the climate system ... before it is too late."

Xiuhtezcatl is the son of an Aztec father and a mother who is dedicated to environmental causes. He may be young, but he insists, he's not alone.

"I'm seeing more and more youth getting involved and trying to make a difference. It's really tough because there are a lot of road blocks, but definitely my generation are becoming more and more rebellious against a system that's setting us up for failure," he told Huck Magazine. "Young people are realising that the system we're living in doesn't work."


2: The Standing Rock Standoff

Standing Rock protest
What started as a protest by a teen group called One Mind Youth Movement blossomed into a massive camp near the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jasilyn Charger had moved home to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, a 19-year-old dealing with the suicides of some of her Lakota Sioux friends and looking to help. She and her friend, Joseph White Eyes, pulled together some friends and mentors and formed what eventually became known as the One Mind Youth Movement.

The group originally raised money for trips and counseling and basketball tournaments. But, as detailed by Saul Elbein in The New York Times, One Mind soon turned to more political efforts, campaigning against the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2015 and, in 2016, starting a camp in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. "The youths came to believe that the Dakota pipeline was not only a threat to their drinking water," Elbein writes in the Times, "but also a harbinger of the larger environmental crisis their generation was set to inherit."


The protest at Standing Rock became a protest against corporate greed and for Native American rights, too, and at times drew thousands of protesters. In December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the Obama administration, denied an easement to continue construction of the pipeline on its current route. The protesters cheered.

Less than two months later, however, newly elected President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing the construction to continue. On June 1, 2017, the first oil flowed through the pipeline.

Court battles continue to try to shut down the line. And the One Mind Youth Movement's work endures.

"It is a common belief among our people that the children literally are the future. They are the sacred seeds of our ancestors, inherently instilled with the values passed down through generations," the group's site states. "We have to water them and they will blossom into the sacred flowers of life they are."


1: The Struggle for Voting Rights

Teens like Madison Kimrey have long been active on many fronts. Kimrey, a 16-year-old from Burlington, North Carolina, says she is passionate about "voting rights, women's issues, LGBTQ+ rights, and the humane treatment of animals."

She's keenly aware of what the students in Florida are trying to do to stop gun violence in schools and what they and others face in trying to change the world.


"It's the actions we take when the marches are over and the media has moved on that are going to make the real difference in improving people's lives," Kimrey posted on Facebook Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, "and electing representatives at every level who are interested in moving forward with solutions to the problems we face."

Kimrey first raised her voice when she saw a same-sex couple denied family rates at a Jacksonville, Florida museum. She took on former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory in 2013 over what she and many others saw as restrictive voting rules that targeted young people and minorities. She was especially disturbed by a provision in the law that prohibited 16- and 17-year-olds from pre-registering to vote.

"I didn't like what I saw happening to my state," Kimrey told civil rights activist Al Sharpton on MSNBC, "so I wanted to take action and see what I could do to stop it."

Kimrey continues to speak out and make her voice heard, urging young people to get out and vote to enact the change that older people won't.

And, like others her age, she's just getting started.

"When all of us get older and we take over the political system," she told the Huffington Post, "it's going to be completely different."