Teen and young adult activists have been the backbone of many current social movements we see taking hold today — including movements around climate change, racial justice, gun violence, and LGBTQ+ rights. 

According to the National Education Association, student activism is on the rise

In fact, after the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, millions of young people across the nation made history by catalyzing never-before-seen support and energy for gun reform. Students led classroom walk-outs, organized marches in their communities, and became leading voices on issues they were previously sidelined on. 

Teen activism is by no means new or trendy, though. 

Students from marginalized communities have been organizing and protesting as part of educational institutions throughout American history, and, notably, during the Civil Rights Movement throughout the mid to late 20th century.

More than a half-century later, youth activism has reemerged with a similar energy and power to create meaningful change for generations.

Whether it’s school walkouts, the development of on and off-campus organizations, petitions, or mobilizing marches, student activists are meeting “unprecedented” challenges with hope and resiliency. 

We’re highlighting just a few of the many teen activists who have and are currently leading the charge on social change around the world. 

Youth Activists Making A Difference

Greta Thunberg, environmental activist

In August 2018, outside the Swedish parliament building, Greta Thunberg started a school strike for the climate. Her sign reads, “Skolstrejk för klimatet,”
In August 2018, outside the Swedish parliament building, Greta Thunberg started a school strike for the climate. Her sign reads, “Skolstrejk för klimatet,” meaning, “school strike for climate”. / Anders Hellberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Greta Thunberg — one of the most well-known activists today — was 15 years old when she protested outside the Swedish parliament in 2018. Thunberg hoped her efforts would pressure political leaders to meet carbon emissions targets. 

According to BBC, this grassroots campaign inspired thousands of young students worldwide to organize similar strikes and by December 2018, more than 20,000 students — from the U.S. to Japan — had joined in.

She’s been considered a top contender to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her climate activism every year since 2019. 

Desmond Naples, LGBTQ+ youth activist

Desmond Naples — also known as Desmond is Amazing — is a 15-year-old LGBTQ+ rights advocate and drag performer. They use their voice with the hopes that it creates increased visibility to break down barriers for LGBTQ+ people.

In 2017 Naples launched the Haus of Amazing, a safe space for children who do drag. Since then, they have published “Be Amazing: A History of Pride,” a vibrant and educational tool for children to learn more about the Pride movement and inclusive community.

In addition to speaking out for human rights, Naples runs a YouTube channel and works as an editorial and runway model.

Marley Dias, literary activist 

Marley Dias is the teen founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks — a movement to collect and donate books with Black female protagonists.

Her campaign leveraged the power of social media to reach a larger audience and soon reached her initial goal of collecting 1,000 books featuring Black female protagonists. 

Her success led her to be recognized by TIME as one of the 25 most influential teens in 2018. She continues to advocate for Black representation and self-empowerment and has since released her first book called “Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!” 

Malala Yousafzai, girls’ education activist

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai in 2019 / 内閣官房内閣広報室, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, Malala Yousafzai became an instant international symbol of the fight for girls’ education after being shot in a school bus by members of the Taliban — which have strict restrictions on female education. 

She survived, recovered, and used her experience as direct motivation to continue her fight. At 17, Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate for her humanitarian efforts — which included establishing the Malala Fund, an organization dedicated to giving girls an opportunity to learn and lead.

She later published her first book, “I Am Malala,” and graduated from Oxford University in 2020.

Naomi Wadler, gun reform activist

Naomi Wadler, Activist speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, in 2020 / Christian Clavadetscher, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via World Economic Forum

After the tragic 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Naomi Wadler and a friend organized a walkout — in which 200 of her classmates ended up participating. 

The successful youth-led demon­stra­tion garnered national attention and led her to deliv­ering a speech at the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C — she was just 11 years old.

Today she balances school with her advocacy efforts, which primarily bring awareness to how Black girls and women are disproportionately affected by gun violence

Autumn Peltier, Indigenous water-rights activist

Autumn Peltier is a 17-year-old Canadian Indigenous rights activist and chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation whose empowering young people to protect the environment. 

Peltier is known for publicly calling out Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his failure to enact clean water policies — she was 12 years old.

Since then, she has spoken to world leaders at the UN General Assembly and the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit. She was also nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize three times.

Mari Copeny, clean water activist

Little Miss Flint speaking at an event
Little Miss Flint (Mari Copeny) Addresses the Audience at the Science Rally Stage Before Marching to the Capitol, 2018 / Hillel Steinberg, (CC BY-ND 2.0), via Flickr

At eight years old, Mari Copeny made headlines after she wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama urging him to do something about the long-overlooked Flint Water Crisis affecting her community. Her letter convinced the president to visit, immediately putting the crisis into public consciousness.

Her frustration and passion were channeled into action, helping her community gain essential access to safe, clean water.

Since then, Copeny, who became known as “Little Miss Flint,” has spent her teen years raising over $500,000 to support access to clean water in Flint and other resources to support health and well-being. 

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Indigenous climate justice activist 

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez giving a speech
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez in June 2015 / Martin Dixon, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr

Xiuhtezcatl (shoe-TEZ-caht) Martinez is a 19-year-old Indigenous climate activist, hip-hop artist, and influential voice of the global youth-led environmental movement.

Inspired by his mother’s own activism, Martinez has been a part of the climate justice movement since he was six years old. 

Today he focuses on educating his generation about the current state of the planet and inspiring them to take action to create a better world.

Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a nonprofit that trains diverse youth to become leaders in the climate and social justice space by using art, music, storytelling, civic engagement, and legal action to advance solutions.

Olivia Julianna, political activist

Olivia Julianna is a 19-year-old political activist and strategist for the youth-led nonprofit Gen Z For Change, which uses social media to raise awareness, fundraise for causes — and take problematic politicians down a peg. 

In the summer of 2022, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz made fatphobic, misogynistic comments about Julianna in an attempt to degrade her and her ongoing advocacy for abortion rights.

Instead of letting it get to her, she used it as fuel to fundraise for abortion funds across the country via social media. Donations flooded in, reaching $2.2 million within a week. 

Thandiwe Abdullah, Black Lives Matter activist 

Thandiwe Abdullah started attending protests when they were just two years old. At 13, the student and Black Lives Matter activist co-founded BLM Youth Vanguard.

Thandiwe and the Youth Vanguard have worked to protect students in their community and have successfully removed random searches from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Jack Petocz, LGBTQ+ activist

In February 2022, Florida’s House of Representatives passed House Bill 1557 — also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation sought to prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade.

Students in Florida, like 17-year-old Jack Petocz, worked to fight against that hatred and discrimination.

Petocz organized a school-wide walkout, inspiring other Florida students to follow suit. The LGBTQ+ activist is now the policy director at Gen-Z for Change, a nonprofit run by young people leveraging social media to educate and mobilize their peers. Petocz has also spoken out and demanded against book-banning practices. 

Genesis Butler, animal rights and climate activist

Genesis Butler is a 15-year-old environmental and animal rights activist and one of the youngest people to give a TEDx talk (“A 10 Year Old’s Vision for Healing the Planet”). Butler is passionate about educating others on the negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment.

The young activist is currently leading the Youth Climate Save movement — the very first youth-led environmental organization that zeroes in on the correlation between climate change and animal consumption. 

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, ocean protection and youth empowerment

Melati and Isabel Wijsen on stage at TED with a screen that says Bye Bye Plastic Bags
Melati and Isabel Wijsen at TEDGlobal London in 2015 / James Duncan Davidson, (CC BY-NC 2.0), via TED

Sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched a single-use plastics ban campaign on their home island of Bali in 2013. Their efforts — petitions, beach cleanups, and even a hunger strike — eventually paid off when they convinced their governor to commit to a plastic bag-free Bali by 2018.

Since then, the pair have taken their mission to other students worldwide looking to accomplish similar goals.

They even launched Mountain Mamas, a social enterprise that trains local women in Bali to hand-make reusable bags from donated or recycled materials. 

Sophia Kianni, environmental activist

Sophia Kianni holding her phone while making a speech
Sophia Kianni speaking at Black Friday strike / Joe Hobbs, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sophia Kianni is an 18-year-old Iranian-American environmentalist studying climate science and public policy at Stanford University.

She is the founder and executive director of Climate Cardinals, an organization working to make climate education more accessible by translating climate information into over 100 languages. 

Kianni has since grown the organization to an international nonprofit with more than 9,000 volunteers in 40+ countries who have collectively translated 500,000 words of climate information, according to Forbes.

She represents the U.S. as the youngest member of the inaugural United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

Zyahna Bryant, racial justice activist

Zyahna Bryant is a student activist and community organizer who founded the Black Student Union at her high school and is a member of the Charlottesville Youth Council.

At the age of 12, she organized her first demonstration, a rally for Justice for Trayvon Martin and other victims of police gun violence.

In the Spring of 2016, Bryant wrote a petition to the Charlottesville City Council calling them to remove a Robert E. Lee statue — a Confederate-era symbol. A year later, the city council voted to remove the statue.

Today, the activist continues to work with local teens and fellow youth leaders to create change and address issues related to race and inequity. 

Jamie Margolin, climate activist

Jamie Margolin is a Colombian-American organizer, activist, and public speaker living in Seattle, Washington. As a Latina Jewish lesbian, she’s made it her mission to fight for those who are oppressed and marginalized — protecting our people and planet

At 17, she co-founded “Zero Hour,” a youth-led climate action group that seeks to highlight the urgency of the effects of climate change on communities (specifically marginalized groups) across the world. 

March For Our Lives Organizers, gun control activists

Students affected by the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were quick to mobilize and demand action from elected officials, saying enough is enough.

They soon organized an official nonprofit: March For Our Lives. Founders include students like X González, Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Jackie Corin, and now, hundreds of local March For Our Lives chapters have emerged, fighting to end the gun violence epidemic in America.

While many of these founders continue careers inside and out of politics and advocacy, their legacy remains a major turning point in the reckoning of the gun safety movement. 

Jerome Foster and Elijah McKenzie-Jackson, climate and LGBTQ+ activists 

In 2022, youth climate and LGBTQ+ activists Jerome Foster II and Elijah McKenzie-Jackson sent a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — the organizers behind COP27 — asking them to reconsider hosting the climate conference in Egypt due to the country’s hostile laws toward the LGBTQ+ community. 

Both teens (Foster from the U.S. and McKenzie-Jackson from the U.K.) are at the forefront of the youth climate movement and advocate for communities around the world that contributed the least to the climate crisis, yet are experiencing the most significant and most devastating impacts.

Together, they co-founded Waic Up, a youth-led climate communication organization.