Listen up

The kids are alright: Activism is going through a seismic youth movement — and it just rocked #WITW

Fed up with deadly gun violence and other social injustices, kids are standing up and speaking out for themselves like never before

Women in the World Summits usually close with some pretty heavy-hitters, a revered Hollywood actress, beloved media personality or renowned public figure like Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie.

The 2018 Summit was no exception. While this year’s close did not boast any “celebrities” per se, it did feature some real star power: Eva Maria Lewis, Delaney Tarr and Naomi Wadler, three activists who have just recently emerged on the national stage as exemplary young leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MarchForOurLives movements — and who wrapped up the three-day event with a remarkable level of poise and sophistication on par with any luminary who had closed before.

The young women were greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation from the mostly adult — yet still authentically awestruck — crowd, and Tarr then launched the discussion with a reminder that it had only been two months since the senseless shooting that killed 17 of her high school classmates. That tragic day set in motion an historic intersection of timing and technology that immediately propelled Tarr — and other fellow survivors — into the national spotlight. And even more remarkable? The kids owned it from Day 1.

Delaney Tarr, a student activist and Member of #MarchForOurLives, speaking onstage at the 2018 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

“So much has already happened,” said Tarr. “But we’re still grieving. Sure, we’re now suddenly activists, but we’re also still victims … figuring out the balance is hard.”

When moderator Athena Jones of CNN asked Tarr if she had been politically engaged before the shooting, the teenager first acknowledged the “privilege” of her education, which emphasized civic extracurriculars like debate and student journalism. And Tarr then revealed that, until recently, her “dream” was to be a TV journalist. “I love the news. I wanted to tell people’s stories. But now I’m developing a passion for activism and maybe stepping my toe into the field of politics? I’m learning there’s a big difference between telling the story and being the story.”

And the “Big Story” that’s next on her radar? The midterm elections, which she called “Phase 2” of the #MarchForOurLives campaign. Tarr, and many of her Parkland peers, will soon turn 18. And they will most definitely be voting.

Next up was Naomi Wadler — the 11-year-old spitfire who killed her own star-making moment as a featured speaker at #MarchForOurLives in D.C. Legend has it that Wadler was handpicked by George Clooney to speak just days before the event, and for good reason. Wadler’s electrifying plea on behalf of the hundreds of “unknown” black girls who are regular victims of gun violence in the U.S. quickly went viral — and her debut at Women in the World inspired another round of audience commendation.

Naomi Wadler speaking in the ‘YouthQuake’ panel at the 2018 Women in the World Summit.

Wadler’s first foray into public activism was inspired by Parkland, but with a twist. When schools across the country banded together in a national walk out on March 15th to honor the one-month anniversary of the shootings, the plan was that the protest would last for 17 minutes (one minute for each victim). When Wadler took the lead on organizing the walkout in her suburban D.C. middle school, however, she added an extra minute to honor Courtlin Arrington, a young black woman in Alabama who had been gunned down earlier that same month.

Wadler’s not on social media, which makes her public trajectory all the more remarkable. When Jones asked how she was able to promote her walkout so prolifically without a Twitter account, she admonished the journalist with the gentle reminder that she and her co-marchers are, “still in the fifth grade! We talked about it at recess, or at each other’s houses after after school. And we had meetings on Saturdays.”

Textbook organizing, for sure. But Wadler did cop to a little bit of social support. “Well, we also put together a press packet. And our parents are all on Facebook, so my mom’s page was filled with the walkout stuff.”

Regardless of how she arrived, Wadler’s moment in D.C. was a game-changer, not just in terms of how the public sees her, but how she also now sees herself. “I’m not just a cute 11-year-old who people think they can just hug and kiss,” she declared, prompting a round of applause from the crowd. “I can deliver a message, and get that sort of reaction.”

And when Jones asked her why it was important that others see her that way, Wadler’s shared some chilling personal anecdote that sparked some audible gasps — but that also spoke truth to how children of color in this country are often “made woke” far earlier than most: “(Since preschool) I’ve experienced racism, and stereotypes … I’ve been told I should play a beggar …boys said things about my big butt … (racism) is not a mystery to me, it’s not foreign. And at this age, I just wanted to do something. There shouldn’t be an age limit for being aware,” she added, “and for knowing and understanding the problems around you and wanting to do something about it.”

Watching on a monitor from backstage, Tina Brown was taken aback by Wadler’s poise and wisdom.

Wadler and Tarr are preternaturally woke for sure, but neither they — nor, for that matter their hashtag — ascended in a vacuum. Before #MarchForOurLives, #BlackLivesMatter also arose in the wake of another senseless Florida shooting, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and was soon embraced by a rising generation of activist African American youth, like Eva Marie Lewis.

A proud native of Chicago’s South Side, Martin was killed the very same year Lewis matriculated at a prestigious high school in an affluent neighborhood an hour’s commute from her home. While the school was an “opportunity,” Lewis also spoke of the “trauma” she felt in having to straddle two worlds — especially when one her school community was an “oasis,” and her home community was defined primarily by what it lacked.

Eva Maria Lewis, founder of The I Project appeared at the 2018 Women In the World Summit in New York City.

“It’s not necessarily a sad narrative to be from South Side,” said Lewis. “But it’s one of survival. (My people) can make stuff out of nothing … often times our methods are demonized but you can’t fault people for trying to survive.”

#BlackLivesMatter offered Lewis — and so many like her — a lifeline that allowed them to do more than just survive, and also paved the way for others like Tarr and Wadler to follow suit. As the discussion drew to a close, even more young activists gathered onstage to issue their individual Calls to Action — another long-standing Summit tradition — for an entirely new generation.

Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi and Titi Yu.

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